Simple Q's on Topworking a tree

(Please remember I’m relatively new to fruit trees and grafting)

I have an old apple tree that right in the middle of my new orchard and in the exact spot where I’d want to plant a new apple tree, but the apples it produces are just awful tasting (to me). The tree was here when I bought my place so I know nothing about it whatsoever. Long story short, it would be the PERFECT candidate in the perfect location for me to cut back to a 3-4 foot “stump” and then try to graft some kind of new apple tree on top of it. I have access to good scion wood. In short, this is an extremely important project to me and my little orchard so I REALLY want to make it work. I’ve watched several videos but still have some questions. Please help.

  1. One big question I have is when is the best time to cut the top off of the trunk/stump? I would assume cutting off the same day I do the grafts would be best, but I can also think of reasons that may not be best. So please tell me whether I should cut the rest of the tree (except a nurse branch) off. Do it at time of graft, or do it now while tree is in full dormancy?

  2. What is best height to cut the big tree back to? (btw, tree is about 8-10 inches diameter)

  3. WHat is best graft for this? I assume I should do the one where I cut the big tree bark open near where it was cut off and place properly carved scion wood there (bark or cleft?). Correct? It also crossed my mind to do this: on the low limb I was going to leave as a nurse limb (its about 6 inches) there are some water spouts close to the main trunk. I’ve heard its easier to graft to same size wood so mabey I should just graft pencil sized scion to a pencil sized waterspout that is close enough to main trunk that it could easily become the new tree?

  4. whatever I do, should I put something (tanglefoot or tollier seal wax) over the entire cut-off top part of trunk?

Anything else I should know or read or watch to help me pull this off. Its such an important project for me that I’ve thought about it all winter. Last year I didn’t have very good success rates with regular grafts, but I NEED this one.

Finally, for what its worth, I am probably going to do the exact same thing to convert a Bradford pear to a fruit pear. So if there is any difference between doing this to an apple vs a pear, let me know.

Thanks, everyone.


You won’t do a cleft graft on a 10 inch stump. That would be a bark graft. Also since this is a learning experience go in with the idea that if at first you don’t succeed try again. By that I mean if bark grafts fail plan your next attempts which might be T or chip budding on water sprouts. If those fail you might get to those cleft grafts when water sprouts reach 3/4 inch or larger. Eventually you will succeed and learn a lot to boot.

Thanks a lot, fruit nut. I needed a little moral support as much as technique assistance! Everyone on here talks about grafts as if they are just as certain as planting a tree…you decide what variety you want, get that scion, graft it onto your rootstock or cut tree, and whala! Wait for your new tree to grow! My experience has been abysmal. I’m too ashamed to give my percentage successes, but they’re very low. (Though I honestly have had a few takes on apples and pears. 0 on stone fruits!) And I was pretty sure I had my terminology wrong which is why I just hyphenated the 2 I thought were most likely (bark/cleft). Now I know more. Thankis for the help and encouragement! I’m still open for answers, though, especially on when is the best time to cut the top off the big tree to prepare it for bark grafting…the day of or before? Thanks all.

I cut the same day I top work. Though pretty sure a few days before isnt going to have a negative affect. You could cut some of the main scaffolds down close to the trunk and give yourself more grafting locations, additionally more varieties if you choose. Bark grafting would be my reccomendation for your project.

Grafts are never a sure thing- it’s always good to do extras. I had a shockingly good (compared to my previous year) result last year with apples and pears. So, it turned out that I had a lot of extra grafts. That’s not a bad thing though- now I’ve got some choice.

I like the idea of grafting to multiple sides (cutting the scaffolds short) and grafting to a few waterspounts, just in case.

Adding several varieties makes it fun. That’s what I did with the first apple tree I decided was worthless- it now has 20+ cultivars.

Thanks for the replies. Bob, one of the few things I knew for sure that I wanted to do on this project was to use several varieties and do several grafts at multiple locations. I also appreciate the advice about cutting scaffolds back and using waterspouts as grafting points. As I said above, I was interested in trying that, but waterspouts have such a bad reputation (based on most people saying they should be removed during pruning, etc) that I wasn’t certain they were acceptable for that purpose.
I also appreciate Turkeycreek’s answer about when to cut the tree. THanks.

Cityman, if you can take a nice picture of the tree and post it here, I bet folks could give you a lot of good suggestions of what and where to cut for grafts.

Here’s a pic from July of one of the apples I top-worked last April. I only removed the top tier of the tree (I still wanted to keep a few branches of the original) and made 12 grafts for 4 varieties. I did this by making the grafts further out from the tree, at the point where the wood matched the caliper of the scion. 11 of the 12 grafts ended up taking, so I’ve got a few extras. If I knew all would take, I would have made fewer grafts closer to the trunk. But, I don’t mind this much- I’ll just need to be more careful in pruning off growth from close to the trunk.

