Grafting is one of the most interesting forms of plant propagation.
It is also one of the most tedious and least used forms of plant propagation. Grafting fruit trees has been, and will likely continue to be the most accepted method of fruit tree production. Budding, which is just another form of grafting is the most widely used method of grafting fruit trees.
Many wholesale nurserymen stay away from grafting because it is just too labor intensive. They either will not grow plants that have to be grafted, or they will buy small grafted plants from someone who specializes in grafting. Don’t let that scare you off, nurserymen are in business to make money. If it takes too long to produce a particular plant, they just stay away from it. They feel they can do much better financially, growing something easier to produce.
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This actually creates a tremendous opportunity for anybody that is looking for a way to make money at home. To really do that kind of grafting, you would need a greenhouse, but it wouldn't have to be all that big.
If you are daring enough to try your hand at grafting, you will realize a tremendous amount of pride and self satisfaction. Grafting is not difficult, it just takes patience. If you just want to do a few plants for yourself, you can do them in your house easily enough.
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Grafting is the art of attaching a piece of one plant to another in such a way that the two pieces bond and become one plant. You start with a small plant that is usually grown from seed. This is known as the rootstock. To this plant, you attach a small cutting, known as a scion. This scion is taken taken from the desired plant that you would like to reproduce.
The rootstock serves as the root system and sometimes the stem, while the scion grows into the beautiful plant you desire. Or in the case of grafting fruit trees, the scion grows and eventually produces the type of fruit you want.
So in reality, you have two very different plants, now growing as one.
If you look closely at the above photo, Duston is grafting a scion from a Laceleaf Weeping Japanese Maple onto a Japanese Maples seedling. The seedling he is working with has green leaves, and is upright growing. If not grafted, this tree would grow to a height of 20 feet or more, and would have very boring, green leaves.
The scion that Duston is grafting to the rootstock was taken from this tree. The Laceleaf, Weeping Japanese Maple is one of the most beautiful landscape plants on this planet. This tree is very low growing, most are not more than 4’ tall. See the photo above.
The branches spread out, making the tree wider than it is tall. The branches weep from the top of the tree to the ground, the foliage is deep red in color and the leaves are delicately cut on the edges. This plant is breath taking during the spring and summer months. Nobody walks by this plant without taking notice. It is just as interesting during the winter, the weeping branches create a very unique effect even though the plant is without leaves.
The accepted method of propagation for the Laceleaf Weeping Japanese Red Maple is grafting. Very few nurseries grow them. That’s why a 3’ tall plant in a garden center is likely to have a price tag of $100.00 or more. You can grow one yourself for a little bit of nothing.
In the case of the Laceleaf Weeping Japanese Red Maple, the root stock would be a Japanese Maple grown from seed. The Laceleaf Weeping Japanese Red Maple would be the desired variety.
Since Japanese Red Maple Trees are so popular, I'll give you some a crash course in the botanical names, because you need to know the difference if you are going to buy plants or rootstocks.
The Botanical name for a Maple tree is Acer.
The botanical name for a Japanese Maple tree is Acer Palmatum.
The botanical name for a Japanese Red Maple tree is Acer Palmatum Autropurpeum.
These can all be grown from seed, and you can graft to either of the Japanese varieties.
The botanical name for a Laceleaf Weeping Japanese Maple tree is Acer Palmatum Dissectum.
And if you want one of the weeping Japanese Maples with deep red leaves, you would buy an Acer Palmatum Dissectum "Ever Red".
"Ever Red" is the variety, and there are many different varieties of Laceleaf Weeping Japanese Red Maples.
Don't let all that confuse you, it gets quite simple as you go along. Before you know it you will be an expert.
If you would like to create a Laceleaf Weeping Japanese Maple through the magic of grafting, you must first raise a regular Japanese Maple tree from seed to use as the rootstock, or you can buy seedlings. There are nurseries that specialize in growing seedlings. You can buy rootstocks for grafting fruit trees as well.
If you'd like to try your hand at growing your own Japanese Maples from from seed, visit the Japanese Maple page on this site.
Or for general information on growing plants from seed, click here.
