Apple Tree Grafting

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Say you really enjoy Winesap apples. You eat them every day. You cook with them. You paint still lives of them. You write songs about them. You really fucking love Winesap apples.

You think to yourself, I'd like to grow these in my yard. So you take a seed from the apple you eat for lunch (you eat nothing else at this point) and plant it, and settle in to wait for five years at which point you will enjoy the literal fruits of your labor. Easy, right?

WRONG. And not just because you have a bizarre obsession with Winesaps. (Seriously, you should talk to someone.)

Unlike many other fruit seeds, apple seeds are all genetically unique. That means you could take one apple, plant all of its seeds (five or more in each fruit) and end up with trees producing tiny, cherry-sized apples, mushy grapefruit-sized ones, and everything in between. 

This wasn't an issue for most of apples' history in the U.S. For many years, the main function of apples was to produce hard cider and apple jack.

I first learned these amazing facts about apples in The Botany of Desire -- a must for all plant nerds -- and have always been curious about apple trees and grafting.

So I was super interested when I found out the Catskill Forest Association has an apple tree grafting program. Last week Ryan Trapani from CFA came out to show us how it works.

We began by selecting a tree. The idea tree for grafting is young and healthy, but not a particularly pretty tree, or one that's a focal point in your yard, because it will get pruned back pretty hard to it's most basic skeleton. Ryan selected a tree we didn't even know we had, on the bank of the Purr Brook, and started pruning. Here's the pruned product:

Once the tree was cut back to these two main branches (purposefully high enough to be out of reach of curious deer) it was time to start grafting. We wanted to make this tree into a honeycrisp, so Ryan brought small branches, or scions, from a honeycrisp tree at a neaby orchard. The scions need to be cut when the tree is dormant. These were cut in February, and have been hanging out in a cooler since then.

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Next, the scions were trimmed, and their ends shaved down to a wedge shape. Then they were gently poked into small slits cut in the host tree, near the bark. This tissue is the fastest growing on the apple tree, and offers the best chance. This was repeated all the way around the branch. Finally, the whole thing was painted with a special sealant made just for this purpose.

The end product looks like like a tool in a strange ritual (are we worshipping this two-headed apple king?) and I like it.

There are lots of different ways to graft an apple tree -- check out detailed instructions for a number of techniques here. However you choose to do it, I hope you give it a try.