Apple upcycling

OK, you planted a bunch of step-over apples nearly ten years ago because they were fashionable then and to be honest they’ve been a disappointment. Maybe they don’t get enough sun, maybe they weren’t pruned quite right.

Some good varieties among them too, like ‘Saint Cecilia’. According to the National Fruit Collection this is a Cox hybrid raised in Wales in 1900. Their picture of the fruit is not a good match for the one apple it produced this year, its second, it had one last year.

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Malus ‘Saint Cecilia’ step-over with one apple. The pot is full of leaves.

The long and short of it is that it is too vigorous to work as a stepover. The tight spur pruning needed to maintain its form just results in strong growth and almost no production of fruit buds. They are slowly starting to appear, but there still aren’t many even after nearly ten years. Perhaps it’s on too vigorous a stock, or maybe the ground is too fertile.

OK, time to try something different. Yesterday I grafted ten scions onto it, with the intention of selecting the best six and training them to make a short tunnel. The varieties chosen were Holstein, Herefordshire Russet and Tydeman’s Late Orange. I say chosen, what I mean is that’s what was available. Holstein came from my garden, the other two were elsewhere in the same garden, the Tydeman’s being an old tree without much good new growth on it, the russet another step-over growing in a shady spot and woefully over vigorous.

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Scion wood of ‘Holstein’. The bottom four inches or so will be used.

I cut myself ten one year old shoots, cutting them off near the base. I then cut obliquely through the bottom of the stem, aiming to keep clear of any buds. Then I shortened the shoot to three or four buds, about four inches in length. Next I selected a shoot on Saint Cecilia and cut it off with a long oblique cut that was as good a match as possible for my scion.

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Stock on left, scion (upside down) on right.

The two cut faces were brought together and tied using latex grafting ties. Once complete the whole graft was covered in grafting wax which I had melted in a small pan.

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Scion positioned on rootstock and tied.

In a couple of cases, the shoot on the rootstock was significantly thicker than the scion and instead of cutting right through the stock shoot I cut it off then made a cut to about a third of the thickness of the shoot on one side. See diagrams.

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Stock bigger than scion.
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Stock slightly thicker than scion, aligned to one side.
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Stock bigger than scion, cut as in diagram above.

I would hope, and given past experience expect, that come spring they would all start to grow and by the end of the summer would have made at least a foot of growth. When I am certain the grafts have taken I will make a cut along the tie so it can slacken, then leave it to drop off. If they succeed, there will surely be a follow up blog.

I used “proper” ties and wax because I had them. They are not essential but they do make it easier to bind the two cut surfaces tightly together. I could have used polythene tape or even insulating tape, tying from the bottom so the turns overlap to keep out water.

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The essentials are (1) Good contact between the cambium (the zone of dividing cells just under the bark) of stock and scion. That requires a fair match between the cuts on stock and scion and a flat cut surface. You have to make the cut in one go or there will be lumps in the cut surface so that when the two parts of the graft are brought together there will be airspaces. If one cut surface is larger than the other, match the cambium along one side; do not centre the smaller on the larger.

(2) The graft must stay dry. The ingress of water will be likely to cause failure.

(3) Avoid touching the cut surfaces.

(4) Use the sharpest knife you can get your hands on. It needs to be really sharp. Don’t cut yourself, blood on the cut surfaces will lead to failure.

(5) Do it around now, when the trees are completely dormant.

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The wax goes cold very quickly

As it happens, this was a tree in someone else’s garden but I do have one in my own that I have treated similarly. Onto an unproductive Elstar I have grafted Holstein, Red Windsor, Meridian, Tregonna King and Plympton Pippin. Even if it were the only tree I had room for, pollination would not be a problem. Nor am I going to get a big crop of one variety that I can’t eat quick enough.

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Saint Cecilia.

I’d love to get feedback from people who have given this a go. I have had very nearly 100% success without ever having done enough to get skilled at it. Do a bit of practice on some hedgerow shoots or some such, then take the plunge. You’re not going to do any serious damage to the tree with two or three grafts, there’s nothing to lose.

11 thoughts on “Apple upcycling

  1. Good information, I have a Peachtree I have been wanting to graft I have been a bit shy about doing it, I will follow your method. Instead of grafting, I grew a tree from a peach pit 2 years ago, it’s doing fine at 4 foot high. Good post thanks!

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  2. I somehow missed the stepover fad. We had the ‘spire’ fad, which might have been the same thing. I was none too keen on it, not only because I dislike fads, but because I want my apples to grown on ‘trees’. I have always kept mine down and manageable, and very productive. I do not need them to be supper mutant dwarf. Although the Santa Clara Valley was known mostly for stone fruits, the adjacent Santa Cruz Mountain (where I actually live now – but cringe to admit to it) is better for apples and pears. There are actually many cultivars that do remarkably well here. Only those that require more chill are lacking. In Beverly Hills (which is in the region of Los Angeles) there were only two cultivars of apple that we could grow, and both were pretty bland.

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  3. I’m impressed by this. Hopefully the rootstock will be about right for the multi-variety tunnel. I generally prefer more vigorous rootstocks (I’d like own root if it were more easily available) my soil being so poor and the weather such that trees tend to be quite naturally dwarfed! I had a go a few years back at grafting various apples, that have done well locally for other people, on either crab or seedling apple saplings. I haven’t had 100% success, more like 50%, however I have got at least one graft of each tree I wanted take to a reasonable degree and still surviving, although no blossom as yet.

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    1. I recall reading somewhere that trees on their own roots are roughly equal in vigour to those on MM106, meaning that M25 produces a tree that is more vigorous than it would be on its own roots. I could imagine that very long summer days without very high temperatures might favour growth over flowering too, do you know how apples respond?

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      1. I believe all apple trees are slightly different in vigour, although rootstocks are likely to be less vigorous in general. Most of my apples are on M25, so should be quite vigorous. I have had good blossom, but little fruit so far (too windy, too wet, and possibly too hot last year).
        Mine have not grown particularly huge yet. It is important not to choose tip bearers though, since the trees don’t seem to able to ripen new growth and we tend to get die back either from cold or salt burn!

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      2. Skye is not a good place to grow apples. Generally too wet, too windy and too cool in summer. However, people do grow apples using different techniques. The trees are likely to be fairly short lived due to disease I gather. So it’s best to select early ripening, disease resistant varieties and not expect too much!

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