A trip down memory lane for many outdoorsmen will lead to some great times beneath one of grandfather’s apple trees. Not only did grandfather’s apple tree draw kids like ants to sugar, but it also brought out the deer and other wildlife to enjoy the smorgasbord. It is no secret that apples on the ground are a magnet for deer and particularly bucks near the end of summer and into fall when much of the natural vegetation is getting tough. The overall drawing power of a mast tree makes it a logical addition to any gamekeeper’s repertoire of feeding options for local wildlife. If fruit trees are in your plans you can create your own for a fraction of the price by grafting.
Tree grafting is a procedure where you take a piece of an existing tree (scion) and attach it to a receptive root stock and they form a new tree. You might refer to it as “tree surgery.” It may sound complicated but it is actually quite simple and rewarding. Adding grafted fruit trees to your property won’t have an immediate impact but can improve wildlife feeding options for many years to come.
Having the right tools will ensure greater success with your grafts. You will need root stock for apple trees if you are grafting apple trees, and pear root stock if you are grafting pear trees and you can even graft persimmon or cherry trees, too. The best way to get root stock that is well suited for your region is to contact your local extension agent. They will likely be able to get the root stock for you or help you find a vendor. Nativ Nurseries also offers crabapple, persimmon, and pear that make excellent rootstocks.
To make clean cuts you will need a sharp pair of pruning shears to remove the scion (the part of the tree you intend to graft). A razor sharp knife that can trim the scion and root stock is essential. Crafting knives such as the Exacto Knife can be used as well. Grafting tape and grafting sealant will aid in keeping the pieces together as they join.
Choosing the Right Trees to Graft
Choosing the right trees to graft is one of the easiest steps. Think back to previous years when you were driving around and you noticed deer in your neighbor’s yard enjoying the falling apples. It’s obvious the particular variety of tree is well suited for your region and if it is grafted successfully then the deer will be drawn to your property as well.
Ask your friends and neighbors for cuttings (scions) from their trees. Don’t settle for one type of tree but instead graft as many varieties as possible. Some trees graft easier than others so you may need to experiment with several types.
To extend the benefits of your trees for wildlife food you should also consider grafting trees that will bear fruit during different months of the year. For instance, you can graft early June apples, which will drop their fruit during mid-summer, and then graft other hardy varieties that will begin dropping their fruit in late August, September and October.
Time to Graft
Late winter into early summer is the best time to graft fruit trees. Much will depend upon the type of grafting you're doing. You want to have your root stock and collect your scion before the sap rises and buds begin to emerge. To choose the best scion you will want to avoid collecting water sprouts that grow from the base of the tree, but instead you should collect hardy pieces from the branches that have four to six buds and are ten to twelve inches long. The scion should also be as close to the same diameter as the root stock as possible.
As you collect your scion, make clean cuts with your pruning shears and place the pieces in a bucket of water to prevent them from drying out. Keep the water handy throughout the grafting process. There are multiple ways to graft trees and you will see two methods in the photos. The method seen in the photos “Step 4 and 5” is called the “modified cleft graft.” In photos “Step 6 through 8” you will see “bark grafting.”
The outer layer of the scion and root stock is referred to as the cambium layer. This layer is where the nutrients and water are fed throughout the tree and that is where the actual union will occur. The cambium layer of each piece needs to touch as closely as possible for successful grafting. This is true for either method of grafting - for successful grafting to take place, the vascular cambium tissues of the stock and scion must be placed in contact with each other.
Choose root stock and a scion that are close in size (for modified cleft graft) and cut the root stock with a sharp pair of pruning shears about 3 inches from where the ground line will be on the tree. Carefully split the root stock down the middle about 1 ½ inches. Make a wedge with the scion that comes to a blunt end and is equal in length to the depth of the wedge you cut in the root stock. Carefully insert the scion wedge into the split of the root stock. Closely inspect the two pieces to ensure that the outer cambium layers touch as much as possible. Continue whittling the scion end and inspecting it until a clean and solid match is made. Don’t rush this step because the entire process depends on good contact between the scion and root stock.
