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How to Graft a Fruit Tree

Please read the instructions carefully before beginning a grafting project. It will be much easier if you understand the full process ahead of time.

The sections below are:

  • Preparing Scion and Rootstock for Grafting
  • How to Bench Graft 
  • Preparing Scion and Rootstock for Tree Budding
  • How to T-bud a tree
  • How to chip-bud a tree

Preparing Scion and Rootstock for Grafting

  1. Collect your scion wood while it is dormant. It's best to collect wood well before the buds swell in the spring. The further south you are, the earlier you should collect scion. However, don’t cut scion when temperatures are below 20°F. You can damage your tree by doing this.
  2. One year wood (last season's growth) is the easiest to use. Ideally sticks that are about 18"- 36" in length and about pencil width (1/4" diameter). This type of wood will only be found on trees that were pruned the previous winter. If you don't have this type of wood, don't panic. Older wood works, but it's just not as easy to work with. Water sprouts make great scion, but be careful not to collect any suckers from below the graft union.
  3. Keep your scion cool and moist. Wrap it in a damp towel and put it in a plastic bag. A typical refrigerator is 37ºF and this is perfect, but only if there is no fruit in the fridge. Fruit emits ethylene gas, which will damage your scion.
  4. When your rootstock arrives, store it correctly. You need to keep the rootstock cool and the roots moist. If you have a room that's about 45°F then that is perfect. Take them out of the box and wrap the roots in a plastic bag with some moist sawdust. You could just leave them in the shipping plastic and they will be fine.
  5. Time to graft. See our grafting instructions. We recommend using the whip and tongue method for dormant bench grafting.

How to Bench Graft 

Remember, grafting is like a soufflé. Skip a step, and it's a flop. After you read our instructions, watch this video so that you better understand the cuts made during whip and tongue grafting.

  1. Make sure you have a sharp knife. The best on the market is the Tina 685 Grafting Knife.
  2. Cut your wood and scion. We recommend whip and tongue grafting. On both scion and rootstock, make an 1.5" angular cut, about 60°. Make these cuts in such a way that when the two surfaces are laid together, the buds on the scion are facing upward, as they would be when growing naturally. Next, make the “back cut” on each piece of wood. This means cutting 1.5" into each stick, lengthwise straight down the line of the wood, starting about ⅔ of the way up the newly exposed wood from your first cut.
  3. Lock the two pieces of wood together. The side view of the two locked pieces will look like a reversed N. Don’t jam them together too forcefully. You will snap the wood.
  4. If you cannot match the scion to the rootstock then match one side. Do not split the difference. A one-sided graft works just fine.
  5. Seal and compress the graft.You have several options. Ideally you would use budding rubbers or parafilm. In a pinch you can you use electrical tape or clingfilm, but these materials do not break down and you will need to remember to remove them by July 4th.
  6. Seal the tip. We use a mix of paraffin and beeswax as our sealer. We don't use pure beeswax because the grafts stick together, and we don't use pure paraffin because it is too hard and the bud won't push through. A ready-made wax substance is also available. Dip the top 1 inch of scion into the wax. This keeps it from drying out during the callousing process. A double boiler is the way to keep the wax blend from getting too hot. A coffee can within a larger coffee can works great. Alternately, you could use an old crock pot. The temperature is perfect in a crock pot set to low.
  7. Set the sealant. All you need to do is dip the coated tip into cool water.
  8. Heel in the grafts into a moist medium. Potting soil in a well-draining container such as a wooden crate or plant pot is the best medium. Keep the soil moist.
  9. Grafts need at least two weeks to heal before planting. They can be stored for up to 12 weeks. A 45ºF room for 6 weeks works well. If the buds on your scion start to show any green at all and it is still too early to plant outside, then put them in a fridge which contains no fruit or vegetables to slow them down.
  10. Grafting is done between January and mid April with a targeted planting date of May 15-20. This gives the grafts enough time to form a callous before planting. Be sure to plant after the threat of hard frost is past.
  11. Acclimate your grafts. Set them outside in the shade for a few days before planting. The ideal time for planting a graft is when it is just showing signs of green tip and has been hardened off for a few days. Plant on a cloudy day. (Planting in the rain is great for small jobs.)
  12. Planting in ground vs. planting in pots vs. planting in permanent location.    
    • Planting in the ground in a garden situation is best, 1' apart in well-prepared soil. Keep the weeds out and keep them watered. Mulch helps. Basically, treat them like tomato plants.
    • Planting in pots works, but is more work. Use a 3-5 gallon pot in nice potting soil. Pots heat up in the summer and roots do not like to be hot, so cover the pots in a pile of bark chips or similar material. You will need to to ask a friend to water them when you go away for a week! This is why the ground is better.
    • Planting in what will be their permanent location works only if you are willing to take care of them. It's a lot easier to protect 20 trees in a single row than it is to take care of them in scattered locations because of deer, water, weeds, etc. Dig them in the fall or spring after they have lost their leaves and then transplant them to their permanent locations.
  13. Put up tomato stakes for birds to land on. A black bird will always pick the highest point to perch on. If a graft is the highest point in your nursery, it will perch on your graft and snap it off. It will then move on to the next and the next and so on. Goodbye grafts!
  14. Keep the weeds out, and water regularly.
  15. Keep the bugs out! Tarnished plant bugs and leaf hoppers inject poison into the growing tip and may set your young graft back by several weeks.
  16. Sucker your grafts. As your grafts grow, rub off any shoots that grow from the rootstock. The graft is still very fragile, so be careful.
  17. Side-limb. As side shoots try to grow from the central leader below knee height, remove them. They will be too low to form branches and will divert growth away from the central leader. The way to remove one of these is to rock it gently back and forth until it falls from its socket between the central leader and the leaf node below it.
  18. Visit your plants regularly. A nursery is just what its name implies. Your plants thrive with attention, and the sooner you spot any problems, the easier it will be to deal with them.
  19. Good Luck! If it doesn't work the first time, keep on trying. You can always chip bud your failed grafts in August.

