Please help me top work this apple tree

I know for most of you, grafting and top-working trees are a regular part of your orchard work. However, as a relative newcomer to the fruit growing arena I have little experience with either. I have a very large, old apple tree of unknown age and variety that I want to cut off and then graft one or more other apples back on it. This is a very important project for me because this tree was the origin of my decision to start a small fruit orchard and I’ve literally built that orchard around it. Problem is, this tree has always produced ugly, poor tasting fruit. I have enough small apple trees that I was able to harvest 3 varieties of scion late this winter. I wrapped them in damp newspaper, put in plastic bags, and kept in a refrigerator ever since. The weather here in TN (border of zone 6b/7a) has been in upper 60’s to low 70’s for about a week. Most of my trees are starting to put out leaves, so I think its time to get started on this important project that I’ve looked forward to all year. I’m going to be posting several photos and I hope several of you will offer advice. Others have already expressed an interest in following this project and learning from it, so hopefully this thread and the advice you offer will serve to help others-both now and in the future. Thanks in advance for any help you may offer. I’ll try to provide photos at every step for the benefit of all.
The first photo is of the tree as it looked a couple weeks ago after I cut one big limb off. The next photos are after I cut it off today…so let the ideas flow! My plan is just to graft like crazy…bark graft 2-3 scions where each big limb was. Then I’ll graft several of the waterspouts and small branches, and even some of the suckers. Surely I can get SOMETHING to take, and really I’d be happy with just one single graft that has potential to grow into a new tree…though I would be more fun to have a “fruit salad” multi-variety tree.

The rake is to show size perspective

I really don’t have any advice to offer as I’m also a newbie but I will be following your project to see how it goes. Good luck.

I probably would have left the limbs a little bit longer but I’m sure you will have success. Apple grafts are pretty tough to screw up and even if your bark grafts do fail for some reason you’ll have the new shoots to graft onto next spring. Not sure if this is what you are planning but I’d stick with one variety per stump when you do your bark grafts. Good luck.

Don’t bother grafting on the small stuff, there is a lot more sap flowing through the big stuff so much more likely to get takes there. If you re not experienced with bark grafts watch several videos before doing it. Your success should be good, big apple stocks like that usually take new varieties well.


Dave Wilson has some excellent videos on top grafting that have already been posted on this forum. They follow the complete process including follow up. Those videos are how I learned how to graft.

Thanks all. I have definitely watched all the videos referenced and feel fairly confident. I do plan to only graft one variety per limb. I’m a little disappointed to hear that I should have left the limbs longer, but I’m sure it won’t be my first mistake on this. But I already have a question I really need input on.
I made the cuts shown in the last photos late yesterday afternoon and was going to do the grafting today but I woke up to pouring rain and its been raining ever since. So…what now?
1.) Will it hurt my chances if I wait a day or two for the rain to end before doing my grafts?
2.) I’m not completely opposed to putting on rain gear and going out and doing the grafts in the pouring rain, but I fear if everything is soaking wet when I seal it up it may increase the chances of mold and rot occurring. So which is better, waiting for rain to pass or grafting in the rain?

Not sure if waiting would be a problem but I doubt it. Are you keeping that one damaged branch on the tree?

Good question. That one branch that is left was intended to be the nursing branch, which most people and videos recommend. The damage was the result of the last big limb I cut falling onto it and damaging it. I really hate that it was damaged, but I don’t think its bad enough to prevent it from serving its purpose as a nurse branch.

BTW…just about everything that can go wrong has already done so. First, the aforementioned damage to the nursing branch. Then, right after I cut all the top off, it starts raining and leaves me with a question of which is worse: grafting while everything is soaking wet or grafting 3-4 days after I cut the top(s) off the tree. Then, on top of all this, the weather has gone from a week of 60-70’s (78 yesterday) temps to the coming week of…wait for it…upper 20’s!!! So I’ve got a damaged tree, an aging cut that’s soaking wet, and coming temperatures that are going to be way colder than what everyone says grafting should be done in. Not sure what else can go wrong!

You’re learning some important lessons. I never precut my trees, when
I’m grafting. They get cut and grafted at the same time. I don’t know, if
the rain will have any effect on the host branch, but it looks like you’re
going to find out. Let us know what happens.

Like rayrose, I also do not precut the trees. I don’t want the area to dry out or get contaminated. If I did need to precut, for instance pruning to make some room to maneuver, I would make a fresh cut at least a couple inches further just prior to grafting.

I am most definitely learning by this, and I appreciate your help. I had already thought about going back when the weather breaks and cutting a couple more inches off each big llimb so I’d have fresh material to graft to. However, just as @jsvand5 pointed out above, I cut the branches too short so there is nothing left to cut off and still have multi-branch graft sites (in other words, my only remaining choice would be to cut the whole top off and leave just one big stump instead of the stump and big branch stubs I wanted.) The branch sites were intended to give me (1) a larger number of grafting sites so as to increase my chances of at least one making it and 2) a better opportunity to turn this into a multi-variety tree. SO I hate to go back now and cut all that off. but you all feel strongly that the rain and passage of 2 days has ruined the other grafting sites then I will cut the whole top/branch stubs off and just go with the one main stump.
Again, I’m definitely learning by this experience but I am actually enjoying my lesson.

