Selecting, cutting, and storing dormant apple scionwood

Late January into mid-February is what I consider the best time to collect dormant apple scionwood in the Boulder area. Later, and a warm winter could mean buds already swelling — i.e. they are no longer dormant, but starting to grow. We want the wood to be dormant because when we graft it to a rootstock, the junction will need to heal before the rootstock can supply the scion with water and nutrients. If the scion starts to grow before the graft union heals, it is likely to die from lack of water for the emerging leaves.

Once the time has arrived for collecting wood, get a sharp pair of hand pruners and head out to the trees. Look for last year’s wood. Follow a relatively upright branch downward past each bud until you get to a spot where there’s a bit of a ringlike ridge around the branch. Small branches often grow out from a location just below here, and there are also usually a few buds crowded right above this spot. Higher up, the buds are farther apart.

Identify the bottom of last year's growth, where the ringlike structure and crowded buds are.  Cut scionwood from the portion of the branch above this area.

Identify the bottom of last year’s growth, where the ringlike structure and crowded buds are. Cut scionwood from the portion of the branch above this area. The diameter of the scionwood that’ll be cut from this branch is nearly ideal.

(As an aside for those who read Selecting budwood for summer bud grafting, the wood we’re looking for now is the same that one would have selected last summer for bud grafting, only now it has matured and the leaves are long gone.)

Ideally I’d cut scionwood that’s about 6-7mm (1/4″) in diameter, which is easy to work with and is close to the diameter of typical rootstock. However, sometimes there is no scionwood as thick as that. No problem. Get what you can, because you’ll probably be able to graft it.

Sometimes ideal scionwood is unavailable.  In that case, get the best scionwood you can.

Sometimes ideal scionwood is unavailable. In that case, get the best scionwood you can. Note the ballpoint pen for scale. The scionwood here is smaller than ideal.

Once you’ve cut your scions, they might look like this:

Here is the cut scionwood.

Here’s the cut scionwood. The piece on the left is nearly ideal. The thin wood on the right has just been cut from the branched wood below (the branched wood will be discarded).

Cut the wood to lengths that will fit in a gallon ziploc or similar plastic bag. Trim off the top inch or so, unless your scionwood is very short. Seal all cuts with a quick dip into a candle, to coat cut surfaces with wax. Of course, don’t leave the wood near the burning candle for more than a the fraction of a second it takes to coat the end with wax.

It’s hard to see the wax on the ends, but here is trimmed and sealed scionwood:

This scionwood has been cut to length for storage in a ziploc bag, and cut surfaces have been sealed with wax from a burning candle.

This scionwood has been cut to length for storage in a ziploc bag, and cut surfaces have been sealed with wax from a burning candle.

Lastly, mark your scions as to identity with some cloth medical tape or something similar. Store them in a refrigerator if possible, but do not put them into the fridge where you keep your food — gases given off by some foods may encourage the scions to break dormancy. I have a small ‘dorm fridge’ that I start up each year just for grafting season. If you don’t have a refrigerator, consider putting the scions on the shady side of a building (north side in our hemisphere), covering with enough leaves or other insulation to prevent freezing.

Finished scions, ready for storage until grafting begins in late March:

This scionwood has been labeled and is ready for storage.

This scionwood has been labeled and is ready for storage. These scions are from a USDA-collected wild apple I’ve grown out, and have a code number rather than a name like Honeycrisp or Fuji.

Selecting budwood for summer bud grafting

If you’re attempting T-budding, or cutting budwood for others to graft, now’s the time. I usually think of July 15 – Aug 1 as the best time. Earlier, and the buds may not be mature. Later, and the bark on the rootstock may not be slipping. Here’s a brief guide to selecting and preparing budwood.

First, find this year’s growth on a relatively upright, vigorous branch. You’re looking for the portion of the branch that has individual leaves attached directly to the branch … that’ll be the topmost section of the branch, right out to the tip. If you start at a branch tip and work your way down, make note of the spacing between the leaves. At the very tip they may be close together, but just a little ways down the branch they’ll be further apart. All of this is the current year’s growth.

The tree grows buds this summer at the junction between leaf and branch (the axil). They’re dormant for now, but each of these axillary buds has the potential to turn into a new branch next summer. The goal of T-budding is to remove these buds, get them onto the host rootstocks, and let the two parts knit together while the tree is still actively growing for the summer. If successful, next summer the bud will start growing and become the trunk of the new tree.

This is good budwood in the middle of the current year’s growth. Note that individual leaves attach directly to the apple branch. Axillary buds appropriate for grafting may be found where each leaf attaches to the branch.

As you continue down the branch, eventually you’ll reach a point where the leaves, or the scars where leaves could have been, get quite close together, and there is often a ringlike structure around the branch here. This is the bottom of the current year’s growth. Below, leaves don’t attach individually and directly to the branch, but rather to side branches of the branch you’re examining.

