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.