Most grafting is done during the winter months, when the plants are completely dormant. In most cases, you will be working with seedlings, and scions that are between 3/16" and 1/4" in diameter. However, larger rootstock can be used when you are budding, or doing a Veneer Graft.
In the late fall pot up the seedlings that you intend to use as rootstock for grafting. (Use a good quality, well drained, bagged potting soil.) Keep these potted plants outside, but in a protected area until two or threes weeks before you intend to graft them.
I like waiting until winter is well under way so I don't care for them for so long once they are grafted. Dormant plants are much easier to baby sit. Just make sure they do not dry out, but don't keep them soggy either. Plants need moisture during the winter as well as during the growing season. You must leave them outside so they remain dormant up until the time you are ready to use them.
You can build a wooden frame and cover it with white plastic for protection. White plastic reflects the sun. Don’t use clear plastic, it will get too warm inside when the sun is out, and the plants will start to break dormancy, then sustain damage when the temperature dips below freezing at night. When storing plants for the winter you want them to stay at one constant temperature.
Once you bring them inside, you should let them warm up for a period of 2-3 weeks before you start grafting. Keep them at a temperature of 70 degrees F. After about 14 days the plants should start showing signs that they are beginning to break dormancy. Slide the root mass out of the container, and check for new root growth along the edge of the container. The new roots will be really tiny and fine, but very white in color. The buds on the rootstock will start to swell just before the new leaves appear.
At this point they should be grafted immediately.
The scion that is to be grafted onto the rootstock should remain outdoors in the cold, (completely dormant) right up until the day you are going to graft. You don’t want this part of the plant trying to grow until the graft union is at least partially healed.
In order to achieve success with grafting you need to understand exactly what part of the plants you must bond together. There is a thin layer of tissue sandwiched between the bark of the tree and the wood, this tissue is known as the cambium layer.
You might liken the cambium layer of a tree to the circulatory system in your own body. The cambium layer transfers water and nutrients to the top of the plant from the roots and vice versa.
When grafting, it is extremely important that you bond the cambium layer of the rootstock with the cambium layer of the scion. (The scion is the term used to describe the piece of the desired plant variety that you are attaching to the rootstock.) Matching up these two surfaces as closely as possible is extremely important. These two sections of cambium layer are going to bond and will be the only thing holding the plant together. This bond is almost like a natural form of welding.
There are many different kinds of grafts, but all are based on the same basic theory. Match up two compatible plants and bond the two cambium layers together.
Performing the actual task of making the graft union is not that difficult. The secret is to make sure that as you cut into the cambium layer, you do not cut too deeply, and into the wood. At least that's true if you are doing a Veneer graft. With a Saddle Graft, or an Inverted Saddle graft you will cut into the wood, but you are still matching up the cambium layers.
Make sure the scion wood and the rootstock are as close to the same size diameter as possible. If they are different sizes, the cambium layers will not line up and the grafts will not be successful.
Rule number 1!!! Wrap your thumb really well with a cloth type of tape before you start. Make lots of layers, and change the tape if you cut it even a little! The knife you use to make your graft must be very sharp. A dull knife will due a lot of tissue damage, and the graft will not heal properly.
In this demonstration we are doing a Veneer graft, which means that we are slipping the scion just under the bark, on one side of the stem of the rootstock.
In the above photo I am trimming the scion, removing the bark, but leaving the cambium tissue. I am also creating a very flat surface on both sides of the scion, with a sharp taper on one side, as in the photo below. You can click on the photos to enlarge them.
In the photo below I have drawn a blue outline showing what part of the scion is cambium, and what part of it is just wood. When you cut into the wood you can see the difference. Keep in mind that you will cut into the wood, but your goal is to match up as much cambium as possible. If this photo were just a little sharper, I wouldn't have needed to mark this out, you would have been able to see it.
Everything inside of that blue line is wood, and everything outside of it, is cambium tissue.
Ideally, the scion shown above should have been cut straight across the bottom. The angle was unintentional. It will work, but straight across is better.
In the above photo I am sliding the scion between the bark and the cambium layer of the rootstock. To prepare the rootstock to receive the scion I made a very similar cut to that shown on the above scion. The goal is to cut into the cambium, but not into the wood if possible. You are going a little deeper than the bark, because the thin piece has to be strong enough to be pulled up tight against the scion without breaking off.
