If you're looking to affordably grow your home orchard, grafting your own trees can be a great way to plant many varieties on a tiny budget. But if you're new to grafting, knowing which rootstock to use - and where to find it - can be frustrating. I hope this post points you in some helpful directions for getting your hands on just what you need to expand your own home orchard.
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When we first bought our home, we knew we wanted to plant apple trees - and lots of them. But whew - at $30 or more for quality heirloom apple trees, it would take us years to afford all the cultivars on our wish list.
I was a little discouraged for a bit there...and then I discovered grafting. If I could learn to graft my own fruit trees, It would be a way to start a sizeable orchard on a very tiny budget.
What is grafting?
Fruit tree grafting is when you take a budded stem of one tree (called a scion - this is the variety you want fruit from), and join it onto the roots of another tree (called a rootstock, and generally chosen for desirable characteristics like its height, pest and disease resistance, and hardiness). There are many grafting techniques that can be used, but all involve placing the surface of the scion in contact with the cut surface of the rootstock, so that they can grow together and form one tree.
Nearly all apple trees sold by nurseries are grafted. Because of the way apples propagate, it is very rare for them to produce seeds that would grow into a tree bearing the same fruit as the parent. To ensure that trees will produce fruit of the desired variety, they need to be grafted onto suitable rootstock.
Before a bare root tree that you order from an online nursery arrives to you, it's been through several steps, all of which contribute to the very justifiable cost of buying a young tree:
- The rootstock had to be grown - either from seed, or more likely through clonal propagation
- Scion wood from the desired variety had to be collected in winter, while the parent tree was dormant
- The scion had to be grafted onto the rootstock by someone skilled at grafting
- The grafted tree was then probably grown out in a nursery bed for another season
- It was then likely dug up and sent to the nursery you purchased it from, where it probably spent the winter in cold storage
When you think about all the steps that young feathered tree has been through before reaching you, it's no wonder it costs what it does! The great thing is, it's possible to do all or most of these steps yourself, drastically reducing the cost of planting quality fruit trees of many varieties.
To make this possible however, you're going to need rootstock, and if you're grafting as many varieties as I have on my list, you may need quite a bit. So where do you get all this rootstock?
Where to source rootstock for grafting
There are 2 primary considerations when sourcing rootstock. First, what qualities do you need in your grown trees? Since rootstocks convey many of their attributes (like size, hardiness, and disease resistance) to the character of the entire tree, it's worth taking the time and effort to select your rootstock very carefully.
Are you on a smaller property, where you need trees that will stay smaller and more easily manageable? You may want to consider a dwarfing rootstock - something like a Bud 9 or Geneva 11. However, if hardiness and longevity are the primary traits that you're looking for, a standard cultivar like Antonovka might be the right choice. It's a great idea to study the different types of rootstock available, so you can knowledgeably choose which would be good fits for your property and your orchard plans. I think this page from Washington State University does a great job of explaining the traits inherent to the different commonly available varieties, and it's a good place to start!
The other major consideration is cost. Even though rootstock is cheap - less than $5 each when ordered online, it still adds up if you're planting a lot of trees and have a nearly-nonexistent budget. In that case, you'll might be most interested in the options that involve propagating your own rootstock. Either way, spending some time studying the traits of various rootstock varieties will lay a good foundation for helping you source the best material for your orchard.
Ordering rootstock online
FROM A NURSERY
The benefit of ordering from a nursery is that you can generally order exactly the rootstock you're looking for, in as small a quantity as you like - often there's no minimum order. The downside is that while the rootstocks themselves aren't too pricey (usually $3-5 each), shipping can significantly add to your cost. If you happen to live near a nursery that offers a good selection of rootstock, and allows free pickup, then you've really got it made! Here are some reputable online nurseries that supply rootstock in quantities geared for the home grower.
FROM AN ORCHARD SUPPLIER
If you're looking for a large number of rootstocks, you might do best ordering from a company that primarily supplies orchards and commercial growers. Sometimes the minimum order is as high as 100 rootstocks, but the prices per stem are significantly lower. They also may offer a wider variety of rootstock cultivars than you can find at many nurseries. Here are some good suppliers to check out:
On important thing to keep in mind when ordering rootstock online, is that regardless of when you order, it's shipped in the spring - usually about March through May. While nurseries geared for the small home grower usually have availability of most
FROM ANOTHER ORCHARDIST
The internet can be a wonderful place. There are many Facebook groups and other online forums for folks who have caught the "grafting bug". Sometimes another grower may have ordered more rootstock than they needed, or grown out far more than they themselves can use this season. Especially if it's a bit late in the ordering season, and you're having a hard time finding what you need, it can be worthwhile asking around to see if anyone has extra rootstock you can buy from them.
Propagate your own rootstock
If you're really looking to spend as little as possible starting your trees, growing out your own rootstock can be a good option. There are a few different ways to do this.
Create a "stool bed"
This is the most common way of propagating rootstocks for a small orchard, and it's very easy. Start by planting a rootstock of the variety you're looking to propagate in early spring. Let it grow for a year, caring for it as you would any other apple tree. You want it to get very well established, because you're going to chop the whole thing down, and it needs an excellent root system. In late winter or early spring, cut the entire tree close to the ground. The tree should then send up several shoots from the roots.
