Debbie Arrington

Grafting adds more variety to small spaces

Espalier, a French word that originates from an Italian word meaning “shoulder,” is a time-tested way to grow fruit in small spaces, often using grafts. This peach tree has been espaliered and grafted with more than one variety.
Espalier, a French word that originates from an Italian word meaning “shoulder,” is a time-tested way to grow fruit in small spaces, often using grafts. This peach tree has been espaliered and grafted with more than one variety. Chicago Tribune file

Count Claire Splan among the many backyard farmers who have discovered the joy of grafting.

“I love grafting,” said Splan, a longtime Bay Area garden writer and blogger. “It’s something I want to explore a lot more. It’s really amazing when you think about what you can do.”

Splan has become a Northern California authority on stretching the limits of urban gardens. Her popular blog, An Alameda Garden (alamedagarden.blogspot.com), shares her trials and many triumphs as she tries to grow more of her own food in her small Alameda garden while also maintaining an attractive water-wise landscape.

Her latest book, “California Month-by-Month Gardening: What To Do Each Month To Have a Beautiful Garden All Year” (Cool Springs, 240 pages, $24.99), was released in December. It follows her 2012 Cool Springs release, “California Fruit and Vegetable Gardening.”

January is the perfect time to tackle grafting, pruning, planting and other mid-winter garden projects. And this weekend includes a great opportunity to get started on grafting: The California Rare Fruit Growers host their annual Sacramento scion exchange.

Sunday’s event will be held at a new location: Carmichael’s La Sierra Community Center.

Formerly held at the UC Cooperative Extension’s Sacramento headquarters, the exchange had outgrown the facility’s auditorium. At the 2014 event, hundreds of gardeners – many of them first-time grafters – huddled over tables piled high with budwood representing more than 100 varieties of fruit and nuts.

For the uninitiated, the Scion Exchange has nothing to do with trading Toyotas. In this case, scions are branches that can be attached or grafted to rootstock or existing tree trunks. That budwood will grow true to its variety regardless of what fruit the roots or trunks originally bore.

Grafting with scions can turn a peach tree into a nectarine or an apple into a quince. It also can add multiple varieties to one tree, creating a peach with five varieties or an apple with both red and green fruit.

This approach saves space while also adding variety. For example, some trees need another variety for pollination to produce fruit, but you may not have room for two trees, Splan said. “Instead of planting two different trees, put both varieties on one trunk. It’s half the space.

“The California Rare Fruit Growers do a wonderful job of explaining everything and making it fun,” she added. “There are also a lot of good videos on YouTube, demonstrating how to graft.”

Interest in grafting and backyard fruit production continue to grow along with the scion exchange, Splan noted. Sacramento’s exchange debuted in 1988.

Splan, who will not be at the Sacramento event, got her supplies and grafting start via a scion exchange.

“The scion exchange attracts bigger and bigger crowds,” said Splan, who can find just what she needs for fruit-tree grafting at the event. “That shows people are getting really interested (in fruit growing). (The exchange) makes it more accessible.”

Success is not instant, Splan noted. “Grafting takes patience and time. To make the cuts, you need a little dexterity; I nicked myself pretty good a few times when I first got started. Be prepared for a certain rate of failure.”

The trick to successful grafting is whittling the budwood to size, so its outer layer matches up exactly with the outer layer of the host tree’s branch or rootstock where it will be attached. The idea is that the two pieces will grow together, but they need the vascular cambium (located just under the bark) from each piece to knit. And that only happens when the two sides match up just right.

Splan’s first success is an espaliered fuji apple tree that grows flat against a wall in a fraction of the space needed by a full-grown apple tree.

“I originally grafted it in 2009, and it’s just now old enough to be productive,” she said. “You really have to be disciplined and not let them fruit too early. Fruit on young grafts can weigh them down too much and prevents them from developing good (branch) structure. Even as the (grafted tree) matures, you have to remember to thin; that’s the secret to good-size fruit.”

This month also is ideal for planting most fruit trees in California, she added. “In Sacramento, you have more options; you can grow more varieties than we can along the coast because you’ve got more chill hours.”

“Chill hours” – time spent between 32 and 45 degrees – help reset a fruit tree’s biological clock and are vital to consistent production for many varieties of peaches, apples, cherries and other popular fruit. The Sacramento area gets at least 600 chill hours each winter.

“When you’re choosing fruit varieties, whether grafting or a whole new tree, pay attention to those chill hour requirements,” Splan said. “Don’t give precious garden space to a tree that won’t bear because it doesn’t get enough chill.”

Grafting isn’t limited to fruit trees. (For example, most roses are grafted.) But grafted tomatoes – heirloom varieties merged with disease-resistant rootstock – are gaining popularity.

“I’m anxious to try a ‘Ketchup ’n’ Fries’ plant,” Splan said. “It’s a cherry tomato plant grafted onto potato roots. It bears tomatoes on top and potatoes in the ground.

“The horticultural industry is having a lot of fun with grafting,” she added. “Vegetable grafting will become bigger and bigger as we see more of these grafted plants in nurseries. And just like fruit trees, you can learn to do this grafting yourself; it’s not that difficult.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at sacbee.com/debbie-arrington

SCION EXCHANGE

Where: (New location) La Sierra Community Center, 5325 Engle Road, Carmichael

When: 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $5 donation suggested (includes CRFG membership)

Details: (916) 607-7214, sacramento@crfg.org, www.crfg.org

Hosted by the California Rare Fruit Growers, this annual event attracts hundreds of gardeners who want learn how to graft fruit trees and supplies the raw materials for successful grafting. Find more than 100 varieties of fruit budwood (scions) as well as rootstock. Lots of hands-on demonstrations and advice available. Pruning seminar will be held at 11 a.m.

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