By Kate Klimesh,
Mary, Mary, may be quite contrary, but Daniel Bohr’s garden grows with an orchard of an even dozen grafted apple trees. Living on the edge of Spillville, Bohr has taken to the grafting process to propagate some very exciting apple varieties in his spacious backyard. In 10 years, people will be wondering how the Bohr orchard came to pass.
Apples and pears both require grafting to produce an exact replica of the fruit species, as simply planting their seeds has a one in 10,000 chance to produce the same kind of fruit variety. When Johnny Appleseed was planting seeds along his journey, he had no idea what exact kind of fruit would result those many years later.
“I took a class on apple tree grafting at Seed Savers Exchange five years ago, and really took an interest from there,” Bohr recalled of the spark that grew into the fruits of his labors today.
“It made me feel good, as all three trees I grafted for the class survived. It is kind of a patience thing, as it can be three to five years before the grafted tree bears fruit.”
Grafting an apple tree means taking two pieces of different trees and marrying them together to produce a new living tree, with properties from both halves, but the fruit identical to the top half – or scion wood.
The other portion of the grafted tree is the root stock.
“The root stock can come from any kind of apple tree. If you plant apple seeds and they start growing, you can use those plants as root stock. You can also order root stock from any nursery that sells them to get specific properties for your grafted apple tree.”
The root stock determines the height and size of the tree, a tree’s cold-hardiness, disease resistance, as well as at what age it will bear fruit. Ordering specific root stock from specialized nurseries, there are options for standard size, which can be up to 30 foot wide, dwarf varieties, which are usually up to 10 foot wide, which is great for high-density planting.
“Apple trees are generally as tall as they are wide, and the smaller trees can make picking the apples much easier,” Bohr added.
One of the heirloom varieties, called Fameuse, Bohr grew from his original grafting class originated from the 1700s in French Canada. “It’s really amazing that this scion wood is from a tree that has been growing this type of apple for over 300 years,” he said with a smile.
The scion wood used for grafting determines the properties of the fruit the grafted tree will bear. Grafting stock for both should be at least the size of a pencil before attempting to joining the two together. Bohr noted, “Using a single edged beveled knife makes the best graft cuts on both samples, and helps them line up better, which can help the graft healing.”
Bohr reported his grafting method was “whip and tongue graft, which may not be the easiest, but it is very effective. And it’s a fairly cheap way to start grafting. You just need a good knife and grafting tape. Grafting trees can also be less expensive than buying a whole tree but does take patience over a year or two to get to the same size as those ready for purchase as a whole tree.”
The whip and tongue graft is a style of bench grafting Bohr favors, which means the plant can be grafted in a pot when fairly young. “The whole goal of grafting is to match up the cambium layer – the green, actively growing layer – of the two samples of the root stock and the scion layer. If they are matched well, they will heal and grow creating a scar at the graft point.”
“Generally, you want to graft trees in the spring, just before the buds come out – in March or April – depending on the weather. Grafting small trees right before the sap flows allows the tree to focus energy healing the graft, and then it can bud and bloom on year two.”
The newly grafted trees can be planted in pots and kept in any cool environment that will protect them from extreme weather. Keeping grafted plants in a refrigerator or unheated garage during the healing process allows the plants to heal.
Once the grafted trees have healed and begin pushing new growth from the tips of the grafted tree, “you know the graft has taken and you can then plant it in the ground. Then, pinch off the rest of the lower growth, leaving one branch on top for the main trunk of the tree to develop- this shoot will become what is called a whip. The second year, prune the tree to what will become the main branches of the tree, usually two to three branches, and the main leader – or what will be the main trunk of the tree.”
Bohr also recommends using grafting tape to secure the two grafted pieces together initially, “Parafilm, it’s kind of like saran wrap, only it sticks to itself as the graft grows, then falls off.”
“The biggest challenge of grafting trees is keeping deer and rabbits off the trees for the first five years. Small diameter fencing around the trees is vital,” said the man who lost six young grafted trees to a juvenile rabbit and speaks from experience. “The trees must be very tasty.”
Bohr is hedging his bets, with the three grafted trees from his original course bearing fruit for the first time last year, three new apple trees he purchased, and six other grafted trees with disease resistant root stock to prevent the most commonly known apple tree diseases in this area, but with each hosting a different varietal scion wood. Since his first harvest was just last year, and many trees still another year off from fruiting, he added, “I don’t even know if I’m going to like the apples from them all yet.”
He has, however, been very contrary and particular in his pruning of all the trees. “Pruning is especially important the first three to five years of the tree’s life. You want to get good branch angles and that’s when you set the shape of the tree. Those small branches will be the main trunks and boughs in 10 years.”
Bohr has recently expanded and has grafted and planted some pear trees as well in his backyard orchard. “A lot of people try to grow peaches here too, but peaches are not an Iowa fruit tree. I haven’t found one that can stand the cold.”
“I do tell people to do their research before getting into grafting or planting fruit trees. Think about the finished size of the tree, where it is in your yard, and if that’s a good place for a bunch of apples to be laying on the ground, to make sure your root stock is cold-hardy and disease resistant. Do your research before planting for a better chance of success.”
“It’s a fun hobby to get into, I really enjoy it. I hope more people take up grafting and planting fruit trees.”
“We are hoping to have at least six trees produce fruit this coming year. What we’ll do with all the apples when all the trees are full and we have too many, I’m not sure. I’m sure we’ll sell them or give them away. But everybody can use apples, it’s a good thing to be able to share.”
Select root stock
Select scion wood
Single-edged beveled knife to make matching cuts in each part
Patience – it takes up to five years to bear fruit
Research to ensure good varieties for the climate zone and protect young trees so they can become established producers
Space: a good location with adequate space to grow and for apples to drop