The graft in the center is from Kazakhstan (613958- “Strange hazelnut-bananna flavor”) and was the first time I’ve gotten fruit the year I grafted. Regrettably, I wasn’t sure at what point it would be ripe and picked it way too early, so it didn’t have much of any flavor.

Stephen Hayes has some good videos where he top works his existing trees. Here is an overview video where he shows the results 1 year later:

Cityman…imo turkeycreek offered the best suggestion for your particular situation I think. Instead of going for the bark grafts on the stump why not do as turkeycreek suggests and cut some of the heavier 1-3" limbs back and graft those? This circumvents a lot of potential hazards I think.
I’m certainly no expert grafter, but I’ve had super success with cleft grafts because they are simply easier for us beginners. If you use turkey’s suggestion the nurse limb(s) will be easy to choose, the grafting method (cleft…if you so choose) will be easier with a higher success rate for novices like us AND as turkey points out it gives you the opportunity to use more selections which also may ultimately improve your chances.
With a strong tree like that and multiple cleft grafts using good wood at the right time I bet your take rate is over 90% and really should be near 100%.
There really is no advantage that I can see in cutting away all those big scaffold branches…they’ve already spent time growing that big delivery system, so take advantage of that.

Take the safe route that provides more versatility and is more forgiving. If you saw it off to a stump and miss on the bark or rind grafts (which you probably wouldn’t, but could) without a good nurse limb you might not have another chance.
Use latex caulking as a sealant (cheaper it is the better) and choose a brown or black color which you can paint white or gray later when it gets hot…if you want.
I personally think the good 3M “Super 33” tape is an awesome choice for around the cleft split and over the top. It’s elasticity and supreme weather performance provide additional inward pressure holding the joined woods tightly together without harming the tissue. It is used and recommended a lot by grafters. Using silicone rubber non-fusing insulating tape before the “33” is far better yet. Using these two products makes sealants totally unnecessary.
I agree with everyone else on the use of parafilm over the scion to prevent dessication. There really isn’t anything else that I can think of that could work as well and it’s cheap at less than $3 a roll shipped.
I really think turkey’s suggestion is the best given the situation.

I convert old apple trees on an extremely regular basis. I don’t like to butcher the things and instead work gradually, grafting onto well positioned water sprouts. It takes a little extra time where I train the water sprouts over existing scaffolds but the trees remain attractive and productive throughout the process and the grafts can begin producing the new varieties of fruit in as little as two years.

Trees need to be aggressively pruned so that the grafts are very well lit down where you want the permanent scaffold, but no more so than if you were pruning for high quality fruit.

This method also reduces rotting of the heart wood.

Its customary to say thanks when people offer suggestions, but I want each of you to know how very sincere I am when I say I am deeply grateful to each one of you for taking the time to write detailed, genuinely helpful suggestions. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this little project to me and my orchard. I have thought about it for a solid year and cannot wait to do it. This tree is located near the road where everyone I know can see it, so I must confess that part of my motivation is showing the world that I can graft a tree! :slight_smile: Also, because it was one of the few trees that existed on my property 3 years ago when I bought the place, I really used it as a cornerstone for my whole orchard. So it’s centrally located in my orchard, RIGHT where I’d want to put a new tree. I also like the idea of being able to say I saved the tree and that it existed before anything. I know I’m boring everyone to death now, but the point I’m trying to make is that even though most of you do this kind of thing all the time, I don’t, and for all the aforementioned reasons and more, this little project is very important to me. SO thanks again for all your help, suggestions, photos, and videos. There aren’t many (if any) fruit tree videos on youtube that I haven’t watched, but had been quite a while so reviewing was very helpful. I, too, like Stephen Hayes videos very much and have seen most of them several times! Bobvance, you are always helpful and that photo was both informative AND inspiring. Its fun to see a successful graft just to remind me how “cool” they are when they work.
OK, aside from considering and following all the advice above, I think I will post a photo of my tree so you guys will be in a better position to offer advice. I honestly think it is the perfect tree for all of this because it has 2-3 extremely large limbs that could all be called “trunk”, and 2 large, low limbs that could be nurse limbs, and several water spouts coming off all these “trunks” and limbs. So please don’t abandon me yet…when I post the photo I’ll need your help more than ever. Thanks everyone.
edit: By the way, I am absolutely in love with the idea of doing multiple grafts using multiple varieties. I’ve always thought a “fruit cocktail” tree would be fun, so using this opportunity to create one has more excited than ever. I even have several varieties of scion so I have the materials…just need the skills!

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I and all the others who posted, I suspect, are happy to help.

If you are doing a multi-graft near the road, the tags could make it an interesting look. I have so many tags flapping on mine that it looks decorated. You should make sure to take very good records in case someone decides to “joke” with you by re-arranging or removing them all.

