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 rootstock 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. It is important to know what fruit trees thrive in your area of the country. Don’t expect the grafting process to produce exotic fruit that does not normally grow in your neck of the woods. The following steps can give you, your family and wildlife fruit to enjoy for generations.
Step 1: Necessary Tools for Grafting (Rootstock, Shears, Etc.)
Having the right tools will ensure greater success with your grafts. You will need rootstock for apple trees if you are grafting apple trees and pear rootstock if you are grafting pear trees. You can even graft persimmon or cherry trees, too. The best way to get rootstock that is well suited for your region is to contact your local Extension agent. They will likely be able to get the rootstock for you or help you find a vendor. NativNurseries 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 rootstock 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. You can find everything you need at your local nursery. Make sure you have the pruning shears, knife, grafting tape and grafting sealant on hand before you start.
Step 2: 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 — especially if they have healthy trees that draw deer when they drop fruit. 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. Remember, the grafting process gets easier the more trees you graft.
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. When apples or other fruit drops over the course of several months, deer and other wildlife will benefit, even when other food sources dry up.
Step 3: Time for Grafting
It’s never too early to plan to graft your fruit trees. 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 rootstock 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 10 to 12 inches long. The scion should also be as close to the same diameter as the rootstock as possible.
Step 4: Harvesting the Scion
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. If the scion gets too dry, you may not have a successful graft. There are multiple ways to graft trees and you will see two methods in the photos. The method seen in photos “Step 4 and 5” is called the “modified cleft graft.” In photos “Step 6 through 8,” you will see “bark grafting.”
Step 5: The Scion, Rootstock and the Modified Cleft Graft
The outer layer of the scion and rootstock 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 a rootstock and a scion that are close in size (for modified cleft graft) and cut the rootstock with a sharp pair of pruning shears about three inches from where the ground line will be on the tree. Carefully split the rootstock 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 rootstock. Carefully insert the scion wedge into the split of the rootstock. 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 rootstock.
Step 6: The Scion, Rootstock and Bark Grafting
With bark grafting, the rootstock can be larger and, in fact, should be larger than your scions. Rather than splitting the rootstock 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 rootstock 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 rootstock. 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. Suppose you do decide to graft multiple varieties. In that case, 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. Make sure you choose a tree in a location that you can access easily. You may need to water and fertilize it in dry weather. There are many options for grafting.
Step 7: Grafting Maintenance
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 rootstock 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 rootstock. 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 fertilizer that you pour down the pipe will go directly to the roots of the tree and have an immediate impact on its success.
Step 8: Grafting Fruit Trees is 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, such as an apple tree, 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. After all, your grandfather's apple tree did not produce apples overnight either.
Step 9: Great Expectations
Once the apple 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. If all goes well, your grandchildren will eat and hunt over those same apple trees. After all, being a gamekeeper isn’t just about making an impact today — it’s about making a lasting impact for generations to come.