While the apples you get from a store or orchard or your back yard have seeds in them, those seeds don’t tend to germinate well, and if they did, they often won’t grow into apple trees that bear fruit that would resemble the apple you originally ate. And apple trees take some time to grow (and some of them years and years and years before they produce fruit), so it would be really lame to go to all the work of fostering a tree from seed only to end up with lame apples. I say this, but we here at HQ love experimenting, so we’ve totally got some apple trees growing from seed that are about 6″ tall at the moment. Who knows! None the less, even experimenters like ourselves don’t count on seeds to grow good apple trees.
Luckily, plants are incredible. It turns out, if you take a piece of branch from one apple tree, you can attach it a different apple tree, and if you’ve done it right, it will keep growing. (Pause here and be awed by that.) Grafting takes advantage of this. You take a little baby apple tree, maybe a foot high, that you know does well in your climate and soil type, and that will make the size tree you want (dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard). This will be your root stock, the below ground part of your soon-to-be new tree. Then, you clip off a small branch of new growth from an apple tree whose fruit you like, such that the diameter of the branch matches the diameter of the trunk of the rootstock you have. This is your scion wood, the above ground part of your soon-to-be new tree. You slice off the top of the rootstock at a steep diagonal, slice off the bottom of the scion wood at a steep diagonal, and stick the two together so that they match up. As long as the thin green layers just underneath the bark (called cambium) of both make good contact with each other, the two will grow together. For added stability, you make a notch in both sides to keep the two surfaces from slipping, and then wrap them with a rubber band to hold the two together and seal the whole thing with wax to keep moisture in. If all goes well, you are left with the perfect roots matched with the perfect fruits, all in a new two-in-one tree.
I learned all this at a grafting workshop at the Seed Savers Heritage Farm a little bit ago, where I got to not just learn it in theory, but graft some new apple trees for Headquarters as well. And the three little apple trees I took home with me are now budding out just as they should, and I’ve got them planted in the ground. So far so good!
So here is where this is really really really exciting. We are spoiled when it comes to apples. We lived in Washington for a decade, and while the state grows lots and lots of nothing special apples that fill grocery stores across the country, we discovered Jones Creek Farms at a Seattle farmers’ market, and they have a thing for great apples, of lots and lots of varieties. While they’ve got plenty of kinds you’ll find elsewhere, they’ve got lots we’d never seen before and never seen since (check out their variety list here). Before I met Les and the other awesome folks from Jones Creek, I didn’t even think I liked apples. We went weekly, tried them all, brought lots home, and fell in love with some varieties that we simply must have again, even though we are far, far away from their Skagit Valley orchards.
Well, if I want an orchard here at HQ with lots of great heirloom apple varieties like the kinds at Jones Creek (or the Seed Savers Heritage Farm), I’m not going to be ordering them from traditional nurseries. And I couldn’t afford it anyway. Instead, the one big apple tree we have here at HQ has plenty of sucker growth, from which I can easily (as in, with my handy digging fork in a matter of seconds) harvest root stock. And I can get scion wood through the mail through the Seed Savers Yearbook, or hopefully from writing really nice letters to the folks at Jones Creek. And when the two combine… apple paradise here at HQ.
Granted, it will still take years for any of these tiny trees to bear fruit. But man, when they do, even if I’m no longer here to enjoy it, it will be brilliant.
So far, if those three little trees I brought home from the grafting workshop keep up the good work, we’ll have Belle de Boskoop, Fameuse and Ribston apples here (I dare you to find those at your corner grocery store), all grafted onto traditional nursery rootstock, in addition to our one old tree (variety unknown, but so far it has only produced three, albeit beautiful and big, apples). And I’m already experimenting a little. The picture on the right is a bit of extra Fameuse scion grafted onto a bit of rootstock from our old apple tree’s sucker growth (can you see where the color changes from green brown to grey brown above my hand?), before I’ve wrapped it. I did it today, when the wood surely isn’t dormant as it should be, but who knows?
By the way, if you want more detailed grafting instructions, Seed Savers has a webinar up here for free on grafting (I haven’t watched it, but I assume it will resemble the workshop I took). Or look here for the quick diagram version, from the West Virginia Extension folks.