Here’s a pic from mine last fall. You can just make out (on the left, connected to the log on the ground) some of the string I used to pull a 2nd year branch down into a weeping form.

Many words are over used on TV and when you switch channels it seems like they are clones. The one word I often feel like is missing in today’s world is a simple thank you when people help you or even attempt to help you. Although I have very little to offer in return as of right now someone has stepped up with advice when I post. Thanks for the reminder. Bill

Bob, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that photo!!! My tree IS near the road, and its also near a curve so people are always going very slow in that area and certainly would notice busy tree like that with all those labels!!! It may sound a bit boastful, but I will confess that I’d get a kick out of everyone seeing my complex project. While I’m a city boy, all those living around me are full time, long time farmers so it would be nice to show them something for once! They are all row crop farmers and would undoubtedly be impressed by a tree like the one in the photo, as would I. So thanks for the awesome photo and ideas, and I really look forward to hearing back once I post a photo of my tree. T.y.

The way you repay the advice is passing it along down the road.
I myself want a multigrafted trees just to have more variety in a smaller spot. Anymore than 4 seems to me impossible to manage properly. Sure just for fun maybe, but not very practical!
Oh on labels, I like the copper strips that you etch, they form a fine patina finish with time.

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Drew, I think that’s a good point about how many to put on it. On the two other multi-graft apples I have made, I kept a layer (I think the term is “whorl”) of the original variety and grafted 4-5 on top of it- one in each cardinal direction and one for the new leader. I don’t think I’ll let them get tall enough to have another layer, so that may be it. If I wanted to get rid of the bottom layer, I could see getting 4 more for 8-10 total.

My 20+ variety tree is pretty crazy and I’m sure I’ll run into some spacing problems soon. But, I started making it 2 years ago, and I’m hoping to get some apples from the first set of grafts I made. At least Black Oxford, Ross Nonpareil, and Holstein, which are the ones that have grown very strongly. Hopefully I’ll start to get a good sense of how much space each one needs to produce at least a handful of apples.

I agree, Drew, and if I ever learn enough to be of service to others I will absolutely pay it forward by helping others…but I’ve got a long way to go and a lot to learn before I can be much help to others! AS for labels, I cut pieces about the size of business cards off of a roll of aluminum roof flashing. I then take a little engraving gun I bought at Lowe’s and I engrave the variety, rootstock, where I bought it, and what year I planted it. I attach to a tree using solid copper wire I often pillage from trash piles at house constructions sites (even with todays copper prices, I find that electricians still through away lots of little short pieces). All this works wonderfully, but its a good deal of work. If you have a vendor for the copper tags you referred to above, I’d like to have it. A few months ago someone gave me a link to a nursery that sold really neat aluminum tags that were made from two small aluminum strips with a piece of cardboard between them to make them pliable enough to write on. But of course I lost the link before I could order…so if anyone has a source for what I’ve just described, I’d love to have it. Meanwhile, on my berry plants I’ve just been cutting small strips of aluminum out of soda cans, sitting it on top of cardboard, and bearing down hard with a nail or ball point pen, and wirting the aforementioned info. ready made tags would be better, tho. Thanks again for suggestions.

I got some recently at Isons.

I think this could be the GW Thread you are thinking of.

Wow bob…I’m really running up my credit with you for all your help. That was exactly the site I was looking for and you even found the thread! I’d done a search but didn’t find it, so thanks so much for that. Those tags really look awesome. I was also pleasantly surprised to find some reasonably priced trees (several as low as $11.99) and other plants, and knowing myself I won’t be able to order only tags…looks like I’m going to have to break the shovel back out!

OK, here are a couple photos of the tree I’m so determined to top work. Based on everyone’s comments above, I honestly think its a great candidate for converting to some good fruit producers. It has several very large limbs that are quite low, so I could rind graft 2-3 on each of those and still leave a nurse limb. Also, there are waterspouts everywhere on this thing because I completely abandoned it last year. (also why you don’t see mulch) There are suckers everywhere too, both low on the trunk AND lots coming up out of the ground. I suppose I could graft to those (?) but I was thinking that grafting to much larger limbs would result in faster to fruit growth. I was really excited, Bob, that you got some fruit the SAME YEAR you did a graft. I understood from what you said that such a thing is very rare, but if I get fruit 2 years after graft I will be thrilled. And while you may be right about 20 being too many varieties, I think that is just a really neat, fun project-whether it’s practical or not!
Oh…in the photo you’ll notice that I got excited about 2 weeks ago cut one of the big limbs on the tree. Worse still, I didn’t make a back cut so when my cut was almost complete the weight of the limb made the base split several inches back to the trunk. The only good news here is that there is enough wood left there that I can cut more off, leaving it fresh and (mostly) without the cracking.

Please everyone, look at the photos and let my know what you recommend as the easiest and most likely way for this beginner to succeed in converting this junk tree into some good varieties. Thanks.