Note the close spacing of leaves on the branch in the top half of the image. That area is the bottom of this year’s growth. Below is older wood.

In the next several photos, you can see how I prepared budwood from an apple branch.

1. Here’s the branch as cut from the tree

Here is a branch from an apple tree in my yard. The bottom half-centimeter is last year’s wood, and everything above is this year’s growth.

2. With hand pruners or scissors, remove each leaf blade, but leave the petiole (‘leaf stem’) to use as a bud handle later.

Leaf blades have been removed. Petioles (‘leaf stems’) are left on the branch.

3. Close up of prepared branch.

The petiole attaches the leaf blade (now removed) to the branch, and makes a fine bud handle.

4. Finished budwood. The middle section provides the best budwood.

Finished budwood. Select only the middle section if your branch is long enough, as these are the best-quality buds. Upper and lower portions will be discarded.

Budwood is perishable and should be used as soon as possible. That said, it is frequently shipped through the mail successfully. Put the budwood in a plastic bag with a zip seal, and mail it in a padded envelope.

(I hope eventually to post how-tos for T-budding … but for now just wanted to get budwood selection information out to some people with heirloom apple trees that they want to propagate)

Did you learn about us in Colorado Gardener?

The June 2017 edition of Colorado Gardener has an article we contributed on the topic of popularizing grafting skills as a way to build appreciation for Colorado’s historic apples. In addition to the better-known West Slope fruit-growing districts, Canon City, Wheatridge/Arvada, Boulder, Longmont and other areas on the Front Range once had vibrant orchard industries. There are surely hundreds, possibly thousands, of trees still alive from that golden era of apple growing before the advent of supermarket chains. These trees have both historical and horticultural value.

This tree in Boulder's Whittier neigborhood was described to us as being a big tree when the previous owner of the property was young.  It's trunk, though decaying, is very large.  We have grafted several new copies of this tree. (c) 2017 by Eric Johnson

Among these elder trees are surely some lost varieties — cultivars known to have originated here but which are otherwise forgotten. Because they grow well in our conditions, they represent an opportunity for small growers whose focus is local markets, as well as backyard orchardists.

With inspiration from Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (they’ve already rediscovered the Colorado Orange and other lost apples, and done terrific work to bring back the orchard industry in the Cortez area) and others, we’re beginning an effort to locate old historic apple trees along Colorado’s Front Range and graft new copies of them. We’d welcome your help, if you’re interested in moving this project forward — a little, a lot, or anywhere in between.

As a starting point, we need to know where old trees are and develop criteria for prioritizing which ones to save. If you know of trees we ought to consider, can you provide an address or (better) GPS coordinates, plus a couple of photos? (Please be respectful of private property and appreciative of owners who have kept these special trees alive)

We anticipate that during the busy summer months we won’t be able to visit many trees, but can probably put more energy into that in September/October. We’d love to be in touch now, though, with folks who’d like to work on Front Range apples and orchard history. Please send us a message!

Meanwhile, what else could we all work on? How about bud grafting? After a successful dormant grafting workshop in April, we’d like to tackle a workshop or two of bud grafting this summer. If you have a tree that needs preserving, there’s a window of opportunity in July when apples can be easily ‘budded’. We have a small supply of rootstocks onto which buds can be grafted. Interested in bud grafting this summer?

This is going to be a lot of fun.

Freeze damage to tree fruit buds and blossoms

The Front Range is expecting a winter storm with temperatures expected to reach the low 20’s Fahrenheit, 3 to 5 below 0 Celsius. This event will likely cause significant bud and blossom death in fruit trees in this area, as well as to other fruits and vegetables. How much damage is determine by the specific plant (apple, peach, grape, spinach, etc) and the development stage.  There are methods to limit or prevent damage, and we recommend you do some research and apply as appropriate/reasonable to your specific plants, location and resources.  Mark Longstroth with Michigan State University Extension has a couple of tables with critical temperatures for tree fruits, which you can find here: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/freeze_damage_depends_on_tree_fruit_stage_of_development

This weather event is not expected to out right kill any apple trees on the Front Range, but local conditions and the health of individual trees vary, so it is possible.  We will keep an eye on our trees around Boulder County and certainly take note of this event.

Grafting workshop, Saturday 3/18

Want to learn how to graft apples? We’re planning a workshop for Saturday, March 18, mid-morning to about noon. Rootstock and choice of apple varieties will be available. The cost will be a few dollars. Come and graft your own tree to take home! If interested, please let us know: http://bit.ly/contact_wm

Grafting classes and rootstock planting, 2017

We’re planning to distribute low-cost rootstocks ($1-$3 per tree) and hold a couple of grafting workshops in early Spring, 2017. Are you interested in planting a rootstock for later grafting to an apple cultivar of your choosing? Please contact us if so, and we’ll put you on the email notification list. You may also want to follow us on twitter (@widespreadmalus) or on facebook (http://www.facebook.com/widespreadmalus).

