A Step-By-Step Guide To Grafting An Apple Tree | Gardening Advice with Pots & Trowels

As we move through the next few weeks, thoughts of summer and the busy growing season ahead will start to fill our minds. There is plenty of preparation work to be done to get organised whilst we all wait for the weather to warm up a little, and for the sowing season to start in earnest.

Our friends at Pots & Trowels have a great deal of ideas and can give you lots of hints and tips for preparing your garden. This week Martin Fish instructs us step-by-step through grafting an apple tree to create a new tree from an existing apple tree. To find out more, read on and watch the video below.

Preparing your graft wood

Grafting helps you propagate new trees from the shooting twigs – known as ‘scion wood’ – from an established tree. Propagating fruit trees in this way means you can increase your current stock very cheaply by creating more of your favourite varieties.  It is a way of enabling you to share your orchard with others, or for you to grow from cuttings you have taken in a friend’s garden.  Through grafting, you can also ensure your favourite trees stay with you if, for instance, you move to a new house or take on a new allotment patch.

Graft wood is the wood taken from new growth cut from the tree you would like to replicate. These are the top parts of the branch and they will hold all the new growth from the previous year. The shoots on these branches should be starting to break buds in April, but will still be fairly dormant – perfect for grafting in late-Spring.

You can take cuttings and keep them in the refrigerator to keep them dormant until you are ready to use them. If you do this, make sure you keep them stored in a damp paper towel to maintain some moisture.

Although grafting an apple tree can be a straight forward task, it still takes a little time and plenty of preparation. If you follow Pots & Trowels, or have seen our recent blog post with Martin Fish’s advice on preparing your graft wood, then you’ll already have taken your cuttings and will be excited to move on to the next steps of grafting your apple tree.

Equipment you’ll need

To complete your apple tree graft, you’ll need the following equipment to hand to work quickly on the job:

* note that when grafting fruit trees, you can’t graft onto any type of tree but need to stick within a close family of related trees with root stock appropriate for the size you’d like to achieve along with a variety suitable for the soil you’ll be growing the tree in. So, you can’t graft an apple onto a lemon tree and you can’t graft a plum onto a pear tree!

Grafting an apple tree, step-by-step

  1. The first task you’ll need to undertake is sharpening your knife. It’s essential that the knife you use is very sharp to ensure as smooth and clean a cut as possible. The Darlac Diamond Sharpener is a great tool to help you keep your knife edge razor sharp. Take care with this task.
  2. You’ll need to pot your root stock, using multi-purpose compost. Pot sizes of around 8 inches will help to get the roots growing nicely.
  3. Next, trim your root stock so it is about 6-8 inches tall. You’ll be left with a short stem of growth in the pot.
  1. It’s now time to prepare your scion wood. Take a branch of the wood you’re using to graft from and cut it above a bud, so it’s around 4 inches long.
  2. For this next step, you’ll need to splice the wood and attach both pieces together. Using the sharp knife, make a lengthy sweeping cut on the scion branch, creating a long-angled cut. You’ll see the green plant pith inside.  Put this branch to the side.
  3. Now you’ll need to make a similar and corresponding cut on the root stock. This best way to do this is with an upward cutting motion. You might need to do this a couple of times to shape the wood as accurately as you can for a close join. Try to make the cut match the shape of the long-angled cut you’ve created in your scion wood.
  1. The next step is to join these two pieces of wood together. To do this, a gardening technique called “whip and tongues” is used. You’ll need to make a small tongue cut in the scion wood. Then make a corresponding cut in the root stock stem. These two pieces should then lodge together in place. 
  2. These two pieces should hold together, however it’s best to make them secure to ensure a strong seal. To do this, use some electrical insulation tape, wrapping it around the two stems to create a closely fitting seal. Start from the bottom and work to the top of the join to create a waterproof seal. Keep the tape tight around the bud, ensuring it’s in contact with the branches. Then cut the tape off with a few inches of root stock clear from any tape. 
  3. Don’t forget to label your new tree, especially if you’ve got lots of different types developing!

Your maiden apple tree

Over the next few weeks, the joined pieces will heal over and will start to grow as a single plant. Roots will develop at the base of the root stem and in a few months’ time, the top bud will start to grow indicating that the graft has taken successfully. Keep an eye on the plant, maintaining moisture in the pot so that it doesn’t get droughted and before long more buds will develop into young leaves.

By the end of the year, this process will have a created a maiden apple tree. This maiden could then be grown on into a full-sized tree, or you could use this maiden tree to grow cordons, espaliers and step-overs with further pruning and training on the young tree over the next few years.

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