In the above photo you can see how the flat sides of the scion match up to the flat sided cut you make on the rootstock. Notice how close the diameters match, and how I turned the side of the scion with the sharp taper away from the rootstock. The purposed of the taper is to allow the flap of bark and cambium to be pulled up and over the scion, with no air space. You can not allow any air around the graft union, or it will not heal.
In this photo you can see how well all the pieces fit together. If you look closely you will see a little bit of space at the bottom of the scion. You don't want any space at all, but in this photo this space should close up nicely when the graft union is wrapped with a rubber band. That's why you should wrap the rubber band from the bottom up, to pull the pieces tightly together without causing the flap to buckle.
As the rubber band is wrapped you can see how tight the bond becomes. The rubber band should be snug, but not Godzilla snug, you don't want to damage the tissue below.
Once you reach the top of the graft union with your rubber band wrap, just put a little slip knot in the final wrap, that will make it very easy to remove the rubber band in a few weeks.
After the rubber band is in place the entire graft union should be coated with melted grafting wax to keep the union air tight. If air gets into the graft union the cambium layers will dry out and not bond. Make sure the grafting wax is not too hot. Just warm enough for it to melt is as hot as you should let it get. If the wax is too hot, tissue damage can occur. The rubber band should be left on for a period of about 8 weeks.
This is an inverted saddle graft. Notice that the scion is tapered exactly the same on both sides, and comes to a very narrow taper. The rootstock is cut right down the middle instead of just down the side as we did above. Some grafters don't like this method, they prefer a regular Saddle graft, where the rootstock is tapered, and the scion is cut down the middle. I've found Saddle grafts much harder to do because it's difficult handling the rootstock to make the necessary cuts because of it being in a container.
Again, the object is to line up the cambium layers as closely as possible. This is really important using this method, because when you cut down the middle you are exposing a lot of wood. Wood will not graft to anything if the cambium does not line up. Matching the diameter of the scion to the diameter of the rootstock as closely as possible makes lining up the cambium fairly easy.
If you look closely near the bottom of the graft union you will see little tiny fragments of frayed tissue, these frayed pieces should not be left in the graft union, they will affect the healing, and could ruin the graft. This fraying happens when your knife is not sharp enough. Some people use single edge razor blades instead of a knife, but I've found them to be difficult to use.
Notice how air tight the finished graft union is in the photos above and below.
Notice the green leaves in the above photo. Those are from the rootstock, a Green Japanese Maple. Should you leave these leaves and small branches on the rootstock after the graft is complete?
It's up to you. I've left them on, thinking that through photosynthesis the leaves from the rootstock would cause the nutrients to flow, helping to heal the graft sooner. But I've also removed all the growth from the rootstock, in which case little photosynthesis will take place until the scion buds out, and I haven't really seen a difference. In some cases I thought the plants where I removed all the growth from the rootstock, actually showed new growth on the scion sooner, and the grafts were more successful.
But I urge you to test this on your own and see what works the best for you.
Caring for your recently grafted plants after the process is complete is extremely important to the success of your efforts. Once the graft is complete keep the plants warm, 70 degrees F. is ideal. Maintain this temperature for a period of at least three to four weeks, giving the graft unions plenty of time to heal.
Maintaining a relatively high humidity around the graft union also helps the healing process. One way to do this is to wrap the graft union with a piece of plastic cellophane and make sure some moisture gets trapped under the plastic.
Make sure your plants also receive some light. Natural light from a window is best, but if that is not possible provide some artificial light.
Don’t move your new grafts outside until the danger of frost has past. Be careful not to put them in the full sun right away. At least 50% shade is best until they harden off completely. I keep my grafted plants under shade for the entire first season. I also provide winter protection for them during their first winter outside. I build a frame house and cover it with white plastic. Make sure you put mouse bait in the house! The little snots ate a bunch of my Japanese Maples one year. Actually they just girdle them up about 4", just enough to kill the plant.
Grafting is not difficult to do, but it does require patience and an area where you can work indoors during the winter. It is well worth the time and effort you put into it. Grafting can produce some really interesting plants!