Tips for topworking

Hey everyone, I’m new here, and more importantly new to grafting. Tried to top work some old apple trees I found in an over grown pasture this past spring. I cut the trees off approximately 3 feet above the ground. I made about 15 grafts total on 5 trees. All grafts showed leaves early, but as of this past weekend only 4 were still showing leaves. Only one had very nice looking fully open leaves. I’ve heard bits and pieces from various sources but I’m looking for any help you can all give me. Does the amount of rootstock I left effect the outcome of grafts? What is the best time of year? (I performed them when leaves on rootstock were just starting to come out). Does anyone recommend putting bags over the grafts to help prevent drying?

Any help is appreciated!

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Hi Matt, more information needed for anyone to help you figure out precisely what went wrong. For example:
Please post photos if you can. What exactly do you mean by old? 10 years or 60 years? What is the trunk diameter where you topped the tree? Did you leave any branches below the cut? Describe in detail your grafting procedure. Where was the scion material sourced and how was it stored prior to grafting? What are the dimensions of the scions?

Consider that if the current situation isn’t as successful as it could be, next year there is a good chance that those stumps will put up a lot of watersprout-looking new shoots, and they are graftin’ material. They may even appear this year, though they may be too wimpy to graft onto.

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The rootstocks were between 3 and 6 inches in diameter. I left no branches below my cuts. The scions were sourced from my fruit trees I already have. Some red delicious, some mutsu/Crispin and some pixie crunch. I cut the scions in late winter, wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in Ziploc bags in fridge for about 3 weeks. Scions were rougly pencil thick, some thicker, some thinner. My scions had 3-4 buds each. I tapered the end of the scions and slid the them into the cuts I made on rootstocks. The cuts I made in rootstocks were simply one vertical cut, roughly the same length of my taper. I don’t have any pictures at this time.

It sounds like you are describing a common “bark graft” technique. This is a dependable way to topwork apples. I linked an instructional video. The video doesn’t show the process of sealing the wound with wax or asphalt which is also a critical part of the process. If the wound is not sealed the scion will dry out and die before healing occurs. You can use toilet ring wax which is cheap and easy if you have a small number of trees.

Best time of year for bark graft is when the bark is slipping. This occurs when a tree is undergoing vigorous vegetative growth, often in early spring and summer. At this time the bark easily separates from the cambium cells at the surface of the sapwood. Did the bark lift easily and cleanly on the rootstock when you made the cut? If not you may have grafted too soon. If you force the bark open and graft before the bark is slipping on the rootstock, you are likely to get poor cambium contact and reduced success.

Since all the scions leafed out, I think that we can narrow down the problem to either poor cambium contact, desiccation of the graft wound, or death of the rootstock. Apple scions don’t normally need to be bagged but any steps that you want to take to avoid desiccation of the scions won’t hurt.
Lastly, you can leave one branch growing on the stump while the scions are healing to help keep the wound from flooding with sap. If it floods with sap your graft is likely to fail.

If you are seeing water sprouts like @Seedy said, there is your primo grafting spot.

Okay. Thank you for the help. I had sealed the tops with the asphalt sealer, forgot to put that in. If I’m remembering correctly the bark didn’t slip the best some guessing maybe I did it too early. We had an abnormally late spring here, so once I saw the buds open I went for it. All of the stumps did put off fresh sprouts so they are still alive. Thank you for your help!

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