Tree Grafting During The Winter? Follow These 9 Simple Steps

Fruit tree twigs grafted on a tree trunk. Grafting cherry tree over a plum tree

Grafting a tree sounds like a difficult, labor-intensive, highly skilled endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be. It does require a little bit of knowledge along with a few specific tools, but it can be done if you follow a few simple steps. Grafting a tree also needs to be done in late winter, before the trees transition out of their dormant state.

When attempting to graft a tree, it’s best to wait until late winter or early spring while the scions and rootstock are still in their dormant phase. While budding is usually performed during the growing season, most grafting is done in winter and results in the best success.

The preferred time to graft most trees is in the late winter, before the temperature starts to warm up, and before the trees start to bud. The reason being, because as the tree enters the growth stage, it can heal faster, and has more time to grow before going dormant again. Keep reading to learn the steps to graft your tree!

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Check Your Equipment Before Getting Started

Fresh cleft graft on a young figs tree

The proper tools are essential for doing any job well. Though you won’t need a lot of equipment to graft trees, the proper maintenance of your equipment will make all the difference. Before you get started make sure you have these items available:

Tree Grafting Requires A Grafting Knife

A grafting knife or a razor-sharp knife works very well here.

A sharp knife is paramount for grafting because you need good, clean cuts on both your scion (the part of the tree you are going to graft, usually a short, pencil-thin branch) and rootstock (the tree that is getting the graft attached to it).

A clean wound on a tree heals better and faster compared to a jagged, rough cut, a tear, or crushed part of the tree. PUELDU Double Blades Grafting/Gardening Knife with 2 Grafting Tapes is a great option because it has one curved blade, which helps to get a clean cut, and a flat blade with a bark lifter for cleft and splice grafts.

It also comes with two rolls of tree wrap!

If you need to sharpen your knife instead of buying a new one, this Work Sharp Precision Adjust Knife Sharpener will help you put a razor’s edge on your blades. 

Sharp Bypass Garden Snips

Your scions should be about the width of a standard, wooden pencil. A sharp pair of bypass garden snips such as these Gonicc 8″ Professional Premium Titanium Bypass Pruning Shears will probably become your gardening best friend. 

These bypass shears create clean cuts on smaller branches making your grafting job that much easier.  

Tree Wrap

When you start grafting trees, you are essentially performing surgery on a tree. Once the graft is complete the wound needs to be wrapped with a high-quality tree wrap. 

This helps to keep bugs and debris out of the wound so it can heal faster and cleaner. The second reason to wrap a new graft is to add structural integrity. After all your hard work, you don’t want a mild gust of wind to break off the newly grafted branches. 

You can use something flexible such as electrical tape in a pinch, but we recommend tree wrap made specifically for trees. Dumta Nursery Grafting Tape is a great grafting tape that allows the wound to breathe while keeping water out. It’s also biodegradable, so you won’t have to remove the tape once the graft heals. 

Cut-Resistant Gloves

While working with very sharp knives, it’s always advisable to have something to protect the little “piggies”. Cut-resistant gloves such as these Cut Resistant Gloves, 3 Pairs Upgrade Safety Cutting Gloves are an essential safety precaution when working with very sharp knives. 

Fine Toothed Saw 

This tool is optional depending on the type of graft you are doing and the size of the graft. If you are grafting a larger branch that snips or loppers can’t easily cut through, you will need a fine-toothed saw for a nice, clean-cut.

Corona Tools 10-Inch RazorTOOTH Folding Saw is a great pick for branches or trunks six inches or less that need to be cut for grafting. The sharp teeth leave smooth cuts that will heal easier compared to other saws. 

A Disinfecting Solution To Clean Your Tools

To prevent cross-contamination between trees, it is advised to disinfect your cutting tools before and after you cut into the trees. Isopropyl alcohol works immediately to disinfect your tools, and it evaporates quickly which helps to prevent rust.

You don’t have to mix isopropyl alcohol or dilute it with anything!

Another solution to disinfect your tools is to use a mixture of water and bleach (according to product specifications.) Place the solution on your blades and let them dry completely before using!

The downside to bleach is it can eventually damage plastics and rubber parts on your tools. It can cause the metal to rust if it’s not cleaned and dried completely, and if you get it on our clothes, it will strip the color out. 

9 Steps To Easy Grafting! Let’s Get Started

Apple tree renovation by the grafting

Several different types of grafting that can be done to a tree, but we will be focusing on the whip and tongue graft, which is one of the easiest grafts, especially compared to a whole tree graft. 

Yes, you can graft an entire tree. As long as you have a strong rootstock and fresh scions available, you can graft an entirely different tree to a small stump. But that’s an advanced class, let’s start with something simple; a single branch.

