Saturday, March 2, 2013

Apple Grafting

We just finished the apple tree grafting for this year. 50 trees in total, all on semi-dwarf rootstock. The varieties are:

A benchgraft Medaille D'Or
Blue Pearmain
Cornish Gilliflower
Duchess of Oldenburg
Medaille D'Or
Pomme Gris
Westfield Seek-No-Further
Yarlington Mill

About half of these, like Medaille D'Or, are for cider only and the others are for eating or cooking. Some like Pomme Gris are good multipurpose apples that will make a good cider apple, are pleasant to eat and are good for cooking as well. I know, we have been very excited about grafting this year and I would guess that some of you are wondering what the big deal is, so I am going to try to get it all out of my system in one big post.

Why graft?

As many of you already know, most fruit trees, like apples, plums, apricots and peaches, need to be grafted to get exactly what you want. There are very few cultivated fruit varieties that will come back true from seed. This make sense with all of the genetics that go into living things. Even if you pollenate an apple blossom with a blossom from the same tree, the seeds will pick up different traits, different recessive characteristics and come out different with great regularity. The way new varieties of apples come about is from chance, or even on purpose seedlings sprouting up. Now it is much more controlled, but some of the greatest old heirloom varieties were chance seedlings that came up, grew enough to fruit, and someone tried them and decied they liked them. If you like a new variety like that, you cut some wood from the tree and graft it onto the roots of a young tree and viola, you are propagating a variety. Almost all apples that you eat are from trees that were grafted.

When you go to a nursery and get a fruit tree that is of a specific variety, Gala, McIntosh, Jonathan, those are grafted trees that were raised by the nursery to a commercial size and potted up for sale. If you go to a local Big Box orange or blue, home store, they will have 5 or 6 varieties of apple trees that you can purchase. The trees are, in general, not of a good structure, meaning you will have to spend a lot of effort in pruning to get a good, healthy tree, and they are OMG ridiculously expensive. With an actual nursery, you may do a little better with selection, and possibly some better form to the trees, but in general, the trees come from the same suppliers. You can do much better going to a commercial nursery that is specifically dedicated to fruit trees. There are a couple up in Pa that will offer 30 or more varieties, you will pay half as much and get a much better tree to boot. Add in the expert advise you can get from a dedicated nursery, and it is well worth the drive if you are interested in starting a few trees around the house or a homestead orchard. If you are getting involved in commercial orcharding, finding a nursery like this is essential. At the volume of trees we get each year - 260+ that we will be picking up in 2 weeks - the prices drop by half again, and with some nurseries you can have custom runs of trees to get even more varieties. We had two custom runs two years ago and will have three more next year. Even the most accommodating commercial nursery though, will require runs of 50 trees to do custom grafting and it can take 2 to 3 years to get an order put together.

There is another option that is available if one knows where to look. There are a number of orchards that have a wide variety of trees, mostly heirlooms, that run a nursery business on the side. With some of these you have your choice of literally 200 - 300 varieties. The trees tend to be a little more expensive, and will have to be shipped in most cases which adds more to the cost. We have considered this as a source for heirloom varieties a number of times, but even if we chose an orchard that was close enough to drive to, the cost per tree would nearly triple over what we are currently doing and most of these operations don't look to supply someone with the number of trees we would need to fill out an orchard.Of course, these orchards are doing their own custom grafting from the trees they have available in their own orchard. 

A selection of scionwood
So this is where we end up. If we want a wide variety of options for types of fruit trees, and we don't want to spend a prohibitive amount of money for young trees, we do our own grafting. We tried this a few years ago, and things got away from us. We tried to start at to many trees, and very little planning, and the attempt was pretty much a bust. We did however learn how to do a specific type of grafting and got some insight into where we could get everything we needed. Since then, we have researched and found multiple sources of scionwood - the technical name for the wood cut from the parent tree - and researched additional grafting techniques. At this point, we know where to get scionwood for easily over 600 varieties of apple trees alone. For our second attempt at grafting, we decided to do a small run of 30 - 40 trees, and pick 10 varieties to work with. We ordered the scionwood with no problems, and were very pleased with the quality of what we received. When we went to pick up the rootstock, we found out that if we purchased it in bundles of 50, we actually paid less than we would for the 40 we originally ordered. Luckily, we were picking up from an orchard where we took our grafting class and were able to pick up additional scionwood so we would have enough to graft from.

The other big bonus is the price. With the 50 trees we did this year, our cost was just over $2 a tree. granted, we will need to nurse these trees along, and probably not all of the grafts will take, but as we get more practice, our success rate will increase. The great thing is that now we can have 4 or 5 trees of an heirloom eating variety, like Westfield Seek-No-Further, which is probably about as many as we will need, at an affordable price. With approximately 8 more acres available to us currently for orchard expansion, we anticipate another 3000 or so apple trees. We are hoping that many of these will be trees we grated ourselves :-)

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