It’s a mid-winter Sunday on the Adelaide Plains and the sun is shining from a blue sky, the temperature is heading for a maximum of 21 degrees C, and even a blue-tongue lizard has come out to soak up some warmth in the winter sunshine. Perfect weather to get the grafting done before the warmth of Spring starts sap flowing in the fruit trees and bud-burst comes upon us…
Out in the front yard stands a Granny Smith apple tree that I’m gradually bringing under control after letting it run wild for far too long. Year after year, Codling moth, parrots and possums have destroyed the green cooking apples produced by this old tree. Then, some years back, I joined the Rare Fruit Society of South Australia and learnt a bit about grafting; this old Granny Smith is the most tolerant of trees for a grafting beginner like me. Furthermore, grafting will allow this one tree to supply us with a dozen different types of apple over a longer fruiting season from an established root system in a limited space.
The ‘Rare Fruities’ – as they are affectionately known – have a grafting night every July and we went along about a fortnight ago to purchase scion wood (short lengths of dormant apple, apricot, nectarine, peach and almond budded twigs). These have been kept fresh in an old outside fridge, well away from the tantalising and wakeful aromas of the cook’s own refrigerator inside the house.
At the top left of the photo is a French ‘Bahco’ grafting knife purchased locally, while on the right is my hand-crafted German knife purchased in the Fatherland while all the other tourists were buying up big on postcards and ice creams. Not shown is the box of bandages I inevitably need for that moment when my concentration drifts away from the razor-sharp knife in my hand to one of those other two dozen fascinating subjects jostling for space in my head.
I’ve learnt to make ‘whip-and-tongue’ grafts, as these are perfect for joining together grafts of about the same diameter. First I prune the tree with pruning saw and secateurs to remove all the vertical growth that apples are so good at pushing up in a single season, and to get the tree back to working height with all the extraneous twigs and branches removed. I only graft on one side of this particular tree, leaving the other side to bear Granny Smith apples in case all my efforts at other flavours come to nought. This year’s apple grafts are Cox’s Orange Pippin, Fuji Red, Royal Gala 1, Canadian Red, Summer Strawberry and Braeburn Red. All buds below the graft are trimmed off. All fruit that develops on these grafts during the first year will also be removed lest they sap the strength of the developing graft or snap it off altogether.
First an oblique cut is made at the end of the scion wood that the buds point way from. Next the same type of shallow angled cut is made on the rootstock wood (the Granny Smith bit). A straight cut is ‘rocked’ into both these angles about 1/3 of the way down from the tip. (This gentle rocking action prevents excessive force leading to the knife slipping and taking a finger off!)
Then the two pieces are gently married together by dextrous pressure on the ‘tongues’ of the ‘whip’ cuts. Finally the whole joint is bound up with ordinary electrical tape that will be left on for six months or more to splint the new graft while it heals. Normally I’d use white tape to reflect radiant solar heat from the graft, but this year I’ve run out, so it’s back to black. One can buy fancy grafting tapes, but readily-available electrical tape also has the perfect combination of stickiness married with relaxation under pressure as the graft swells.
Over the coming months I will return again and again to these branches below the grafts, removing any Granny Smith foliage that develops to prevent it diverting nutrients away from the new apple branch being formed.
Now for the peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds down the backyard…they are much more likely to be disappointing compared to the robust apple.