Can I graft over this big old crab apple?

Hi folks! Let me preface this by saying that I’ve never grafted anything ever, so don’t assume any skill or experience on my part. In the middle of my little backyard orchard, there’s a big crab apple tree (25’ tall or so). It makes dime-sized crabs, for which I have no use, and it looks like this:

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Can I take the crab out of this apple by cutting it down and grafting over it with scions of something more desirable? If so, what’s the best way to do that? The trunk is about 8" in diameter. The lowest branch starts about six feet off the ground.

Thanks!

Anna

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Anna some of the others could best talk you through grafting over a large tree to preferred varieties. That is a big tree and I can’t see the leaves very well but are you certain it is a crabapple tree?

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The leaves are like apple leaves and the fruits sure look and taste like crab apples… Is there some other species that would be similar enough to be easily confused?

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Your probably correct about it being an apple I just couldn’t see it well. If there is any doubt on your part just post a few close up pictures.

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The good news: apples are the easiest species to graft.

The bad news: top-working is harder then grafting pencil-sized sticks to other pencil-sized sticks. I’ve got decent experience with the latter, but not so much luck with the former, so I will also defer to others on the forum on how to best do it. But it can be done, and using mature roots like those will get you to fruit much faster than planting fresh.

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This is an ambitious project for your first attempt to graft

Here is a link about top grafting apples

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A large tree with a large established root system needs continued support in order to survive. That’s usually accomplished by leaving some “nursing” branches. The form of your tree makes that difficult, there are no low branches that could be left until your bark grafts get established. I cut down several large wild trees and placed a minimum of 6 scions on each. While the scions readily took, those trees with no nursing branches didn’t survive their first winter, there simply was too little top grow to support that huge root system over winter. I lost most of those trees by simply being overly aggressive in cutting the tree down. However, most of those trees are now pushing suckers that I’ll be able to graft upon.

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What you describe is possible, but as JDARL says, it’s an ambitious start.

It sounded to me like you mean to cut the tree off a few feet above the ground and then bark graft. I don’t know how the tree will respond to that- I assume it will either send out new shoots or throw out suckers from the roots, but I just don’t know. Somebody else will, though.

And if that first branch is six feet off the ground I’m guessing your tree is a bit taller than 25 feet, and that’s just too tall! I’m tempted to suggest you cut the tree off about 12 feet from the ground, and then see what you have to work with. You might be able to graft to the remaining branches and train the new growth to a horizontal habit.

And like Andy says, you can kill the tree doing this, and it does need nurse branches. I hope others help with this question.

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You would have to graft several branches no bigger than 3-4 inches each with a bark graft. In one year the tree would be just as big as it is now.

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Thank you all for your input. I do have concerns that taking it down to a stump might just cause the root system to die of starvation, but the branches it has now are so danged high, I’m not sure that it’s reasonable to graft onto them… I’m not in a terrible hurry, though. I don’t mind taking some time to figure out the options and/or do some pruning to the tree, if that helps.

If I take off most of the top but leave some of the lower growth to keep it alive, is there a chance of it pushing new branches below, so I would have a nurse branch at a reasonable height later?

Yes, that’s certainly a possibility. It would stress the tree and force a lot of water sprouts. It could work to your advantage if some sprout from the lower portion of the trunk. No guarantees but if you have an undesirable tree it may be worth a try.

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I had a crabapple just like your tree. I cut it off at ground level and it grew about 10 shoots from The Roots. I then pruned those back to only four, and let them grow all year long, then grafted to all the branches on those four shoots the following spring. So now I have 25 different Apple varieties from that same Crabapple root system. I used cleft grafts, and each branch was roughly the same size, or slightly larger than my scions.

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go on U-Tube and start watching apple videos like Skillcults grafting videos, make a frankentree out of it with a hundred different kinds of apples, it’s hard to say much looking at a tree with all the branches and leaves on it, but it can be done, just takes time. IF it was mine, I’d start by taking 15 ft right out of the top first and let a new leader take over

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Anna, I think everything you’ve read here is good advice, and a lot of it will be useable to you. I was in the process of writing a long, detailed treatise on what to do with your tree, but I cancelled it because I thought it was just too much all at once.

After all, you’re talking about rebuilding a tree and you still have grafting skills to learn. So here’s a modest proposal.

I see (in your bottom picture) a couple-three relatively small branches. One is coming off of your lowest branch (it’s on the left of the picture) and one looks to be coming right from the trunk behind the tree, and there’s one that’s a little bigger a couple of feet above the first one.

