Grafting: Lessons Learned

Whether you are making your first hard cider or grafting your first scion to a rootstock, everyone who has done it hundreds or even thousands of times had their first attempt at some point. Maybe that attempt resulted in a great outcome but my guess is that nobody, success or failure, is using the same method from that first attempt. My first attempt at grafting provided mixed results. I grafted scion wood to rootstock. Wrapped them in a paraffin tape, and planted them. Out of 15 scion pieces, I had 9 that generated some form of green bud or leaf. However, only 5 of those matured into growing branches. Of those 5, only 3 have survived my attempts at nurturing them. Let’s explore what I have learned so far about Rootstock, Scion Preparation, and Staking.

Apple Rootstock
Apple Rootstock


I used suckers I took from the orchard as rootstock. About half I planted and grew for one season before using them as rootstock. The others I harvested the same Spring that I grafted. For me, I think this caused some issues as I only had two of the scion branches grafted to the freshly harvested rootstock show signs of budding but none of them actually formed branches. I believe I shocked the rootstock too much or had bad timing between its dormancy and the scion dormancy. It is my understanding that you want the rootstock to be awake or waking from dormancy and the scion still dormant when you graft.

The rootstocks that I had grown for a season had 7 scions show signs of budding. However, only 5 of those grew branches. I will discuss how I lost 2 of those but it didn’t appear to be because of the rootstock that I used. It is good to discuss my growing situation. Since I live in Southern Arizona and my backyard is not up on the mountain like the orchard, I have an early and warm Spring and a hot Summer. I believe this is why it is useful for me to have rootstock that are established. I know I can grow apple trees with enough water because I have seedlings growing like weeds in a tub right next to my grafted rootstocks.

My plan for next season is to use a number of suckers that I harvested and have grown for a season along with 10 M27 rootstocks I acquired this year. These are true dwarf rootstocks that I want to try to see if I can speed some cider apple production as well as maybe have some container trees in my backyard. For my situation, I think it is important to have established rootstocks versus using rootstocks that might be in shock or still in dormancy. I can keep my scion in the refrigerator while I wait for my established rootstocks to start growing. I am also considering to try some bud grafting versus using the full piece of scion.

My Key Lesson: Ensure my rootstock is well established and beginning to grow before I graft the scion. This should help to improve my chances of the scion taking.

Apple Scion Growing
Apple Scion Growing

Scion Preparation:

If you are counting, out of 15 scion grafts, I had 9 bud but only 5 take hold and grow some branches. That means 10 failed. I feel the 5 from freshly harvested rootstock were a combination of the rootstocks being dormant or in shock and unable to heal the graft and establish a good root ball. However, I believe a couple other factors played into this result. One of those was the scion preparation.

I placed this one scion an established rootstock. The others were placed on freshly harvested rootstock and I attribute both the quality of the scion given they were older at the age of the rootstock. None of the 2 other Gravenstein scions budded had any signs of life. I assume that my purchased scions were better selected than mine. Several were tips and I didn’t see any growth ring so I know they were the last year’s growth. However, I wonder if I trimmed them corrected.

I had read that you don’t need many buds on a scion but I also thought, the more the better chance one grows. Now, I wonder if that doesn’t create more stress. What I have read lately is to target 3 buds and to make sure you trim the ends that might have dried out. I did trim them but some where longer with 6 or more buds. I had the other 3 scions that I grafted to freshly harvested rootstock bud and one even started leafing but they all died. I attribute this to the rootstock being asked to do too much versus any specific scion issues.

My Key Lessons: Use one year growth and if I want to propagate older or wild trees, prune them a year in advance to stimulate some growth shoots. Also, I should trim my scion to 3 buds.

Staked Apple Scion
Staked Apple Scion


I think I understand why most of my scion didn’t grow but I still lost 2 of my grafts (almost a 3rd) that did grow and form branches. While I want to kick myself for what I did, I have to remind myself that this year’s goal was to learn and not necessarily create trees. That would have been a great bonus but it was to see what worked and what didn’t so I could try in earnest next year.

I had the impression that the graft would heal in a few months if it took and that you only needed to worry about supporting it if it started to produce fruit or it’s in a very windy place. What I saw was that after more than 3 month the wound started to heal but appeared to be constrained by the paraffin wrap I used. I thought I should remove the wrap to aid in the formation of a scab. I didn’t realize that the wound really needed many more months to heal. I removed the wrap on one that appeared to be the most constrained.

The next day I came out to remove the wrap on another and found a broken limb from the first one. It was only partially healed and because it had such a large amount of growth, it couldn’t support the limb. Unfortunately, I had just finished unwrapping the second one when I found the first broken. The second broke as I tried to wrap it back up. This led me to start staking the grafts. During this process I broke a 3rd but did manage to save it. From the 5 grafts that had branched, I was down to 3.

My Key Lessons: The scion grafts will take at least a year to heal. I need to leave them wrapped until the next season and I need to plan for success by staking them when I do the graft.

As I mentioned, my first try at grafting had mixed results but the main goal was to learn and at that I succeeded and I think I have a better plan for next year. I definitely have a new method that I plan to try so you can expect to see another grafting updated at some point. If you have grafting tips, please leave me some in the comments, I suspect I’m not the only one interested in learning about them.

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