Preparing Scion and Rootstock for Tree Budding

Unlike grafting, budding is performed during the growing season, using live wood. This method can be a second chance to use rootstock if some of your grafts didn’t take. Budding is also a great option if you cannot obtain rootstocks or scion early enough for grafting. Finally, this is also a useful propagation technique if your scion supply is very limited.

  1. Plant your rootstock. Do this in the spring in well-prepared soil, 1' apart. Keep these well watered. No special care is needed beside weeding and watering.
  2. Cut your budwood around August 15. This should be new growth, about the thickness of a pencil (1/4").
  3. As soon as you cut the wood, remove the leaves, attach a label if necessary, and wrap it in a wet towel.
  4. Keep your scion cool and moist. Wrap it in a damp towel and put it in a plastic bag. A typical refrigerator is 37ºF and this is a perfect temperature, but only if there is no fruit in the fridge. Fruit emits ethylene gas, which will damage your scion. Ideally, you would bud your rootstocks immediately. This wood cannot be stored for more than a week.

How to T-Bud a Tree

Follow this checklist. After reading our instructions, watch this video so that you better understand the cuts made during T-budding.

  1. Make sure you have a sharp knife. The best on the market is the Tina Budding Knife. This is a different style knife from the one that is used for grafting.
  2. Make a T-shaped incision in the rootstock, 6-8" above the ground. This incision should very shallow, just enough to break through the cambium. The vertical cut should be about 1" long, and the horizontal cut about a ½" across.
  3. Cut a bud out from the budwood. The section you remove should start about ½" above the bud and finish about a ½" below it, so that it is roughly 1" long in its entirety. The totality of the width of the bud should be included. The depth of the section should be about 3-4 millimeters.
  4. Slide the bud down into the T-shaped incision
  5. Seal the bud with either parafilm or a budding rubber. In a pinch you can you use electrical tape or clingfilm, but these materials do not break down and you will need to remember to remove them in about 2 weeks. Failure to do so will destroy the plant.
  6. Keep the weeds, bugs, and deer away and keep the plant watered. These trees need no other special attention for the next nine months.
  7. Top your trees in the spring. Check that the bud took; it will be swollen and healthy, possibly showing green growth. If it failed, it will be dry and dessicated. If it took, make a single horizontal cut just above the “bud shield” (the area where you made the initial T-shaped cut).
  8. Stake the tree when it is about a foot tall. A single bamboo or fiberglass stake will work. Fix the tree to this with a tree band or any soft, flexible material that will not cut into the tree.
  9. Sucker your buds. As your trees grow, rub out any shoots that grow from the rootstock. The tree is still very fragile, so be careful.
  10. Select your central leader (trunk). Typically, there will be anywhere from 1-3 shoots that emerge from your scion. When they are about 3 inches long, select the strongest to become your tree. Leave the other two but pinch the growing tips. These are insurance policies. After the selected strong one is about a foot tall, it is safe to remove the insurance shoots. All of the energy is now being directed to the terminal tip of the scion shoot.
  11. Select a central leader. If more than one vertical shoot grows, choose the stronger one and remove the weaker.
  12. Side-limb. As side shoots try to grow from the central leader below knee height, remove them. They will be too low to form branches and will divert growth away from the central leader. The way to remove one of these is to rock it gently back and forth until it falls from its socket between the central leader and the leaf node below it.
  13. Visit your plants regularly. A nursery is just what its name implies. Your plants thrive with attention!

How to Chip-Bud a Tree

Chip budding is an identical process to T-budding, except for the initial incision. Instead of a T-shaped cut, make a cut that is custom-shaped to the bud that you have removed. After this, follow the steps for T-budding. That’s it!

Watch this video to see chip budding in action, and make sure you have a sharp knife. Best is the Tina Budding Knife, which is different from a grafting knife.






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