Whip And Tongue Graft

This type of graft is the most popular method and is used mostly on fruit trees. Say you have an apple tree that grows beautiful red delicious apples, but you want a variety.

So you decide to graft on some gala apples, for example, now you have one apple tree that produces two types of apples every year. But, can you graft in winter? Let’s dive into grafting to learn more!

Step 1: Choose Your Grafting Site

We’re assuming you already have your rootstock and scion picked out, so we’re going to get straight into grafting. You want to make sure for a whip and tongue graft, both rootstock and scion are about the same size.

Step 2: Cut Your Scion On A Diagonal

With your sharp knife or razor knife, cut your scion on a diagonal. This cut only needs to be about one inch long.

Step 3: Make A Second Diagonal Cut

Next, you need to do another opposite, diagonal from the first cut you made. Your scion should now have a V at the bottom of it and now be about one-half inch long.

Step 4: Cut An Area Below The Buds

On your rootstock, take the bypass shears and cut an area below any buds. You want the tree to focus on the graft and grow that section.

Otherwise, the graft may not take because all the growing energy is being focused on the bud underneath the graft.

Step 5: Cut A “V” Into Your Rootstock

Now, use your sharp knife again and cut a ‘V’ into your rootstock where the scion will rest.Where your scion has a point, the rootstock needs to have an open ‘V’ base for the scion to fit into. 

What you want to see is the cambium layer lining up. The cambium layer is the layer of green growth directly underneath the bark. This is where all the growth happens on trees, so these need to line up as closely as possible.

According to NC Historic Sites, for a successful graft, each growth needs to have clean, even cuts that match up to the cambium layers. The wound is then bound with tape so it can heal. Then new cadmium cells grow together to create a layer of cells called a callus.

Step 6: Insert The Scion Into The Rootstock

Make sure you DON’T shove it in there because that could cause your rootstock to split. You want a good, snug fit, but don’t shove it in there. If there is a big gap, whittle down one end so it fits better, but really be careful not to split the branch of your rootstock.

Step 7: Wrap Both Ends Using Grafting Tape

Now that the scion and rootstock are together—you may need an extra pair of hands for this step—wrap the two ends with grafting tape. You want to make sure the tape has a snug fit, but don’t squeeze the life out of the tree.

If you have ever wrapped your wrist, knee, or other joints with a sports brace, this would be similar, only a little bit tighter. The main goals here are to keep insects and rain out while adding structure and stability to the graft with the grafting tape.

You could also take this time to label your graft. You don’t want to accidentally cut the graft off when you go to prune your trees. Plus, if you do several grafts at the same time, this helps keep everything organized.

Step 8: Maintain Your Tree!

Now, you should water your tree, and if it hasn’t been fertilized in a year or two, now would be a great time to add some extra nutrition so the tree can grow even better!

Keep checking on your tree to make sure it’s doing well. Not all grafts will take so you will have to keep an eye on the scion to see if it is starting to grow when spring rolls around.

Step 9: Check To See If The Graft Has Taken

Once you see that the graft has taken and the scion has leafed out, you might be able to take the tape off if it’s not biodegradable tape. Around mid to late summer, if the tape is not starting to come off on its own, you should go ahead and remove it.

If the tape stays on too long it can actually constrict growth and choke off the new graft. Take a look at the grafting point, it should be almost undetectable, or you might see a small scar where the cuts were made.

As long as it’s all fused, the graft is a success and you don’t have to worry about wrapping it anymore. Give yourself a nice pat on the back or congratulate yourself by cracking open a cold one!

Benefits Of Grafting

Macro photo of a successful graft in the branch of a cherry tree in bloom.

Grafting has been around for thousands of years, and if it wasn’t for this type of tree surgery, we might not be enjoying the plump, delicious, sweet, fruit we enjoy today.

If you have ever planted seeds from an apple, one, you know it takes a long time to get fruit, and two, you wouldn’t even end up with the same fruit. 

If you planted a Honeycrisp apple seed, you’d be very disappointed when the fruit that finally came about was hard, bitter, and tasted nothing like the apple the seed came from. That’s because apple seeds don’t grow the same trees or fruit. Apple trees are grafted to get a certain type of fruit.  

Grafting can be done to make a hardier tree. Say a certain type of tree is prone to root problems, you can bypass that by grafting a tree to a different, more resistant rootstock. 

According to the USDA, grafting can create a desirable market for growers and consumers by increasing resistance to diseases, nematodes, and stress. Grafting can also increase harvest yields and fruit quality. 

