Yesterday’s Urban Farm Success – Grafting 25 New Apple Trees

What else could have been better for me yesterday, April 29, a chilly and rainy Saturday, than to sit in the basement utility room, which after weeks of a mess from starting vegetable seedlings was finally reorganized and relatively clean again to graft baby apple trees? I sat at a folding worktable near the laundry sink with all the tools and supplies I needed, including the botanical material: scion wood from four of the apple trees in my backyard that I had harvested during the dormant season in March and kept in the refrigerator. I also had 25 rootstocks that arrived three weeks ago from Raintree Nursery in Washington state and had been resting in a dampened soil mix in a large mucking bin.

The scion wood (meaning the parent wood) will determine the fruit characteristics, while the rootstock will determine the root system, stability, size of a new tree. The rootstock is also a factor in how many years need to pass for the new tree to produce fruit.

I like semi-dwarf trees because they remind me of old-time standard trees rising 30 (more or less) feet above the ground in a pasture or on a farmstead but are to harder to access for pruning and harvesting than the smaller trees.

There are also dwarf rootstocks–quite friendly in size for orchard work while standing flat-footed on the ground. The new dwarf trees also begin to produce fruit in fewer years than a new semi-dwarf tree. Unfortunately, the dwarf ones need to be trellised, and the look of a mature tree with two to three steel T-posts, a center pole, and wires for stability does not prompt the same sense of nostalgia as a larger tree.

A lone Wealthy apple tree on my grandparents’ abandoned farm is a key to the story of my having this urban farm–buying the lot in 2006 and developing it into what it is. I have shared much about this journey in the second volume of my book, The Road I Grew Up On, in the chapter, A Spirit of Homecoming, starting on page 110.

I also have produced a video, telling about the evolution of, guiding principles for, and meaning I derive from this farm.

There were times in my youth when the topic of our family getting an apple tree for our farm would surface. Mother would always respond that my father (an agricultural and mechanical engineer) was not good with trees and that if we were to get a tree, we would have to have our friends Ray Smith or Elwood Olerich plant it for us. With that uninspiring family motif hanging over my head, I never trusted myself to start a tree. Nor had I ever imagined having an orchard. I do have one, though, and am awed by the success every time I pick a Wealthy apple, bite into it, and remember days at Grandpa and Grandma’s farm in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

I learned to graft apple trees in 2005 and have by now propagated many new ones–some planted here at my Burnett place and many distributed to friends. Some are descended from that Wealthy tree, some from a Sweet 16 tree at the Gary and Kathy Dahl farm, and some from other sources such as Steven and Ethy Cannon in Ames, Steve Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa, and SeedSavers Exchange. Although I have hardly any more ground to place a new tree here on my Burnett farm, I am still hooked on the idea of passing along some of this apple heritage. Indeed, it is more than merely an apple heritage.

As much as grafting means to me, I find it easy to procrastinate, risking not getting the job done in due time. That is partially a result of having such a large variety of urban farming chores and other activities that demand my attention. It becomes easy to worry that something will go wrong with either the scion wood or rootstock if I were to wait much longer to do the grafting. A day finally comes, surprisingly, and the process begins by clearing the space, finding the tools and supplies that had been put back in the cupboards a year ago, and establishing the right presence of mind. Once I begin the grafting process, however, I am mesmerized and feel extremely wholesome and healthy. My self-doubts and angst about current political news, especially the autocratic legislation happening in Iowa and other states, taking flight.

Yes, a person has to pay attention and deal with frustrations such as the cutting tool not being as aligned and sharp as it should be or the room getting cluttered with wood scraps, water, soil, and mud with a risk that the graft union might be contaminated. Another challenge is that of having enough scion wood of an appropriate diameter (about a quarter of inch) to match the diameter of the rootstock, making precision cuts, fitting the scion and rootstock wood together, and using Buddy Tape to seal the graft union.

The trees I grafted yesterday are resting in what might be called a curing or healing chamber–lying on a bed of moist wood shaving in a large wooden box in the basement. Sometimes, I need to run a space heater to keep the temperature in the mid-60’s for the most effective healing.

Once the scion wood on each tree begins to create leaves in perhaps as long as a month from now, I will transfer the tree to a RootMaker pot filled with a soil mix and set it outside in an area protected from rabbits. My success rate has morphed from near perfect the first year when I grafted forty-plus trees at my apartment in Gilbert after attending an Iowa State University Extension workshop. I had started with 50 rootstocks and calculate that I had an 88 percent success rate that year. One year, I had only a 20 percent rate. I never quite know the exact cause of the failures. Fortunately, I have more excellent than poor years of grafting. Cross my fingers for success this year.

I might be able to find a space for one more tree in my orchard, otherwise, I will be looking for new homes for the new trees late this summer with the idea of people transplanting them at healthy new homes in mid-September. If interested in having one or more, contact me.

My inventory should include:

Wealthy descended from my grandparents’ Weathy tree in Pocahontas County, Iowa

Sweet 16 descended from Gary and Kathy Dahl’s farm in Pocahontas County, Iowa

Razor Russet descended from Steven and Ethy Cannon’s urban farm in Ames

Hamilton descended from Seed Saver’s Exchange but unable to find further information at the time of this post.