Gardening & Wildlife


Grafting is an acquired skill. After a few years one begins to realise the basic understanding. Success though, comes relatively fast. What improves over the years are the percentages. Observing dormancy in the material is one of the key factors, and both sections of the plant, the rootstock and the scion, must be emerging from dormancy. Ideally the rootstock is cut to 15cm, the scion to 10cm. If the material is too large it may die back; too small and it may dry out. Both circumstances effect a failure to bond the vessels.


What we have here then is a healthy rootstock. Many failures occur due to lack of vigour in the rootstock. Their ideal width is at least pencil thickness. Material is divided between the stone genus and the pip genus, more simply the plum and apple species. Distantly related through the Roasacaea family, their wild counterparts make useful free grafting material, i.e. Prunus spinosa and Crataegus monogyna, blackthorn and hawthorn. I have had frequent success grafting onto wild-located shrubs. Cultivated rootstocks, sold from nurseries, are tried and tested varieites descended from their wild counterparts. They have been selected for their abilities to confer benefits. This includes disease resistance, vigour, adaptability to local climatic conditions, dwarfing effects, and ability to heal. Other rootstocks include quince for pears and wild plum (Myrobalan, St. Julian), for the plum family, i.e. peach, apricot, nectarine and sweet almond.
The cut is made with a strong blade that must be sharp. A blunt blade will damage the material. Thus one is looking for a single oblique, clean cut. The faces of the material should be flat, so as to maximise contact with each other, and expose as much as possible the green cambium layer beneath the bark. Ideally this will leave a bud opposite the cut assisting in hormonal build-up and quicker unification.


The instinctive habit is to push with the blade. In the example above the scion is being cut with a pull and push action. If the blade is sharp it glides through and the natural reaction of the body is to stop the blade progressing any further. Study the image, one sees that the thumb is beneath the material. The slight pressure that the thumb asserts upwards prevents the formation of a tail. The apex on both sections is a critical point, for it exposes 40% of the cambium layer.


Scion material is freely located; there are many species of fruit in people's gardens. Single material is available from nurseries. Like the rootstock, it should be disease free and not too thin. Various types of grafts consider different circumstances and thicknesses of material. In this example I am doing a whip and tongue graft - the whip is the young rootstock, and the tongue is a small slice taken out of both materials so that they "kiss" together for a good, strong bond.


As much as possible of the cambium layers should contact. Hence the requirement to find similar sized material for this type of graft. The join should not be forced and the tongues not too deep else damage is incurred. The mechanical join should maintain stability when left suspended. Material of different width should allow for allignment along one side only. In cases of different thickness bark ensure that the cambium is aligned only.


Binding the material without moving the join can be tricky. At first you may require help to tie the final knot. I use self-destructing tape which falls off after 6 months. This is an elastic that provides a bit more robustness to the join. The idea is to leave a hanging tail and first wind one way, (up or down) and then the other so that two tails are left. Ensure to tie a double knot. In the past grafters used moist raffia covered with a wax sealant, or clear stretched plastic.If this is the case ensure the material can breath by loosening it when the join has fully taken and started to expand.

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  • 10.

    Most important is to use a good soil medium. I find the eco-friendly mix not quite sufficent in the long-term. Remember the plant will do better if potted up in a greenhouse and able to be root-balled one year later. So I use a John Innes no.3 which carries the required nutrient balance to get the plants off to a good start. Depending on the size of the existing roots I use between 3 and 5 ltr pots. Any larger and it gets a bit expensive. The alternative is to plant up into a potting-on bed, under glass. This prevents two major forms of pests. The first are slugs which graze off the young tender shoots of the scion. The second are pets and wild roamers like foxes who rub up against the plants. I have lost too many like this for failure to guard the plant or planting out too early before the grafting has fully taken. Animals watch us from a distance and will visit later.
    Labelling should indicate variety and rootstock type/size. Too often I am guessing; no good if I have to re-work the material six months later, or I am trying to recommend a dwarf variety.


    It is important to get this part right, for any slight movement of the join could drastically reduce its chances of taking. It is worth undoing and doing again if necessary. Secondly, one is trying to create a protected area. If water gets trapped inside the graft it can rot it. It also conveys disease organisms. Any exposure of the surfaces of the material to the air should be covered, either with a wax sealant or the tape itself. Sometimes I have put another tape on over the existing one. Wax sealants can be bought; garden nurseries do some standard wound healers. On a DIY level one can mix equal parts of Fullers earth, candle wax and beeswax. Even pure clay is better than nothing.


    At this stage we should be looking at a graft about one foot or 30 cm long. The covered wound should be hiding opposite buds. Any emerging leaves should have been taken off if they impede the bind. The scion is cut to a bud and a dab of wax is used to prevent excessive evaporation of water from the material. I would not trim the roots even though this is standard practice for plants that have been heavily pruned back and require top-bottom balance. The scion needs as much umphh as possible to break those buds open. Any premature flowers should be taken off in the first year. Basal growths from the rootstock are worth leaving on in order to pull the sugars up from the roots and get them into the top part of the tree. When the top is established enough remove the bottom growth as this may compete for resources and cause die-back.


    You wouldn't think that those hands were capable of playing music, but it is all about circulation and nerves. Even though women tend to be more adept at the finer jobs I find them more averse to using Stanley knives. Using knives properly may require unlearning our standard knowledge of them. The subtlety comes in when trying out different graft types, like clefts and saddles, and bud grafting. I find the best time in the year is when the sap is rising or descending, that is in the Spring and Autumn when the material is supple. This prevents chipping and wayward sticky cuts.
    Something here can be said of the nature of the material. This year I waited as late as early May to do grafts. The pears and apples took superbly. Unfortunately the plum material, especially peach and apricot, had not a hope. This was also due to the leanness of the material. It can be difficult to get good size of the latter, requiring maybe a cleft graft in which the wedge shaped material is inserted within. On the other hand, cherry and plum wood is a bit more substantial, especially the former. But timing is all important. I prefer to use mid-October, traditionally apple day in the calendar, a good time for Prunus. If the failed rootstock allows it can be recut and re-grafted. Hence, one can have two bites at the cherry so to speak.

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