Stephen Hayes has a you tube video about this. Could you wait a year and let the tree resprout and graft on those sprouts? You would have fresh wood to work with and a reinvigorated tree.

I always pre-cut, I have a high turnover in my orchard and at pruning time I also remove any varieties I don’t want any more by cutting the tree at waist level. I can do this a week or several months before top working the stump. Then, right before grafting cut another inch or so off the top.

One thing I like about this is it also helps me find which trees I am topworking, I just look around the orchard for the stumps. If you only have a couple trees it doesn’t matter, but I can forget what I have where.


That’s good news, Scott. I should be able to do the work tomorrow (4 days after cutting back) but now its really, really cold (maybe as low as 25 F here). Those lows can’t last more than a few days…would you wait for it to warm up or go ahead and do the bark grafts?
Chikn- I’ve seen the Dr. Stephen Hayes video(s) and they are among my favorite. As for the sprouts…I don’t have to wait a year…they don’t show up in the photos very much, but there are actually quite a few sprouts left on the stump (and ground) that I left with the idea that I may graft onto them as well so I’d have more chances of a something taking. Thanks

Don’t even think about grafting at those temps. I used to graft early but had lower success even on relatively easy things like pears. Wait for some lows in the 40s or higher. I myself am still finishing winter pruning, I have done no spraying or grafting yet.


well, you made that pretty clear! And I appreciate it. I hope you understand that I am weighing the possibility of my cuts drying out vs grafting in cold temps, but you were so adamant that I am confident that doesn’t change your opinion. The good news is just 3 days from now we are going to be in mid 60’s by day and low 50’s by night.

I always make my cuts and grafts farther up. Less diameter makes it easier to deal with. 2 scions per limb and done. Cleft or bark. Alright to leave the nurse limb but I would graft it next year, after these new ones are viable, to a different apple. Those are such large diameters that you may need to ring them with 5-6 or more bark grafts. I would get rid of all the small suckers(sprouts). If not they will suck the life out of the old trunk. The reason for so many scions is that will help prevent the bark from dying on one side. If that happens the whole limb could be compromised years down the road. Don’t ask how I know that! Most of the old timers would cleft graft up in the top on 2-3 inch diameters. Cleft grafting some of your crotch wood would be difficult to say the least.

Are those rootstock suckers spouting up all around the tree? You could graft to those instead. (blue)

Or you could cut the double head about 6" lower where the cross-section is round again and the medium sized branch has room for lower cut. Plus you could graft a couple to the nurse branch. (red)

I really appreciated those commends, Murky and Bberry. I definitely should have cut higher up, both because of the smaller diameter it would have left and so I’d have the ability to cut a 2-3 inch section off again if I mess up or-as did happen- if weather or something else prevented my from performing the grafts right away. If I’d left extra then I could now cut 2-3 inches to make sure it hasn’t dried out too much. Also, I plan on doing several grafts per "limb stump) as you said. I was planning on doing that as an insurance policy in case several don’t take, but if it helps keep the “stump” alive that’s just a bonus. If several were to live, I can always thin them out later. Also, my plan for nursery limb was EXACTLY what you said, bberry…let it serve its purpose of keeping the sap moving and keeping the rest of the tree alive in year one, then once the grafts (hopefully!) start to take off, I was going to cut it off and graft another apple to that limb.
Murky, not sure if you saw my prior posts in this thread, but I asked about the idea of grafting those suckers (yes, btw, that is what those are). I think I will still do that as another insurance policy. But scott seemed to think I wouldn’t need that because the big limb bark grafts should take much easier. Glad he has that faith in me…I don’t! ha.
But hey Murky…please explain your recommendation (as shown in red on your neat markup of my photo) of cutting the double head off so I’d just have one larger surface. I thought having the 2 separate grafting points would be much better and give me more chances. Also, I was going to do different varieties on each of those 2 heads (and a different one on the other head). What is the reason you think maybe I should cut the double heads off? Same question…why did you suggest cutting the remaining lower limb stump back more (again, as shown in red by you)? I’m very interested in why you recommend those things…and please understand I’m not doubting you, only trying to understand your reasoning. Thanks.

I suggest the cuts for the same reasons as earlier. Because you will get some desiccation and die back from where the eariler cuts were made as the tree compartmentalizes the wound. You wan’t to graft to juicy, bark-peeling cambium.

If you had left longer stumps, I wouldn’t have suggested cutting the 2 branches down to 1.

You could still graft more than one variety to the the large diameter stub, but you’ll need to be more diligent about keeping track with a diagram and labeling.