This spring when the tree is just leafing out and the leaves are the size of a thumbnail or so cut those branches off about 8 inches from their points of origin and graft to them. When grafting time comes people here will help with details and probably scions.

But that grafting will come easier to you if you get some other practice first. What I like to do is get some young prunings, especially water sprouts, and just cut them up and put them back together. That’ll show you where your weak spots are, help with your knife, alignment, and wrapping skills, make you wish you had three hands, and so on. You’ll cut yourself twice (always have paper towels and bandaids handy!), get covered with sticky stuff, and swear a lot. It’s fun!

Then in 2020 you’ll be much better positioned to dive into your crab project.

I hope this helps- be sure to let us know how it works for you.

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There are as many ways to graft that tree as you can shake a stick at.!
( I agree with marknmt )
Practice in a chair on the ground first.before you try it on top of a ladder .

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Anna, That is a beautiful tree you have there. But I can understand you wanting more edible fruit. We have had success bringing down in size fairly large 25-35 yr old trees but they all had lower branches or low growing multiple trunks, not a single tall one such as yours. The key for us was to do the work slowly over 5-7 years, reducing the tree little by little, no more than maybe a 1/4 a year. There was still a lot of subsequent sucker/watersprout growth pruning needed in subsequent years on some of them – a challenge but doable. It depends on the tree.

You might be able to bring your tree down similarly if you can get up into the top to cut off some of the top each year down to a handy good sized side limb till you get it down to where you want it. It looks like you have some decent smallish branches at the lower level that could be grafted over and encouraged into a wide umbrella like shape (variety selection would be important). It would take some dilligent every year training-pruning but would be your fruit down lower though the main scaffold is high. You might also consider leaving a top layer original crab (think pollination, spiced crabapples, beauty, bird distraction from your grafted apples?).

There are some previous discussions that might help give you an idea of what might be involved. Search for “top working old trees”.

Winter is a great time for planning and imagining! Sue

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You guys are the best! Thank you all for your suggestions and advice. Looks like I’ve got some learning to do (which I love, and expected anyway, so that’s a good thing).

It’s really helpful to have some direction, even if there seems not to be a single right way to tackle this tree… So I’ll probably be debating with myself exactly how to go about it for awhile, but in the meantime, I can practice butchering sticks - and hopefully not my own fingers. :slight_smile:

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Grafting is not difficult. Just do it! Winter is the final arbiter of what new growth survives.

I cannot locate where I read that some of the crab apple taste/bitterness will be imparted to the apples eventually produced. Be aware of this. The fruit may be less than you expect.

You have a mature crab apple tree. It will not take to its new life easily. 5 to 7 years of deliberate progress is a reasonable expectation. There appears to be plenty of sunlight and space around your tree. I’d be tempted to simply plant a real apple tree about 10 feet away from the crab apple tree while trying to bring your crab apple around to a new life. You can graft onto both and in 5-7 years, you will have to make a choice as to which one of the two trees dominate.

I began grafting real apples scions to existing crab apple trees in the spring of 2018. The Redfield scion “took” the best putting out nearly 4 feet of new growth while the other scion responses were much more subdued. This may be a fluke, but Redfield was the only scion of many I grafted that has crab apple in it’s parentage. From this simple experiment, when I return to do more crab apple tree grafting in the spring of 2019, I will mostly choose scions of apple varieties that have crab apple in their lineage.

Take photos over the years if you can so that others may benefit from your experience.

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While you asked specifically for help with this tree . . . may I suggest?
Enjoy this tree for what it is, perhaps for shade, bird food, etc., and just plant new apple trees that you want for fruit? “Grow A Little Fruit Tree” is my working document right now, and you can plant 4 trees within a foot to 18" of each other in another part of your yard. While perhaps not as challenging (or fun), you might get fruit sooner and more reliably. But, if you are going after the challenge . . . let me get out of your way!!! :slight_smile:

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@Momlongerwalk - Thanks for your thoughts! I do enjoy crab apple trees, but we have several of them on the property, and this one is in the middle of my orchard. I’m not really pinched for space; the grafting project is more an idea I’ve hatched out of curiosity than necessity. But I also have other apple trees planted - I definitely don’t want to put all my eggs in this basket!

@georgep - Interesting. I hadn’t heard of apples grafted onto crabs developing a crabby flavor. In fact, I grew up with apple trees that my father had grafted onto wild crab apple roots, and as far as I could tell, the fruit tasted fine. If you come across a reference on that, I’d be interested to read more.