Skip to Content

How to Graft an Apple Tree: A Complete Guide to Grafting

Grafting is a term you will hear often in gardening, and you probably have a vague idea of what it is. But what is grafting and how important is it for your garden? In this article, we will break down everything you need to know about grafting, including important terms to know, and how to graft an apple tree. 

What Is Grafting?

Closeup of an apple tree branch with bud grafting -- one method for how to graft an apple tree.
Bud grafting — one method for how to graft an apple tree.

Grafting is the process of uniting two plants into a single plant to use desirable characteristics of each. Grafting does not produce a hybrid fruit, but rather uses one plant as a rootstock and the other as the flowering part of the new tree. These two parts are called the stock or rootstock and the scion. 

There are many benefits of grafting. In particular, it is a fast and dependable way to grow a tree — much faster and easier than growing from a seed. 

Grafting can also help produce fruit trees that are more disease and insect resistant or more cold hardy. It is widely used to produce dwarf and semi-dwarf trees, which are smaller than standard fruit trees and better suited for small gardens and some orchards. 

How Does Grafting Work?

Gardeners graft trees together by inserting a fruiting plant into a rootstock. This is usually done by making a physical wound in the rootstock and putting the other plant close up against it, then tying the two parts together. 

Eventually, the parts will grow together and utilize aspects of both plants to improve the health of the tree as well as its producing ability.

But even more importantly — grafting gives you the ability to replicate a good tree that you have had in the past! 

This simple process has been practiced for thousands of years, but it has been highly researched and honed in the last century. The result is much healthier fruit trees that produce better crops and are more resistant to the problems that their ancestors faced.

Why Would You Graft Apple Trees?

Just like any other fruit tree, grafting an apple tree has distinct benefits. You can replicate good traits from other trees while suppressing bad ones. Grafting an apple tree can encourage qualities like disease and insect resistance, cold hardiness, and fruiting ability. You can even grow more than one kind of apple on the same tree by utilizing certain grafting techniques, as described in this article about 4-in-1 apple trees.

Grafting apple trees is also an excellent way to shape them. Many gardeners do this to develop dwarf or semi-dwarf trees, which can be better for some gardens or orchards.

Grafting Terms You Need To Know

Grafting has its own language, so there are a few terms you’ll hear that might be new to you. Here are some of the top grafting terms you need to know.

Rootstock – Stock or rootstock is the root system and lower portion of a plant, which will serve as the base of the grafted tree.

Scion – A scion is the upper part of the graft. It is a shoot from a second tree that will eventually begin to sprout and bear fruit. 

Graft – As a noun, the graft refers to the spot where the rootstock and scion come together. 

Cambium – Cambium is the inside layer of cells between the bark and the internal layer of a tree. This is the layer of cells that is exposed and begins growing when a graft is completed.

Callus – As the two grafted plants grow together, the cells will form a callus. Just like a callus on your skin, it is a rough, scablike spot that protects the vulnerable graft.

Selecting and Storing Scion Wood

Choosing a scion can be a challenge, especially as you first learn what to look for. But choosing the right one not only increases your likelihood of a successful graft, but also ensures the tree will be able to replicate the good qualities. 

To choose a scion, find a branch that is straight and smooth, about the width of a pencil. It should have a few dormant buds on it to ensure that it will be able to blossom the following spring. Cut your scion between 12 and 18 inches long. 

You will need to cut scions while they are dormant — in other words, during the winter. But they can’t be grafted until the spring. In between, keep them in the refrigerator. They will need to stay cool and moist. The best way to store them is in a plastic bag wrapped in moist paper towels or stored with spagnum moss. 

Why Rootstock Matters

If the rootstock isn’t the part of the plant that will be producing fruit, why does selection matter? Rootstock passes on all the most important qualities, such as disease resistance and fruit yield. It will also affect how large the grafted tree grows and how far its roots spread. 

In other words, the rootstock that you choose will determine the characteristics of your grafted plant. While it itself is not determining the type of fruit that will be produced, it absolutely passes on some of the most important traits to consider.

Types of Apple Tree Grafts/Grafting

There are several types of apple tree grafting techniques. Some of these are very simple, while others take a bit more intensive labor. Three types of apple tree grafting are bark grafting, whip and tongue technique, and bud grafting.

