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Variety Is the Splice of Life : Backyard Growers Branch Out by Grafting Wood From One Fruit Tree to Another


Bob Hunt has 60 fruit trees in his yard, but he harvests more than 80 different types of fruit. The Anaheim gardener boasts a number of "fruit salad" trees, which bear more than one type of fruit.

Hunt can grow that many different fruit types on that many trees because of grafting, which adds a living piece of one plant, usually a stem or branch, to another closely related plant. A home gardener can attach a plum branch to a peach tree, for instance, and end up with a tree that produces both fruits.

Hunt, a member of the Orange County chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, will present a hands-on grafting demonstration for the club Thursday in the Community Room at the Irvine Marketplace.

Grafting enables gardeners to produce fruit in a limited space and to grow trees that are hard to find in nurseries. If you like your neighbor's peach variety, for instance, but can't find the tree in the store, you can take a branch and graft it to your peach tree.

With grafting, you can even completely change a tree. If you don't like the current fruit, graft on what you do like. Once established, cut off the original fruit-bearing branches.

When trees are dormant, as many are now, it's a good time to graft, said Tom Spellman, general manager of LaVerne Nursery in San Dimas and LaVerne, where they graft onto thousands of trees a year. It is also a good time to collect fruiting wood, known as scion wood, which is available at several nurseries. The scion is attached to trees and eventually bears fruit.

Timing is important to successful grafting.

"You must graft right before a tree buds out," Hunt said. "The buds should be swollen but not open. Once you see the buds swell, you've usually got about a week before they open."

When the buds begin swelling depends on the tree type and weather. Many trees will blossom in February or March, though some may be ready to bloom now because of the warm weather we've had.

As for multiple grafting, some gardeners say that technique is hard on trees.

"Some trees go into a state of decline, whether from being multiple grafted or because of exposure to disease," said Frank James, a Santa Ana gardener and longtime member of the California Rare Fruit Growers.

Instead of multiple grafting, James grafts on to root stock--young sterile trees.

Although it has a reputation as being complicated, Hunt said, "the graft I use--the cleft graft--is very simple and is widely used."

To do this type of graft, the most common one, choose a scion three-eighths- to three-fourths of an inch in diameter and has at least two or three buds. Match the diameter of the scion branch with a part of a tree branch. Cut the tree branch at the point where it is the same diameter as the scion.

Split the tree branch down the middle with a knife or hatchet, leaving the tool in the tree to keep it open. Shave both sides of the scion so it tapers to a wedge. Insert the scion into the cut and make sure that the cambium (the white bark under layer) of the scion touches the cambium of the tree branch.

Bind the union with wax wrapping material used for sealing grafts. It will lock in moisture and keep out disease. If your graft is successful, once the tree buds out, in about three weeks, the scion will fuse with the tree and start producing its own foliage, eventually bearing fruit.

For grafting success, keep the following tips in mind:

* Graft to a tree that is in the same family. For the prunus species, you can usually interchange peach, plum, nectarine, apricot and almond. Most citrus are also interchangeable, as well as apples and pears. You'll have the most success if you graft the same type of fruit. For instance, plums on plum trees.

* Try to graft tree types that have similar growth patterns. Some trees are vigorous, while others grow much more slowly. In such cases, the more vigorous tree is likely to overtake the slow grower, and you'll end up with just one fruit type on your tree.

* Sterilize all your grafting tools with a 10% bleach solution or with a blowtorch flame.

* Collect scion when it is still dormant and the buds are beginning to swell. Make sure it comes from last year's growth; it shouldn't be 2 or 3 years old.

* If the tree isn't ready for grafting, store your scion for two to four months in the refrigerator. Wrap it in a moist paper towel, then put it in a plastic zipper bag and keep it at 35 to 40 degrees.

* Make sure each cambium layer touches because this is where the cell match will occur.

* There should be two or three viable swollen buds on the scion above the graft so the tree can bud out and begin growing from there.

* When cutting the scion, make sure the knife you are using is razor sharp; there should be no jagged or crooked cuts. Also make sure to cut away from, not toward, your body.

* Before cutting up a favorite tree, practice grafting on scraps.

* After grafting, keep the area moist by misting. If it dries out, the graft will probably fail.

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