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In the Garden

Be Fruitful and Multiply, Right in the Backyard

February 01, 2001|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

In his Northridge backyard, Tor MacInnis grows an amazing 63 varieties of apples, on one tree. He also has 22 kinds of pears (which aren't even supposed to grow here), 18 different apricots, 19 types of Asian pear, 31 plums and 28 of the new "plumcots." All of this fruit grows on only six smallish trees--a graphic example of an ages-old technique called grafting.

Grafting--at least on deciduous trees like apples--is best done at this time of year, when the juices are beginning to flow in the awakening trees. A branch or bud from one plant will grow when attached to a similar, compatible plant, the splice healing like a cut closing.

While it may sound vaguely Frankensteinian, grafting "is really pretty easy," assures MacInnis (see how he grafts on Page E3).

Many grafts later, what started out as a 'Dorsett Golden' apple is now part 'Gordon,' 'Beverly Hills,' 'Anna,' 'Ein Sheimer,' 'Granny Smith,' 'Fuji,' 'Gala,' 'McIntosh,' 'White Winter Pearmain,' 'Winter Banana' and so on. Each branch has a metal tag so he can keep track, which makes the pyramidal apple look like a decorated Christmas tree.

The different varieties ripen at different times, so the tree is never covered with apples, but there is fruit on it for 4 1/2 months of the year. When his latest grafts start bearing, he expects to have apples for a full six months.

Spreading out the harvest is one good reason to graft backyard trees, said MacInnis. Many fruit trees also need another variety of the same tree nearby to act as a pollinator. For instance, an apple named 'Anna' needs the variety 'Ein Sheimer' or 'Dorsett Golden' close by or it will produce little fruit. A really poor producer can be completely "grafted over," so the tree essentially becomes a different variety, or several different varieties.

The tanned and just-beginning-to-gray MacInnis, 47, says lack of space started him grafting. Although his backyard is pretty big, almost two-fifths of an acre, he wanted to try dozens of fruit trees. The solution? Put dozens on one tree.

This Valley boy grew up around fruit trees, on a residential Encino lot filled with citrus grown under contract to Sunkist, a common practice in the '50s. He landed his first job mowing lawns at 9 and "never came back indoors." He has worked as a landscape contractor and nursery manager (at Boething's Treeland in Woodland Hills) since earning several horticulture and landscape degrees from Pierce College.

At the moment, he's self-employed in landscaping, "but everyone tells me I'm destined to teach gardening," he said, so he's looking into it. He could certainly teach a thing or two about grafting and pruning. His trees are the handsomest I've ever seen. "I like perfect-looking trees," he said simply, and they could be textbook illustrations.

He and his wife, Terri, bought their Northridge house six weeks before the 1991 quake. "Talk about bad timing," he said. The house sustained massive damage, and repairing it destroyed the garden. "But it gave me a clean slate to work with," he said, and after a few years, MacInnis had reshaped the property so there was much less lawn and much more horticulture.

The garden is in Sunset magazine's Zone 18--defined as the coldest parts of the inland valleys--considered a good area for deciduous fruit trees. But he also grows 23 kinds of citrus and even a tender 'Hass' avocado. These are not grafted, though it is possible to graft nondeciduous trees.

In addition to the apples, pears, Asian pears, apricots, plums and plumcots, he has grafted genetic dwarf peaches and nectarines, figs, jujubes and grapes. He even has a grafted wisteria that blooms in three different colors, and a similar, multicolored crape myrtle in the frontyard. "I couldn't help myself," said MacInnis.

All of these different types and varieties have been attached by "whip grafts," which are simple to do and nearly sure-fire. All you need are a sharp knife, a wrap and a little hot wax.

The branches you add are called "scions" (pronounced "sigh-ons") and can come from neighbors' or friends' trees. Nurseries must prune their bare-root fruit trees each winter, and this is where MacInnis got many of his. Keep the scions cool and moist until you use them.

MacInnis is a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers (www.crfg.org), which holds scionwood exchanges each winter so its 3,100 members can swap branches. There are even mail-order sources that sell scions, such as Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery (www.applenursery.com) and Bear Creek Nursery in Washington (P.O. Box 411, Northport, WA 99157).

On the day I visited MacInnis' garden, he was preparing to graft the 64th variety to his handsomely pruned apple tree. This new mystery variety came from his next-door neighbor and MacInnis thought it had to be the last apple to bear in the Southland, since it regularly had fruit on it in December. "Now that's a late apple."

He says apples and pears are the easiest of the deciduous trees to graft, and apricots the hardest. Pears supposedly need much more cold than Southern California can provide, but he has found that some do fine, at least in his area, which is cold enough to frost gerberas.

Surprisingly, despite the plethora of deciduous fruit trees in his garden, they are not his first pick in fruit. "I grew up in a citrus grove," he said, "and they are still my favorite." Asked to pick a favorite deciduous fruit, he thought a minute--mentally thumbing through the nearly 200 varieties he grows--and thought it might be the apple named 'Anna.' "It has just the right combination of crispness, tartness and sweetness," he said, but it needs a pollinator, which is why it too is grafted to the 'Dorsett Golden.'

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