Tree cutdown. Save base for grafting?

I planted a Santa Rosa a little over 6 years ago and unfortunately didn’t know what I was doing. As a result this tree has always been disappointing with lousy set (my bad pruning didn’t help) and since the crotch is so high, I can’t really get the size of it down where I want. And since I’m doing high density planting, now, this tree takes up a spot where 4 could go. So it’s time to make a change.

But before I chop it down and try to get an established stump out of the ground, I thought I’d ask if there was a way I could cut it down to 18" and top-work/bark graft the stump, which is about 3.5-4 inches wide. I was reading today that if you want to do this with a tree over 4 years old, you need a nurse branch. Unfortunately, that’s not an option, since the base is already so nice and tall.

So is this possible/advisable? If yes, when is the best time to do this operation? Would it be better to chip bud it and cut down the top of the tree later? That sounds much more complicated, but maybe it would be worth it.

I’d love to be able to redeem this tree, and I’d really rather not kill it unless I absolutely have to. It would be great to graft on some of the different varieties I have scion wood for. Your insight is much appreciated!

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My response is not from actual experience but from observing videos and comments from others. You could cut the trunk off at the height you want and graft. If the grafts fail there should be some vigorous side shouts that can be grafted to later on. I would wait and see comments from others who has actually performed a similar grafting procedure. Bill


I agree with Bill. If you are intent on grafting then what do you have to loose. The nurse branch theory has been debated for a long time. I’d bet the odds are that the grafts will take. But there is no guarantee so be prepared for whatever happens. If you just want a new variety why not pull the tree out of the ground and plant something that you really want?

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Well, easier said than done. Like said, this is a pretty well established tree, so pulling it out is going to involve a lot of work (and then the neverending suckers from roots I missed…). And I figure if I could graft it over, it would save the time of getting a new tree established.

So yes, I could just go for it and if it doesn’t work, it will die, anyway. But I would definitely rather it succeed and then I have a healthy tree giving me 3-4 different kinds of plums… :slight_smile:

I recommend grafting it as high as possible on the trunk. Top branches only take a couple of years to grow back.

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If you have a truck or winch a 6 year old tree with 3.5-4" trunk should not be that hard to pull/push over as long as the entire tree is still standing. Tie the chain high on the tree. Dig a bit around the roots if you have to. If you cut the stump down to 18" then all bets are off. It will be much harder to pull a stump out of the ground instead of a tree.


I would try higher than 18" — more like 3-4 ft.


The tree isn’t in a spot where it could be mechanically removed, it would have to be dug out.

So if I were to cut and graft, when is the best time of year to do it?

When you see small leaves, which will probably be in March in Oaktown. Get your dormant scion wood now if you don’t already have it.

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OK, I’ve got blossoms starting to come out, but I’ll look for little leaves, the sap will be running by then, I’m sure. It was looking like I’d finally get a good crop off of the Santa Rosa, but…I’ve already planted the replacement. Just another couple of years…sigh.

I’ve got 2 of the plum scions already and should be getting the others soon. I might try to graft on an apricot, too, just for fun.

As noted you’ll want to rind graft in spring when the bark can be slipped away from the trunk. Usually when the tree starts to leaf out. Just make sure you get the scions wrapped nice and tight and seal the cut stump with some time of wound sealer. With a 4" tree I’d put 3 or 4 grafts on the stump. Probably 3 would be better.

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I second the bark graft — if you find the bark isn’t slipping well, you can default back to a cleft graft.

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Hi Josh,

First of all, I find that plums are pretty hard to kill. I have cut many down to the ground with the intention of killing them and they respond by sending up a dozen shoots and end up as a large bush in six moths time. Although it wouldn’t hurt, based on my experience, you do not need a nurse branch for a tree that small. If it was a large tree you could get sap flow pressure that may push the scion out of position.

I see that you are in Oakland so the plums are certainly beginning to flower in your neighborhood. I am about 20 miles north of you in Vallejo and have successfully top worked seven plum trees at this time of year. I have many ornamental plums that escaped cultivation and have naturalized on my property. For the past few years I have top worked more and more of them. The growth rate of plums in this area is stunning. It is common for the scions to put on 6 to 8 feet of growth in the first 7 months. For Asian plums and pluots I have gotten hundreds of fruit 18 months after grafting. European plums take longer to bear, hopefully this will be the year.

For grafting the stump you could try bark grafting or wedge grafting. I would not attempt chip bud for this situation. I have tried bark grafting my old plums with mixed results but will be doing wedge grafting this year. As soon as you topwork the tree it will start pushing water sprouts out of the trunk and base. Save some of these for grafting in case your topwork fails or if you want to add additional cultivars over the next couple months. I have had excellent results cleft grafting to these shoots.

With 6 to 8 feet of scion growth in the first season, the top of the stump is a fairly weak point when bark grafting and prone to breaking in high wind so should be braced and/or nailed when possible. If you are in a sheltered location this may be less of an issue. Nails are also important to help maintain cambium contact on a bark graft.

I would cut the tree down right now to about 6" to 8" above where you intend to graft. Then make a fresh cut on the day when you graft. Your plum will likely start pushing leaves over the next 4 weeks and that would be the best time to graft.


Great video.

Hi Dan,

Yes, I’ve also found that plums are pretty dang hardy, which is another reason not to try to remove it. They like it here! I’m glad to hear I won’t need a nurse branch (since that was never an option).

You’re right, the blossoms haven’t broken yet, but they’re pretty close. So I guess I need to move pretty quickly since the sap is running. We’ve had a couple of warmer days, too. I’ve got my Broken Heart and Jordan scion wood, but I’m just waiting for my third. I’m glad to hear I can look forward to getting fruit so soon.

That’s a great video. The wedge doesn’t look that hard (famous last words). Bark grafting might be more my speed, though. I don’t get much wild weather here, so I might be ok if the scions are well secured.

Thank you for your help, this is really great information!

The guy in that wedge video is showing you how easy it is after doing it for the 1000th time. He wields that knife and mallet like he’s cutting through tuna at a sushi bar. Try the bark graft first – it’s a very forgiving method because you get lots of cambium contact.


Yeah, that’s kind of what I was thinking. And I wasn’t quite at the point where I would buy a 10" chef’s knife just to knock 7 inches off. I don’t think my scion wood could handle that kind of pounding, too. “Forgiving” sounds good…especially to the newbie…

I like the part where he says he’s been making a living for 35 years poking sticks in trees.