Johnny Appleseed lives on in the public imagination as a young man scattering apple seeds across the Midwest, with productive orchards springing up in his wake. Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman was a real person, but the popular image of his methods is a myth. He established many nurseries, but not by planting seeds, rather by grafting.
The ancient technique of grafting may be more important than you think. A seed, or “pip,” is the result of chance pollination between male pollen and the female flower germ cell. Its genetics are unique and unpredictable. If we were to plant a pip from a Granny Smith apple, it would not grow into a Granny Smith tree. It would probably bear fruit of low quality, and we would have to wait seven to ten years for the disappointing result.
The Chinese were the first to solve this predicament, thousands of years ago. By carefully splicing, or “grafting” a small piece of budding wood cut from a fruit tree of known, reliable quality onto a seed-grown sapling, they learned that the “graft union” would heal over quickly. And from the budwood would grow a tree of the desired variety.
The practice of grafting spread throughout the globe, and remained virtually unchanged until fairly recently, as researchers began to shift their attention to the importance of the root system. In the last century, different rootstocks have been developed to control tree size, soil adaptability, and other characteristics. Dwarfing rootstocks are now available to maintain a tree at virtually any desired size, and to bear fruit quickly after planting.
Grafting is primarily a dormant season, winter activity that many home orchardists look forward to, even as gardeners are pouring over their seed catalogs. The techniques are easily learned, usually requiring nothing more than a sharp knife and electrician’s tape. You may graft onto saplings or mature trees, using different methods. Most familiar fruit types can be successfully grafted, with some limitations. Stone fruit budwood can only be grafted onto stone fruit rootstock, pome fruits (apple, pear, quince, etc.) onto pome fruit rootstock, etc. Apples are particularly easy to graft, offering consistent success for the beginner.
During winter pruning, budwood (or “scion wood”) is clipped from dormant trees, refrigerated, and given away at regional “scion exchange” events, where hundreds of rare and antique varieties are made available. Some nurseries sell scion wood online, and you might also get clippings from a friend or neighbor with an excellent tree.
New trees may be propagated at home, by grafting scion wood onto dwarfing rootstock bought at a nursery, onto a sapling grown from seed (resulting in a full-sized tree), or onto a sucker cut from the roots of an established tree. If you already have a wild or volunteer tree such as a crab apple or sour plum, a fruitless ornamental, or maybe an established nursery tree that bears disappointing fruit, don’t replant! Graft it over to a premium fruiting variety—or varieties. Perhaps the most fun is in creating novel “multi-graft” trees. Grafting several different varieties onto the same tree is also highly practical, yielding the enjoyment of diverse fruit grown in limited space, better cross-pollination, and an extended harvest made possible by grafting early, middle, and late season varieties.
Heirloom fruits propagated by grafting offer up an explosion of flavor and variety that is in contrast to the few familiar commercial strains bred more for productivity and visual appeal. Grafting can also literally bring history to your backyard. When you bite into the venerable Spitzenberg apple—a richly flavored late season variety—you are sharing a culinary experience with Thomas Jefferson, who grew them at Monticello. Calville Blanc d’Hiver, the classic French dessert apple, was grown in the orchards of Louis XIII. You’ll never find the colonial favorites Rhode Island Greening or Roxbury Russet in a supermarket, but you can graft and enjoy them at home every autumn.
YouTube is an excellent resource to learn grafting techniques, and the best advice is just to get out and try it yourself.
treesofantiquity.com: California nursery specializing in heirloom/antique fruit varieties
orangepippin.com: comprehensive resource for fruit varieties and orchards
Maple Valley Orchards: source of scion wood
California Rare Fruit Growers Association: lectures, demonstrations, tasting events, annual scion exchanges