Grafting - an absolute beginner

A few notes on our first experience of grafting apple scions onto M26.

Grafting Apple Trees - an absolute beginner

We began our preparations early enough and scions and rootstocks were obtained from many different sources. Initially, we bought rootstocks from GB online and Walcott Nursery. These were expensive but Walcott were useful contacts in that they were able to sell small quantities. However, it soon became apparent that if we were interested in batches of 100 or more it would be necessary to look elsewhere. Ultimately we bought 1100 M26 rootstocks and settled on a Dutch supplier F. Kuiper B.V. (they have Greenhills Nursery near London as well). We dealt with Koos Kruijer, who was really helpful, in sales at Vosseveld 6,9644 XW Veendam, Tel. : 0031-(0)598-619 410 email: charging £0.89 /rootstock including postage.

Over the Winter months some scions were purchased and others were collected. We bought material from Low Stanger Farm near Lorton, GB Online, Jon Hutton at 69 Orchard near Prudhoe, Deacons Nursery on the Isle of Wight, Carrob Organics, Levens Hall and Adams Apples in Devon. We were given material from Hilary Wilson, Eva’s Organics near Carlisle, and the red fleshed Pendragon from 69 Orchard. We also collected a few scions from willing folk in the Solway Plain villages. In the end there were probably enough collected “sticks” to create 1200 scions, all of which we dampened and sealed into zip lock bags. We had about 100 different varieties so with all the regular vegetables removed from the fridge (ethylene gas) all the scions went into the salad drawer!

With so many rootstocks to graft we thought to start early. Our first attempt was a cleft graft. This almost resulted in me losing a finger. Based on this, I thought I should attend the grafting course featuring Hilary Wilson’s demonstration at Newton Rigg, Penrith. This was run by the North Cumbria Orchard Group. Armed with this experience I then tried a whip and tongue graft when I got home. The diagonal whip cuts were easy enough and I was buoyed up by Hilary’s comment that it was just a simple woodwork joint. As I attempted the tongue part of the graft, I remembered her advice to keep the knife still and to ease the graft wood onto the knife. It was OK but it stuck me that I was going to be all too slow.

We researched though websites and found some useful tips. One was to use a small balsawood planer that could produce a perfect planar surface. This seemed to me what was really needed. In progressing the idea, we found a small lightweight cordless plane from Bosch. This tool proved to be very useful especially if the rootstock and scion were of the same diameter. We were aware that it was going to be almost impossible to sterilise the planer on every cut, so my next best course of action was to try to make the working environment as clean as possible and to see where we ended up. I also reasoned that if the planar surface was true and the grafting tape was applied well, then I might get away without the tongue in the graft technique producing, in effect, a splice graft. Whilst not for the purists, I think if the scion can be matched to the rootstock diameter this is a pretty viable way to go.

Of course, it isn’t always possible to match the diameter of the scion to the rootstock. In these circumstances we used a side graft, cut with a knife, generally to match a thinner scion to a carved thinner section on a wider rootstock.

We chose to use 3 litre deep (rose) pots filled with (unfortunately expensive) B&Q peat with each pot labelled with a coloured tag (that represented the flowering group) attached through a hole in the pot (made with a soldering iron) with a cable tie and named with the variety, the rootstock, the scions origin and a list number. We tried unsuccessfully to buy square rose pots – these would have saved space. It is worth noting that the marker pen needs to resist UV otherwise the naming will fade quite quickly. The scions were grafted, usually with three buds, taped and waxed and the rootstock dipped in Rootgrow® before being potted up. 70 grafts per day could reasonably be completed using this method.

We put the grafted rootstock outside and cracked on with the next batch. However, one morning, our lack of forethought resulted in us finding around 200 newbies, covered in snow – it was clearly too cold, and we seemed to have lost the plot. A little research revealed that there was little prospect of callus formation below 10°C (or above 30° although in Cumbria there was little chance of that). This was an important lesson and in future we know to keep all newly grafted material in a warmed area. As Spring unfolded our young grafts looked as though they were taking. However, this impression wasn’t always accurate because some leaf buds will erupt without necessarily being driven by the rootstock. Time through February and March revealed the true takes and we were still inclined to keep them inside, in relative warmth (in our utility room and in the loft space above our garage) because the constant wind was clearly a limiting factor.

We had also run out of space. So, we transferred 300 pots to my son’s house in Newcastle. His back garden had good shelter and gathered the sun when it shone. It was an interesting experiment to measure the differences although as the spring unfolded the local squirrels near his house liked to dig in the pots. At the end of April the fresh growth tips of our grafts attracted bulk greenfly and their attack did/has left its mark on about 100 plants. We wait to see if there is a recovery although it’s just another curved ball to learn from.

As the warmer weather emerged, we wanted to get the plants outside, but the wind was still a worry. We resolved to build large plastic sheet clad wooden frames with similar plastic clad lids as a form of protection. These shelters were effectively home-made polytunnels and without question saved the day. As the season has progressed and the plants have grown, we have simply added bigger legs to the shelters. Of course, we would initially build taller 100cm shelters if we used this method again.

Emerging leaves were removed on every rootstock (March and April), and as things looked hopeful, we also removed subsidiary growth (2nd Week in May), leaving just one prime shoot. This action triggered a real growth spurt and with hindsight, in view of the mild spring, this might have been done earlier. At least half of our grafts are now charging upwards with canes for support.

At this point it is worth mentioning that we achieved least success with thin scions – anything under 5mm seemed problematic. Even when the junction successfully callused, activity of these new trees was generally less vigorous. We were also beset with buds that we thought were vegetative buds but later proved to be flowers. Of course, the problem with flower buds is that initially, after flowering, there is no obvious growth, resulting in wastage of the spring months, or as a worst case scenario, a wasted rootstock. Hopefully we can re-use such rootstocks at a later date.

Bill and Julie Richardson

23 May 2019

Report by William Richardson; Thursday, 23 May 2019

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