With bark grafting the root stock can be larger, and in fact, should be larger than your scions. Rather than splitting the root stock down the middle, you’ll want to carefully make a horizontal slit several inches long just through the cambium layer. You’ll want to loosen the bark on each side of the root stock to make a spot to insert the scions - it is most common with bark grafting to use two scions. You can see how this has been done in “Step 6.” The scions will be inserted into the slits you have made just behind the bark (cambium layer), one on each side of the root stock. This is the main difference between the two grafting styles.
Once you are satisfied with the two pieces, you can strengthen the union by using grafting tape or masking tape to hold the pieces together. Wrap the union tightly to ensure a good bond. Some people choose to apply a thin layer of grafting sealant to cover the union. Both the tape and the sealant will weather and decay within the first year of growth. However, it’s important that you don’t use too much tape or grafting sealant because applying too much can cause girdling which may damage and ultimately kill the tree. After finishing the graft, place it into a bucket of water as you continue your work so that the scion doesn’t dry out. Keep the union submerged until you are ready to plant them.
Plant your newly grafted trees in a fertile area where they will not be disturbed. Put the root into a hole leaving the area where you grafted the scion about one to two inches from the surface of the ground. Mark the tip of the graft with a small piece of fluorescent colored ribbon so that it is easily seen. If you do decide to graft multiple varieties, you will want to record the variety of the tree on the ribbon and also keep a record of the varieties so that you can see which ones were the most successfully grafted.
Rootstocks can also be planted first and then grafted later. Rootstocks can also be “volunteer” seedlings, meaning you can find a random crabapple or persimmon growing in the field and graft onto it. There are many options for grafting.
Water and fertilize the grafts regularly to ensure quick growth. Keep the area around the grafts weed free so that there is little competition for needed nutrients. Your hope is that the scion and the root stock successfully unite and the roots begin to feed the scion. Small buds will emerge as other trees in your area begin to bud. To ensure that all of the growth goes into the scion, you should remove any suckers or small sprouts that emerge from the root stock. Leaving them will allow much needed nutrients to be taken from the scion.
Protecting Your Grafts
After you have invested your time and energy into getting a successful graft, it is important that you protect it from damage for the first few years. The union where the graft has occurred is quite delicate and if it is disturbed it can lead to failure and death of the new tree. Protective tree tubes work great for this. Otherwise, driving a stake next to your grafts and loosely tying them to it can keep the union strong through windy conditions. Don’t tie the string too tightly and it’s best to avoid using nylon or synthetic string. Instead you should use a string that will decay such as sisal.
For added protection you may also build a wire cage to surround the tree, like the ones that you use in your tomato garden. Doing so will protect the tender branches from browsing wildlife. Allowing deer and other critters to eat and tug at the newly established leaves can place too much stress on the graft and cause it to fail. You should transplant the grafted trees from their original spot into their permanent location after their first year or two of growth.
No matter where you plant the trees it remains imperative that you continue fertilizing and watering them so they grow well. An excellent way to ensure deep watering for your trees is to put a piece of one inch waterline in the hole alongside the tree as you plant it. Under the end of the pipe you should place a handful of gravel to allow the water to filter into the hole. Leave about one foot of the pipe to stick out of the ground. Every drop of water and fertilize that you pour down the pipe will go directly to the roots of the tree and have an immediate impact on its success.
Well Worth the Wait
Keep in mind that your grafted trees will not have an instant impact on your hunting plot, but instead they are for long range consideration. Grafting fruit trees is one of the only food plot enhancements you can make that can truly last a lifetime. Don’t be expecting fruit anytime soon however. A grafted dwarf fruit tree will not likely produce fruit for five to seven years. Semi-dwarf trees can take seven to nine years to produce fruit.
Once the trees do begin bearing fruit then you and the deer can enjoy them each season. The apples will fall from the branches over a period of several weeks which will give you time to pick out your trophy for the season. In the end you’ll be glad that you took that initial step to make a lasting improvement on your plot. After all, being a gamekeeper isn’t just about making an impact today; it’s about making a lasting impact for generations to come.