Pruning Weeping Cherry Trees and other Grafted and Budded Plants
by Michael J. McGroarty
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What do the terms grafting and budding mean?
Budding is a form of grafting. Grafting is the art of attaching a piece of one plant to another plant, creating a new plant. Grafting is usually done because the desired plant is extremely difficult if not impossible to propagate through other means. Dogwoods for example are easily grown from seed, however, it is next to impossible to grow a pink dogwood from seed. The seeds from a Pink Dogwood will produce seedlings that are likely to flower white.
The most common method for producing Pink Dogwood trees is to remove a single bud from a Pink Dogwood tree and slip it under the bark of a White Dogwood seedling. This process is known as budding, and the seedling is known as the rootstock. This is usually done during the late summer months when the bark of the White Dogwood seedling can be easily separated from the tree, and the seedling is about 1/4” in diameter.
A very small “T” shaped cut is made in the bark only, and the bud is slipped in the slot. The actual bud itself is allowed to poke out through the opening and then the wound is wrapped with a rubber band both above and below the bud. By the following spring the bud will have grafted itself to the seedling, at which time the seedling is cut off just above the Pink Dogwood bud, and the bud then grows into a Pink Dogwood tree.
Budding is usually done at ground level, and often times the rootstock will send up shoots from below the bud union. These shoots often called suckers should removed as soon as they appear because they are from the rootstock and are not the same variety as the rest of the plant. Flowering Crabapples are also budded and are notorious for producing suckers. When removing these suckers don’t just clip them off at ground level with pruning shears, they will just grow back. Pull back the soil or mulch and remove them from the tree completely at the point where they emerge from the stem.
Most people clip them off a couple of inches from the ground, and then they grow back with multiple shoots. This drives me crazy! Get down as low as you can and remove them completely and you will keep them under control. On older trees that have been improperly pruned for years I take a digging spade and literally attack these suckers hacking them away from the stem. Sure this does a little damage to the stem of the tree, but when a plant is let go like that I figure it’s a do or die situation. The trees always survive and thrive.
Other plants are grafted up high to create a weeping effect. One of the most popular trees that is grafted up high is the top graft Weeping Cherry. In this case the seedling is allowed to grow to a height of 5’, then the weeping variety is grafted on to the rootstock at a height of about 5’. This creates an umbrella type effect. In this case the graft union is 5’ off the ground, therefore anything that grows from the stem below that graft union must be removed.
Many people don’t understand this and before they know it they have a branch 2” in diameter growing up through the weeping canopy of their tree. Before you know it there are several branches growing upright through the canopy and the effect of the plant is completely ruined.
The two photos below show exactly what I'm talking about in this article. You can clearly see the weeping effect that the Weeping Cherry tree is supposed to have, but then up through the middle come these branches that are no more than just suckers from the stem, or the rootstock as it is known in the nursery industry.
Looking closely at the above photo you can see that these suckers originate from below the graft union. This problem could have been prevented if someone had just picked off these buds when they first emerged on the stem of the tree. Then they would have never developed into branches.
This tree can still be saved, but there will be a large scar on the stem when the upright branches are pruned off. But under the canopy of the weeping tree these scars will never show.
Another interesting plant that is grafted is the Weeping Cotoneaster. In this case the seedling that is grown to serve as the rootstock is Paul’s Scarlet Hawthorn, and Cotoneaster Apiculata is grafted onto the Hawthorn rootstock at a height of 5’. Years ago a nurseryman found through experimentation that these two plants are actually compatible, and a beautiful and unique plant was created. I have one of these in my landscape and we love it.
Once again since the graft union is at 5’, any growth coming from the stem (rootstock) must be removed. In this case the growth coming from the rootstock will be Hawthorn and will look completely different from the Cotoneaster which is what the plant is supposed to be. The easiest way to keep up with this type of pruning is to keep an eye on your grafted plants when you’re in the yard. As soon as you see new growth coming from below the graft union, just pick up it off with your finger nail.
If you catch these new buds when they first emerge, pruning them off is as easy as that. Walk around your yard and look for grafted or budded plants, and see if you can find any that have growth that doesn’t seem to match the rest of the plant. Look closely and you may find that the growth is coming from below a graft or bud union.
Michael J. McGroarty is the author of this article. Visit his most