Grafting apples

So, these arrived a few weekends ago (2/11/2023). Apple scionwood – those thin little twigs at the bottom of the photo. Specifically, four NEW varieties of apple to graft onto our existing apple trees. I also show my favorite pair of pruners (Felco #2) and some grafting tape. You can tell how much I use my Felcos because one of the red handle grips has worn off. See that scalpel, however? It’s garbage. Don’t use it for grafting. It’s waaaay to flimsy and likely to snap when cutting apple branches. Dan-ger-ous and not in a good way.

Apple scion whips and grafting supplies
Apple scionwood, trusty Felco #2s, grafting tape, and a flimsy scalpel (don't use!).

Last fall, I received an email indicating that Queener Farms was potentially going to stop selling apple scionwood. We last ordered from Queener two years ago, when we grafted four new varieties (Corail, Belle de Boskoop, Karmijn de Sonnaville, and Blue Pearmain) onto two of our smaller trees of a less desirable variety. All of the grafts took, and so that should have been the end of it. But, once we saw that email, like fools, we ordered FOUR MORE varieties, thinking we could wedge them in on our trees somewhere. What is it about scarcity that makes people want more?

Now, in the second year, some of those first grafts are starting to form spurs, the short little branches that produce flowers and, more importantly, fruit. Hoping this will be the year that we get to try one or two of them.

Spurs on a 2-year-old grafted apple branch, hopefully ready to bloom and produce fruit
One spur pointing up (center) and two harder-to-see smaller spurs pointing down (left and right)

Suddenly, the new scionwood was here, early, ready to be grafted. Time to get to work!

Last time, we used a few different grafting techniques depending on the size of the scion in relation to the understock (the branch of the tree we were grafting on to). From left to right are pictured a successful whip and tongue graft, a side graft, and a cleft graft. The type of graft didn’t seem to matter because they all took. However, the side grafts ended up looking weird because we essentially ended up with a new branch “glued” onto the side of an older branch. Hopefully, the side grafts will smooth out over time and not look so odd. I’m a little worried they might be weak and break off at some point. But hey, at least our first attempt at grafting worked and, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Whip and tongue graft on an apple tree
Whip and tongue
Ugly side graft on an apple tree
Side graft
Successful cleft graft on an apple tree
Cleft graft

My brain wasn’t working well that weekend, so all I managed to do was a bunch of the more technically simple side grafts. Side grafts are good for situations where your scionwood is much thinner than your understock (which these were), while the other two methods work well for situations where the diameter of your scionwood and understock are more evenly matched.

At first, I couldn’t find my favorite Victorinox pruning knife, so I tried using that scalpel shown above instead. Big mistake. The blade was way too flimsy for cutting apple branches and that made me feel I was going to accidentally slip and cut myself badly. After some further scrounging for about 15 minutes, I finally found my pruning knife. It was in my backpack that I use on plant collecting trips. This knife is the best and has been with me everywhere. I’ve had this since 1995, when I was required to buy it for my summer job propagating plants at a nursery, back when my dream was to run my own nursery. I’ve used it ever since.

Trusty Victorinox pruning knife
Victorinox pruning knife - A wonderful knife for taking cuttings. Works for grafting too.

Here, I’ve prepared the scion by slicing it into a wedge shape and created the corresponding slot in the understock. Ignore that horrible, old pruning wound to the left. Between the deer, our neglect, and our lack of pruning expertise, our apple trees look a little bit like Frankensteinian horrors. Still, apples are very forgiving, and we usually get more than enough fruit for our needs. It’s been the only reliable food crop we’ve been able to grow without a lot of extra effort.

Setting apple scionwood into the understock
A nice, simple side graft

Slipping the scionwood neatly into its slot (left) and all wrapped up (blurry, right). With luck, these will have taken by the end of summer and be ready to unwrap in the fall.

Side graft with apple scion wood fitting neatly into its slot

I’ve largely left our three larger trees alone, only grafting onto one branch of our old mystery red apple. All four new varieties were grafted onto our second smallest tree, which already had two other varieties on it. That means that this particular tree will have six different varieties growing out of it as well as the original variety, the mushy, mealy, bland Ashmead’s Kernel. Blech.

Side note: I also tried grafting my favorite apple variety, Golden Russet, onto one of our Asian pear trees. The pears have been a complete disappointment, producing little, if anything. And, I think one of them was mislabeled because the few fruits it has produced are the wrong shape for an Asian pear. I’ve read that it is possible to graft apple onto pear, but haven’t seen whether they can then reliably produce apples. We’re going to give it a try though. We’re all about experimentation here at Botanica Chaotica.

Our mystery yellow apple tree, out in the snow
Our largest apple tree - a mystery yellow variety

02/13/2023 – 02/25/2023: Rain, turning to about 3 inches of snow, followed by cold. Lowest temperature for period = 22°F, highest = 52°F.

Notes: Anna’s hummingbirds are happy that I thawed out their feeders. A single scrub jay joined numerous Steller’s jays, juncos, and a spotted towhee at the seed feeder. Don’t normally see scrub jays out here. Trying my hand at making Semla, a Swedish pastry, because it’s a little to cold to garden this weekend. Looks like I overproofed it. Saturday was a great day for practicing meditation to deal with an annoying situation.

Garden chores accomplished: Cuttings of juniper (Spartan and Daub’s frosted), Aristotelia fruticosa, Olearia x haastii. Some light pruning and weeding. Dug and set one fence post for the deer fence I am fixing.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Anna K

    I find grafting a fascinating art form, though I’ve never been brave enough to try it. I remember my dad trying his hand at it, and I think he too was successful, but unfortunately we didn’t remain in that house long enough to reap the fruits of his experimentation. It is pretty magical, though… like a plant version of organ transplants.

    So excited you made Semlor (= Semla in plural)! Did they turn out? Did you like them? I haven’t made them in years, but now you’ve inspired me. It’s a good day to do it, as apparently, we’ll have at least another snow day. I posted the recipe as well as some history about them a long time ago, on my other blog, if you’re interested.

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      Grafting was really much easier than we expected. We just followed the instructions from a few videos online and voila, they worked! One of our friends at a local nursery actually suggested we try it rather than ripping the trees out and waiting for new apple trees to establish.

      The Semla are delicious. What’s not to love about cardamom, almonds, and whipped cream? Ours were not as puffy as I would have liked, rather flat. But they had a good overall texture and excellent flavor. I am still pretty inexperienced with baking with yeast, so I imagine a big part of it is getting the technique right on proofing. Yours look so beautifully well risen! Had to laugh though, because the advertisement immediately after the last picture of your semla was about melting away belly fat with this one simple trick…

      1. Anna K

        HAHAHA – if only it melted as quickly as spring snow… LOL!

  2. Kris P

    I’m very impressed with your grafting effort. That’s something I can’t even imagine trying myself (not that apples do well in my area anyway). I’ll be interested to see how things work out!

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      It wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be and it has given us the confidence to try our hand at grafting other plants in the future.

  3. danger garden

    Nice work! It’s a bummer that your Asain pear hasn’t produced, they are such a fabulous fruit.

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      Asian pears are one of L’s favorites too, but maybe we can get something useful out of them yet.

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