Grafting also adds variety. I once had a citrus tree that had five different fruits growing on it. Lemons, limes, tangerines, navel oranges, and mandarin oranges. You could do the same thing with other fruit trees, or similar flowering trees for a unique species. 

You can experiment with small branches, that way, if the graft doesn’t take, you won’t lose the entire tree, just a branch or two. 

Why Graft In Winter?

Grafting in late winter is the best time for several reasons. The trees won’t get shocked when you do a transplant on their limbs, when the growing season starts, the tree has a longer time to heal, and spring is when all the tree’s growth happens. 

If you were to start grafting in the summer or fall then the tree would not have time to completely heal before the harsh winter sets in. When the temperatures dip below freezing, a frost could set in and ruin the new grafts, making them completely unviable. Grafting in late winter or early spring counters the hard freezes that could ruin a new graft. 

During spring, trees take in a lot of water which flows through the cambium layer. The water is used to kickstart new growth and make the leaves bud out. This is what really makes a graft heal and start growing. 

Grafting in late winter gives the tree plenty of time to completely heal and get prepared for another winter chill. 

Can You Graft Trees In Summer?

There’s no law that says you can’t graft trees in the summer, but we certainly wouldn’t recommend it. The reason is that the growing season is over, and the tree won’t have enough time to heal before winter. 

Basically, doing anything to your trees such as transplanting, pruning, or grafting during the summer is just a recipe for disaster. During the summer, you should only really be watering your trees. 

What Types Of Trees Can Be Grafted Together?

Common wisdom for tree grafting is that the trees have to be similar to each other for a graft to take. Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing any Christmas trees that also grow apples—heavy sigh. Sadly, you also won’t have any success putting the lime in the coconut tree (to drink it on up). 

Apple trees can be grafted to each other, and some people have reported success in grafting pears to apple trees. Stone fruit trees can be grafted to each other. I’ve heard of peach, nectarine, plum, and cherry trees before.

Citrus trees can also be grafted together. Roses can be grafted to have different color flowers on the same tree, but in the end, the trees have to be similar to each other.

The reason is, that the cambium layers have to be similar, or they won’t line up and grow together. Completely different tree species have different growth layer structures, so that’s why they don’t work. 

Where To Get Scions

There are several places you can get viable scions:

  • Friends and neighbors
  • Farmer’s markets
  • Local plant sales
  • Online retailers
  • Some nurseries—call and see. They may have a supplier they could hook you up with
  • In the wild—be sure to check local laws and ordinances, sometimes it’s illegal to take from state and national forests.
  • Grow them yourself

Storing Your Scions

Scions need to be cut when they are dormant and can be stored for up to three months. You want to make sure you have the previous year’s growth on the straightest branch possible. To locate the new growth, take a look at the potential scion, where the bark changes texture or color and cut just below this area. 

If you are going to store them, you’ll need a little more space to cut them off before you graft them. 

Scion wood can be stored in an unheated basement, garage, or refrigerator. The temperature needs to be between 34 ℉ and 54 ℉. Never store them in a freezer, this will ruin them. 

You’ll need a sealable bag that is big enough to hold them comfortably. Next wrap the scions in damp paper towels. They don’t need to be dripping wet, and, you should squeeze as much water out of them as possible, then put them in the refrigerator.

You’ll have to take them out, and open up the bag to exchange the air inside about once a week. These are still living plant parts and need fresh air. If you need to add some water to the paper towels, now would be the time to do that, just remember to squeeze out the excess. 

That’s All On Grafting, Folks!

Grafting trees in spring. Gardening and vegetable garden. Selective focus. Nature.

Now you know all about the whip and tongue graft and how to go about it yourself. It’s best to do this type of grafting in late winter when the tree is dormant so that when spring rolls around, the tree has plenty of time to heal. 

Just remember to keep the scions and rootstock fresh, and you’ll need similar varieties of trees. I know I’d love to have a fruit salad tree, complete with apples, cherries, oranges, peaches, etc, but because the trees are so different, it’s not possible right now. 

Thanks for sticking around with us on your tree-grafting journey!

References

Goldschmidt, Eliezer E. “Plant grafting: new mechanisms, evolutionary implications.” Frontiers in plant Science 5 (2014): 727.

Errea, P. “Implications of phenolic compounds in graft incompatibility in fruit tree species.” Scientia Horticulturae 74.3 (1998): 195-205.

Ashrafzadeh, Seyedardalan. “In vitro grafting–twenty-first century’s technique for fruit tree propagation.” Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica, Section B—Soil & Plant Science 70.5 (2020): 404-405.

Melnyk, Charles W., and Elliot M. Meyerowitz. “Plant grafting.” Current Biology 25.5 (2015): R183-R188.

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