NGA Articles: Grafting Fruit Trees

Grafting Fruit Trees

By: Nan Sterman

One of my favorite childhood memories is of picking ripe, juicy nectarines from my parent's backyard trees. They were homely little fruits, but they were sweet and mellow, and they melted in my mouth. Last summer, my own children harvested nectarines from that tree in our backyard. How can that be? The fruits came from grafted fruit trees.

What is grafting? Insert a small twig cut from one fruit tree into a cut in another, compatible fruit tree. If you've placed the grafts correctly, the twig will soon start to grow on the host tree and eventually produce fruit. Of course, this is a simplified description, so let's review the process in greater detail.

What Can You Graft

You probably assume (correctly) that you can graft any two peach varieties with each other, as well as any two apples, cherries, figs, plums, nectarines, and so on. Nearly all citruses are compatible with all other citruses. Also (and this is where the fun starts) most fruit trees in the Prunus genus are sometimes compatible with each other: almonds, apricots, nectarines, peaches, and plums all are compatible for grafting, but occasionally it's complicated. For example, some plum rootstock is not compatible with peaches or nectarines; and some almonds require an intermediate step before grafting onto some plum rootstocks.

Selecting Varieties for the Garden

After consulting experienced grafters, reading catalogs, and surfing the Internet, my husband and I chose a combination of varieties that aren't typically found in supermarkets and that ripen over the growing season rather than all at once for our garden. We also wanted varieties that would pollinate trees that we already had in our garden.

Grafts for Beginners

The key to grafting success is matching the cambium layer of the scion wood to the cambium layer of the rootstock. The cambium is a narrow band of cells just inside the bark. The cambium makes the xylem cells that carry water up from the roots and the phloem cells that carry the sugars of photosynthesis down from the leaves. For a good union, the cambium of the scion must line up as closely as possible with the cambium of the rootstock, thus ensuring the transfer of nutrients and water.

There are many different grafting and budding styles and techniques -- T-budding and chip-budding, whip-and-tongue grafts, and cleft grafts, among others. Because different types of grafts seem to work best on particular species, talk to experienced grafters and do some reading before you pick a method to try on your trees.

The best way to learn grafting is from an expert. Our grafting mentors are Jim and Lee Bathgate, San Diego area members of California Rare Fruit Growers. Jim and Lee farm five acres of unusual varieties of apricots, nectarines, oranges, peaches, and 'Fuyu' persimmons in Valley Center, California. Over several months, they gave us a course in grafting.

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