Newly planted apple trees in Apple Valley

Twelve newly planted apple trees are now growing in Apple Valley, just west of Lyons, Colorado. A landowner contacted us a few months ago and we agreed on Central Asian apple trees. All are grafted, some last year, some this year, on Antonovka rootstock, and are therefore full sized trees when grown out. A neighboring landowner heard about the project and volunteered to take three trees, for a total of 12.  It was a beautiful day to be outside planting in beautiful Apple Valley, and the family living on the property did a lot of the heavy lifting to get the trees in the ground and are going to take great care of the trees in the coming years.  The land owner also did a lot of the heavy lifting and, key point here, made the property available for some trees.  The neighbors who took the three trees are master gardeners, and their property reflects the skills and effort required.

Apple Valley still has some apple trees, two in the immediate area, but not nearly as many as in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  We are hoping to change that, and are well on the way to doing so with this first planting.  There is a bit more room on the property, so we may be helping to get a few more in the new orchard.  Thanks to everyone involved.

Apple Valley Orchard

Apple Valley Orchard Location

Apples, crabapples, everywhere…

A large majority of the pink flowered trees you see in and around Boulder County over the past couple of weeks are apple and crabapple trees, and a large portion of the white flowered trees are as well (some are pear or other type of fruit trees, and some are non-fruit bearing trees). All of the crabapples species are in the Malus genus of the Rosaceae famliy.

The apples you see at farmer’s markets, road side stands, grocery stores and everywhere else are all, with exceedingly rare exceptions, descendants of a single species of crabapple, Malus sieversii. M. sieversii is also known as Asian wild crabapple or Almaty crabapple. Almaty is the largest city of the country of Kazakhstan, in central Asia near China. The mountains and hills near Almaty have forests of wild apple trees, just as the mountains and hills of Boulder County have forests of Ponderosa, Spruce and Lodgepole pines.  Imagine our hills and mountains to the west covered with apple trees….

Those wild apple tree forests are being cut down at a rapid pace to clear the land for farms, buildings, roads, and other human infrastructure.  The planet is in the process of losing it’s apple genetic diversity, which is a threat to cultivated apples everywhere.  But, there is something you can do.  The USDA has a collection of wild central Asian M. sieversii at their research station near Lake Geneva, NY.  Scientists with the USDA have conducted genetic studies of these trees, and have determined that a ‘core collection’ of about 100 trees covers about 95% of the genetic diversity represented in the entire collection.  Widespread Malus has been requesting, from the USDA, seeds and scion material from these core collection trees for three years, and working with others around the country (and globe) to share and distribute this core collection of apple genetic wealth.  If you would like to participate, please get in touch with us, see our contact page, and let us know.  You do not need to know anything about apples trees, or need much space to grow a tree.  We can help you with choosing an appropriate tree for your space and level of interest.  We only ask that we have access to the tree in the future to gather scion material and some of the fruit (and the seeds)  if we need it.  We are out of trees to plant for 2016, but please sign up for planting in the spring of 2017.  Letting us know now helps us prepare trees for next year.

Who’s doing what with apple biodiversity?

I thought it would be nice to have a list of projects working to protect apple biodiversity in North America (or elsewhere, if any readers can add information in the comments). Here’s a start:

  • Widespread Malus … that’s us! Working to build a highly diverse collection of Malus sieversii, as well as distribute scions, grafted trees, and seedlings.
  • Apple Diversity Group … a collaboration between Dalhousie University and Agriculture Canada, this group’s Apple Biodiversity Collection in Nova Scotia has 1000+ different apples, including about a hundred Malus sieversii.
  • USDA Plant Genetic Resources Unit … located in Geneva, NY, USDA PGRU maintains one of the world’s most extensive apple collections, including diverse wild apples (M. sieversii, M. orientalis, and others). Interested members of the public may request open-pollinated M. sieversii seed from PGRU.
  • Temperate Orchard Conservancy … located in Oregon, TOC is replicating the Botner Collection (perhaps the largest private collection of apples in the world … 4,500 different apples).
  • Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project … promoting apples and orchards in Montezuma County, Colorado and around the state. Also locating and propagating rare Colorado Heritage apples.
  • North American Fruit Explorers … a group of folks interested in all kinds of fruit. There are quite a few members with their own diverse collections of apples and other fruit. Visit the web site or the facebook page.
  • Seed Savers Exchange … not just for seeds! Iowa-based SSE has quite a nice collection of apples (hundreds), and numerous members who share apple scions with other members.
  • Agrarian Sharing Network … is sharing diverse fruit and vegetable material in the Pacific Northwest. ASN has done extensive evaluations and cloning of the Botner collection and several other large bioregional collections, and is involved in a number of propagation fairs.

Can you help us add more projects to this list? Please send us an email!