Root Stock and Tree Grafting

Root Stock And Tree Grafting (Part 1)

There are several trails that meander through our land, past portions of our property lines and along the ponds.  Scott and I often take walks when the weather is nice.  Despite how little time I spent out of our house the first few months we were living here, we did get in the occasional walk, and one of our first visions for the land was to add apple trees along the path so that one day, we’d be able to pick some apples as we strolled along.  (In fact, we have talked about wanting to add other perennial fruits as well, like raspberries, for this same reason.)  Despite having nearly 20 fruit trees here already, we wanted to be able to have more.  Fruit trees in the yard and on the trail…all of that would add up to a lot of money spent if we bought them all.  That got Scott researching, and he decided that he would really like to try his hand at root stock propagation and tree grafting.  So, without further adieu, let us talk root stock and tree grafting!

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links.  We only share links to the products we have used, and share them to help those who are just as inexperienced as we were before we began 🙂

This plan would be a very inexpensive way to gain a lot of trees, but it doesn’t bring us to the dream of higher food production very quickly, with a grafted, root stock tree taking anywhere from 3-10 years to fruit (depending on the root stock), so I proposed that we still purchase some trees from the nursery for the first 2 years, and that we also get the root stock in that second year.  So last year, we added 4 more fruit trees to the yard, and this year, we will be putting in another 5 or so.  However, this is the second year, and so when the timing was right, we got what we needed for Scott to get started on root stock and grafting.

The plan is simple enough.  Scott picked out a variety of root stock that has a good root system, has a decent disease resistance, and should fruit within 4-6 years after grafting.  We could purchase root stock, learn how to propagate it, and then we will have a continual, life-long supply of root stock, allowing us to grow as many trees as we would like, and just for the cost of the initial investment.  We ordered M-111 root stock, which is a semi-dwarf stock.  It grows to about 80-85% of the size of a full grown tree, but fruits faster.  True dwarf trees often need to be staked because they cannot support the weight of the fruit that they bear.  Full grown trees take years to reach maturity, and because of their size, it is more difficult to be able to pick fruit from the tops of the trees, as well as making pruning more difficult.

Root Stock and Tree Grafting
M-111 root stock, waiting to be planted in soil.

What We Needed

We kept forgetting to look into how much it was going to cost, but knew it wasn’t outrageous, so we set a budget that seemed reasonable, and I told Scott I’d take care of ordering it.  I wasn’t sure how many root stock he actually wanted to have, so I ended up ordering 20, which is about double what he anticipated.  We went over the budget because of shipping, but I think we are both glad that there was 20 root stock, because it allows us the ability to do more.  We ordered through Burnt Ridge Nursery, and they allowed us to schedule when we wanted the roots shipped.  I was very pleased with how quickly they arrived after shipping!  (No, we are not affiliated with them…just picked a company that had some M-111 left, ordered it, and were happy with their service.)

This is the root stock as it came in the box from the nursery.  It was bundled together and wrapped with damp newspaper.

With the root stock ordered, the next step was for Scott to decide on varieties of tree he wanted to start growing.  He had seen a YouTube video made by a man who spends a lot of time on growing fruit trees, breeding and everything, and learned of a few varieties that piqued his interest.  Last summer, we went to the Mother Earth News fair in Wisconsin, and we heard somebody speak about growing unique foods.  He had mention that he is part of the North American Scion Exchange, which is a place where you can exchange cuttings from plants or plants to help grow your collection, or whatever it is you want out of it.  You can purchase cuttings as well, which is what Scott did.

Since Scott wants this to be something we do more of, year after year, he purchased a grafting knife, grafting tape, a grafting sealant, and some tags for labeling the different trees.  You can make do with other supplies if you are only intending to graft a few trees, but since he’s planning on doing a lot of it, it made sense to buy the supplies…none of which were very expensive. (Yes, we are Amazon affiliates, but we purchased these exact items through Amazon.)

Tree Grafting and Root Stock Propagation
Our grafting supplies: Tree wound sealer, tags for marking trees, grafting tape, and a grafting knife.

The other thing we needed was scion wood.  Scion wood is simply a cutting from the parent tree you wish to duplicate.  We have trees that we could have taken cuttings for, but we wanted to try growing some different varieties, so Scott purchased some scion from trees that produce Cox Orange Pipen, Wolf River, and Sweet 16.  Scott purchased multiple cuttings from each tree, at just $2 per piece. Each piece was approximately 12″ in length and around 1/4″ diameter, and you can make multiple grafts with cuttings that long.

Root Stock

Of the 20 root stock, we used 19 (don’t ask), 9 were used for root stock propagation, and the other 10 were used to graft onto.  I’ll start with root propagation.  Have you ever cut down a tree, just to see it put up new shoots, or had your trees put out suckers that you cut back, just to have them grow more?  That’s because tree roots are hardy and want to continue to grow!  The idea for propagation is that you start with a tree (young or old) that is planted and has been cut back to about ground level.  Eventually, the tree will put out multiple new shoots (new shoots equal new trees).  When it begins to put up new shoots that reach about 12″ , you are supposed to take a bucket or pot, remove the bottom, place it over the shoots, and then fill the bucket with clean, damp sawdust (not tainted with paint or other chemicals, no garbage).  The sawdust mimics the dirt, and will cause the tree to put out more roots in the sawdust level.  Once it has roots, you can remove the sawdust and cut off your new tree/root stock.  You’ll still have root stock in the bucket, but you will have multiple little trees that you can then use for more root stock.

