How to Graft Fruit Trees

Fruit Orchard, Growing Apples, Grand Valley, Western Colorado
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Grafting is a technique used to facilitate new plant growth. It involves attaching part of a plant or tree, called a scion, onto to another branch, called a rootstock. Grafting fruit trees has been in practice for generations; gardeners may use this technique to repair trees of all types that have been damaged from weather or wildlife. Along with helping you grow more plant varieties, grafting can be a fun DIY gardening project that allows you to experiment with mixing two or more varieties of the same type of fruit tree pieces (or even different ones) on a single rootstock.

What Can You Graft?

Before you begin grafting, there are a few things to know. First, it's best to graft trees that are closely related, like different types of apple trees. You can almost always graft one apple variety to another. It's also possible to combine multiple fruits onto one tree; you can grow fruits like plums, peaches, and apricots all on one tree. Check with a nearby nursery or your local extension so they can help advise your grafting process.

What You'll Need

Equipment/Tools

  • Pruning shears 
  • Knife (recommended: X-Acto knife)
  • Grafting tape 
  • Grafting sealant

Materials

  • Rootstock 
  • Tree to graft (scion) 

Instructions

1. Choose a scion.

Before you cut a scion, do some research so you know exactly what you want to grow. Don't graft a new tree because you happen to have a branch that happened to fall into your backyard. Choose the new variety carefully. Look for a piece of wood from the tree that is about a year old or less and has four to five potential buds on it. It only needs to be about 4 to 8 inches long. Snip it off with pruning shears. 

Once you have your scion, store it in a plastic bag in a cool place like a vegetable drawer or a basement until it’s time to graft. 

2. Identify your rootstock.

Probably the biggest part of grafting success is choosing a great rootstock, which serves as the host tree. Keep in mind that the rootstock should align with the new kind of tree you want. So if you’re grafting apple trees, you’ll use apple rootstock. 

Many gardeners like to graft on rootstock that is on a young, established tree — for instance, an apple tree that has been growing in the ground for a year or two. You can graft on a newly planted tree, but make sure it's strong enough and has good growth. Avoid grafting on a small tree that is still getting established. The best time to graft is early spring as the tree is starting to grow but it hasn’t budded out yet.

3. Start your graft.

To start, remove your scion from wherever you were storing it, and use pruning shears to trim both the ends. This should expose the cambium, the inner green part of the branch. Using a knife, carefully shave away the top layers so it goes from a rounded edge to more of a wedge or a point. Think of it like you’re shaping your own arrowhead. 

Next, take your knife (an X-Acto knife would be good here) and splice the end of your rootstock. It’s easy to break this branch, so be gentle with your cut and perhaps use a sawing method. Create a splice about as deep as the end tip of your scion. When ready, push your scion tightly into the rootstock. 

Essentially, your goal here is to line up the cambium of two branches. Keep in mind that the scion should be pointing in the right direction, which is however it was originally growing. Reversing it is an easy mistake to make, and this will definitely thwart your long-term success.

4. Secure the branches together.

To secure your two new branches, use grafting tape to wrap them together. After a week or two, make a gentle cut in the area to release pressure and add a little bit of air. Before you do your wrap, you could also use a little bit of grafting sealant or grafting wax. Don’t use too much because this can prevent the branches from growing together. 

While you may see growth on your newly grafted area in as little as a few days, it’s more likely to take a few weeks. When you start a graft, you essentially extend the dormancy of these branches — thus, a bit of patience is key.

5. Water and fertilize as needed.

Once your graft is established, hurry up and wait. It can take up to a couple of years to get a new graft really established and producing. Continue to keep it watered and fertilized during this time. If you live in an area with harsh winters, you might even give it some extra cover during the season. 

Some people like to add a ribbon and/or label at the grafted areas to help remember where it is and to track its progress. Grafting might not be an immediate reward, but with a little planning and organizing, you can grow a really unique and diverse little orchard right in your own backyard.