Bark Grafting

Bark grafting is one of the simplest ways to graft an apple tree. You don’t need to cut any part in this method. Instead, simply peel away some of the bark from the rootstock and insert the scion between the bark and the inner wood. Then, lash the rootstock and scion together to secure them. You can use tape or rope for this.

Whip and Tongue Technique

Closeup of the Whip and Tongue graft technique -- just method of how to graft an apple tree.

The Whip and Tongue technique is also called clefting. It is one of the strongest and most secure methods of grafting, since it lets the stock and scion touch more surface area than other methods. This increases your likelihood of proper grafting and successful growth. 

To do the Whip and Tongue technique, you will need to cut both the rootstock and scion in a special zigzag pattern. Make sure you use a grafting knife, which will let you make smooth, flat cuts. Then fit the two parts together like a puzzle to allow for the maximum contact. You will need to tie them together with tape or a rope. 

Bud Grafting

Bud grafting is a unique grafting technique since it joins buds instead of branches. You can do this in the late summer when the bark of fruit trees becomes looser and is easy to peel away from the trunk. To do a bud graft, you will need to locate a fruiting branch for your scion. Then you will make a special cut to insert the graft under the bark of your rootstock. Secure it with grafting tape. Over time, the cambrium should grow to join the plants together, eventually encouraging fruiting once again. 

Keeping New Grafts Healthy 

Grafts can take anywhere from three to eight weeks to heal. Just like a wound on a human body, it takes a tree time to generate new cells and heal over the graft. During this early time, it’s important to provide your graft with dedicated care to ensure its health and success. 

1. Check the grafts regularly

Check on your graft once or twice every week. If necessary, replace the grafting tape or the wax (many gardeners use wax to help join the stock and scion together in the beginning). 

2. Encourage humid conditions

Humidity helps protect grafts during those early weeks of new growth. But there’s an important distinction between humidity and moisture. You don’t want your graft to be wet, which can lead to bacterial infection! The best way to do this for outdoor plants is to try to provide shade.

3. Keep the graft cool

In those early days, it is vital not to let your graft get too hot. This can kill that early growth. The best way to do this is to keep the tree shaded as much as possible. If you don’t have other trees nearby to provide shade, try putting up a temporary tent or even hanging bedsheets from a line.

4. Prune the rootstock

Rootstocks can produce new growth just like any plant, but you don’t want this to happen, especially when they are newly grafted. To encourage the stock to funnel nutrients toward the scion, keep the stock well pruned. 

5. Watch out for girdling

Girdling happens when a graft is successful, but then the scion is smothered by the grafting tape cutting off nutrients as it grows. Once you notice new scion growth and are confident that the graft has been successful, start removing the tape to avoid girdling.

FAQ

Can You Graft An Apple Tree To Any Tree? 

The general rule for grafting fruit trees is that you can graft a fruit tree to other trees in the same genus. For example, you can graft an orange and lemon tree together since they are both citrus trees. You can graft many apple varieties together or even apples with crabapples. Interestingly, you can graft an apple tree to a pear tree, too!

What Is The Best Time Of Year To Graft An Apple Tree? 

The best time of year to graft an apple tree depends on the grafting method you are using. Most methods are best to do during the spring, just about when the buds start to open. You can also graft a bit earlier, during the late winter. Some methods of grafting, such as bud grafting, can be done during the late summer. This will ensure that they heal before going dormant for the winter.

How Long Does It Take a Grafted Apple Tree To Bear Fruit?

When you grow apple trees from seedlings, it can take anywhere from two to 10 years before the tree begins producing fruit. This depends not only on the growing conditions, but also on the variety of apple cultivar. One of the major advantages of grafting apple trees is that it drastically reduces the amount of time needed for a tree to start to bear fruit. Most grafted fruit trees can bear fruit in their second year, after an initial growing season to get established. 

Final Thoughts on How to Graft an Apple Tree

Grafting apple trees might seem overwhelming at first, but once you learn how to do it and the terminology involved, you can achieve some of the healthiest trees you’ve ever had in your garden!

Have you ever grafted an apple tree? Let us know in the comments!

Now that you know about apple tree grafting, click here to read our other apple tree articles.