Since we are working on all kinds of things around here, we decided to plant the root stock into a pot with dirt, following the same concept…cut it at ground level, let it put up shoots, cover it with a second bucket and fill with sawdust and wait.  Right now, we are just at the “plant it in dirt” phase, and waiting for the growth to happen.

Tree Grafting and Root Stock Propagation
That large, yellow/white spot in the middle of the bucket is the potted root stock, cut to ground level.

Tree Grafting

For the grafting, Scott did one graft differently from the rest of the trees, the first one being a graft called a whip and tongue graft, and the rest were cleft grafts.  He did the first graft, but because of the size difference between the thickness of the scion and that of the root stock, it was much more difficult to line everything up.  In that situation, a cleft graft is then more of a recommended method, which is what we did.

For the cleft graft, first he took the root stock and removed most of the trunk, leaving somewhere around 4-6″.  He then took his grafting knife and cut a slit about an inch or so down the trunk of the root stock.

Tree Grafting and Root Stock Propagation
Trimmed back root stock, Scott is making a cut about an inch down the trunk so the grafted branch can be slid in.

Next, he took the scion wood and cut it in half.  There were tiny buds on each piece of scion wood, and you need to look for the direction of the buds.  He cut a point onto the end of the scion wood that was opposite of the way the buds were pointing. This is important because it indicates the direction of growth for the branch.

Tree Grafting and Root Stock Propagation
Scion branch…bottom end shaved into a wedge shape.

With the end of his scion notched to a point, he inserted the scion into the slit of the root stock, making sure to line up the bark on one side.  With the difference in sizes, there is no way he could line up the scion on both sides of the root stock.  The key is to get the bark lined up, because it will fuse the two branches together.  Just like if you get a cut, the skin lines up and heals to itself.  If you do that with skin and muscle, it won’t work…

After the two pieces are wedged together, you are going to take a piece of grafting tape (or whatever medium you are going to use), and wrap the branch to the root stock.  This process not only helps hold the cuts together, much like a band-aid, it will (hopefully) also help hold in moisture.

The last step of the grafting process is to paint your new tree to help it retain moisture.  Eventually this will wash off of the tree, but this helps keep the tree from putting out buds too soon after the grafting is complete, and lets it put it’s energy into healing the wound.

Tree Grafting and Root Stock Propagation
Painting the graft with a tree wound sealer..but you can use a latex paint that you have sitting around. This stuff is really thick and goopy. A good layer helps the branch to retain moisture and keep the buds from opening too soon, which will give the graft time to heal.

Once the graft is complete, it needs to be planted.  We planted ours in old plastic pots we had in the garden shed that were from nursery plants, like trees or shrubs.  Fill the pot part way with soil, place in your grafted tree, and fill in the remainder with soil.  You will want to water this all really well.  Make sure you do not put soil above the graft line as that will allow the scion to put out roots which will change the nature of the tree!  

Tree Grafting and Root Stock Propagation
Potting the newly grafted tree.

Finally, if you are going to be doing multiple varieties, it is a good idea to label the tree so that you know what type of tree you are growing.  We used these tags for labeling the tree.

Tree Grafting and Root Stock Propagation
COP (Cox’s Orange Pipen). The name of the type of scion wood used for this graft.

Grafting does not have to be done onto a root stock.  This is something that can be done on a tree you already have in your yard.  People will do this when they want to try a different variety of apple or if they are working with limited space and want to have more fruit options.  I have actually ordered two 5-in-1 fruit trees for the Secret Garden, and they work by that very concept.

Final Thoughts

Again, we purchased the grafting compound, knife, tape, and tags, though if you are planning on doing just one graft, or two, you wouldn’t need to purchase any of that.  You could make do with supplies you probably have around your home, such as portions of a plastic grocery bag for the tape, a thin, sharp knife, and some latex paint.  Scott, however, would like to be doing this for years to come, so we purchased the right tools.

As this is our first go-round, we do not know if his work will succeed or not, and it is entirely possible that we will meet with miserable failure, though I doubt it.  Next year (or sometime in the future), we may look into purchasing a different type of root stock so that we can grow a variety of different sized trees.

I would also like to note that we did a few variations of the steps of the grafting, including no painting, and painting before taping.  We’ll have to see how those turn out!  But most of the trees were done this way.

Root Stock and Tree Grafting
Planted grafts.

If all of our work is successful, we will have 10 new trees for less than $150, plus we will have more root stock to use next year, and the only new cost will be if we should choose to purchase more scion wood.  We are pretty happy with that deal!  So even though it will take us longer to meet that vision of taking walks along the trails and picking apples, we are still pretty young, and we will be able to do that within the next 5-10 years.

We will have updates on these as we see things succeeding (or failing), and someday (though it may be next year or in years to come), I’ll share if Scott ever does some grafting onto one of our established trees, along with any other apple breeding experiments he runs.

Do any of you graft your own trees or grow your own root stock?  What kind of fruit trees would you love to try your hand at?  We will be adding at least another cherry tree to the yard this year, and I’m pretty excited about that!  And if you think we made some glaring mistakes, please, let us know!  We are knew to all of this 🙂


P. S.  In other news, this little guy turns 1 tomorrow!  Happy Birthday, E!

Tree Grafting and Root Stock Propagation
Happy Birthday, Little Man!


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