When the shoots are about 6 inches tall, begin mounding good light soil around them, mounding the dirt up to half the height of the shoots. As the shoot grow taller, continue mounding dirt around them, never covering more than half the height of the shoots. After they go dormant in late fall or early winter, careful pull back the soil, and break the shoots free from the mother trunk, being careful not to hurt the roots put out by each shoot. These rooted shoots are your "crop" of rootstocks for this year, and can be kept carefully in cool storage until you're ready to graft them in early spring.
After they've been removed from the base of the original tree, make sure the dirt is all cleared away and the top of trunk, where you cut the tree at ground level, is again slightly above ground. In the spring, it should send out another crop of young shoots, and you'll repeat the process of mounding around the stems, then separating from the trunk, just the same as the first year. Properly cared for, a "stool bed" like this can continue producing young rootstocks for quite a number of years.
Several years ago, I had planted a grafted tree which ended up being eaten by deer while it was young. Rather than call it a loss, I was able to maintain the Antonovka rootstock that the tree was on, turning into a stool bed using the method I just described. It has now sent up two generations of good rootstock, and is going strong.
This is a method of rootstock propagation that I haven't yet tried, so I can't speak personally to its effectiveness or ease. The method generally used for air layering is done on young first year growth, or water sprouts. With a sharp knife, begin by making 3-5 slits or small rectagles in the bark, cutting down to the cambium layer, and spacing these around the circumference of the branch. Dust this area with rooting hormone, then wrap with wet sphagnum moss. Cover the area securely with plastic wrap, making sure the wrap covers the entire section with the moss, and several inches on either side. Wait patiently until you see roots coming through the sphagnum moss. Once you do, you can take a pair of pruning shears, cut below the root ball, and carefully unwrap the plastic. Leave the moss intact as part of the new root ball, so you don't risk damaging the roots.
Dig rooted suckers from an established tree
This is another method of rootstock propagation that I've had excellent success with. Sometimes a tree will put up small shoots, called suckers, from around the base. If these are coming up from a grafted tree, than they are probably growing from the rootstock, rather than the scion, and would be of that variety. If, however, a grafted tree is planted too deeply, with the soil line above the graft, then it's possible the suckers could be from the scion.
Since a rootstock passes some characteristics on to the resulting tree, it's helpful to know which cultivar any suckers you might want to use as rootstock are from.
To establish each sucker as a separate rootstock, you'll need to dig it up and remove it from the mother tree. Sometimes you can just give a tug, and a sucker will pull up easily with a few roots attached. In my experience though, it's usually helpful to have a strong, sharp shovel or even a hatchet handy. I generally clear away as much soil as I can, right down to the base of sucker, then slide the blade of the shovel between the sucker and the trunk of the tree, avoiding any small roots that the sucker has put out. One sharp strike to the shovel, and the sucker usually breaks cleanly away with a knobby little bundle of roots attached.
Once the sucker has been separated from the parent tree, it's important to make sure it doesn't dry out. Particularly if it's a windy day, or you're digging up many suckers all at once, you may want to have a bucket of water to pop the separated suckers into, or a damp cloth to wrap them in.
You may find that you want to grow out them out a bit so that they're a little larger and more established before grafting. Perhaps it's the variety of tree I'm working with, but I find that suckers do not tend to gain as much girth in a season as shoots from a stool bed, and I often remove suckers that are pretty tiny for grafting. If you find yourself with diminutive suckers as well, you may want to pop them right into a "nursery" bed, or even into a large pot where they can grow out until you're ready to graft. I have about 20 small suckers that I dug up several months ago, and they're growing out very nicely in my kitchen right now.
Grow your own rootstock from seed
This last method does work just fine, and it's very easy and inexpensive to grow apples from seed. However, it's worth noting that this method is more likely to be a gamble in terms of the resulting variety of rootstock that will grow. Because most apples do not reproduce true to type, but rather end up with characteristics of both the tree that bore the apple the seeds were saved from, and the tree(s) that pollinated it - most apple seeds will result in offspring of uncertain quality.
One significant exception is the apple variety, Antonovka, which grows mostly true to seed. (It also happens to make an excellent, hardy, full-height rootstock) This means that even though Antonovka is not self fertile, and requires another apple variety for pollination, trees grown from its seeds will very strongly favor the mother tree, producing an apple nearly identical to the one it came from. If you'd like to try growing Antonovka seedlings, Sheffield's Seed Co. seems to be one of the more reputable suppliers that offers it.
You can, of course, plant apple seeds from any apple you like - if you're not terribly concerned about some of the usual rootstock criteria like height or hardiness, then saving all your apple seeds and planting them for rootstock can be a very frugal and perfectly joyful way to go. So many wonderful trees have resulted from chance seedlings. In fact, my own propagation from suckers at the base of my old backyard apple tree is a bit of a gamble as well. The tree is so old, I really don't know if it was grafted or from a seedling. What I do know is that it's extremely hardy, and disease resistant, and it's absolutely thrived here in my Zone 4b climate. I have a lot of faith that trees grown on rootstock taken from this tree will do very well, growing on the same acreage.
Learning to graft, propagating trees, and planning an orchard are all such joy-filled undertakings that can come along with starting a homestead. I hope these tips for getting rootstock might help as you work toward making your own orchard a reality.
Best of luck!!
Read Next: How to Choose a Grafting Knife