Grafting Apple Trees

Who doesn’t love snapping a juicy bite off a crisp fall apple? For me, it’s one of the luxuries of autumn in Virginia.

Grow Your Own Apples By Grafting!

Who doesn’t love snapping a juicy bite off a crisp fall apple? For me, it’s one of the luxuries of autumn in Virginia. Right now, the United States produces about 200 different varieties of apples, ranging in color, size, sweetness, and purpose. Some are best for pies and baking, others for applesauce, some are great for cider and pressing, and, of course, many are great for snacking. However, at one time there were more than 20,000 varieties of apples!

It may surprise you to learn that you cannot just pluck a seed from your favorite apple, plant it, and produce a tree that bears the same fruit. You’ll get an apple tree, but the apple it produces could bear no resemblance to the one you got the seed from. This is because apples are “open pollinated.” This just means that the flowers of the apple tree are pollinated naturally, by pollinating insects, wind, etc., which can get pollen from any other apple tree. So, if you get a seed from a Red Delicious apple and plant it in the ground, the fruit that the seed produces will be 50-percent Red Delicious, and 50-percent something else. Naturally over time, each new generation of apple tree produces something further and further away from its parent. 

So how do we ensure the preservation of specific apple varieties, and control the genetics of our apple seeds so that they continue to produce the exact apple we want? The answer lies in a process dating back several thousand years called grafting. 

To learn more from an expert, I spoke with local orchardist John Hoskins, who has been successfully grafting trees for many years. He has over 800 individual trees and 40 different varieties growing in his orchards. He explained that apple grafting starts with two essential things: a root stock, and a scion.

The root stock is, of course, the lower part of the tree that includes the roots. It doesn’t matter what type of apple tree the root stock comes from. Root stock is chosen for qualities such as drought resistance, anchorage (how stable is it in the ground), and disease resistance. The root stock also determines how high the tree will grow. 

The scion is the top part of the tree. This is the part that will bear fruit and contains the genetic makeup of its parent. Orchardists select the scion solely on what type of apple they wish to produce. 

According to Hoskins, anyone can learn to graft apple trees. The process is straightforward, and simply requires practice to master. It goes something like this:

STEP 1: The root stock will need to be ordered in advance from a nursery. In the old days, crabapples were often selected for root stock because their qualities were desirable, and they were easy to come by. This is also an option if you would prefer not to go through a nursery. Your root stock should be about the diameter of a pencil, or only slightly larger.

STEP 2: The scion wood can also be ordered from a nursery, collected from a tree you wish to preserve, or from a tree that bears the type of fruit you want to grow. It’s best to collect the scion wood in winter while the tree is dormant. You’ll want to take a cutting with only about three buds above the cutting and, again, about the diameter of a pencil. After collection, store the scion cutting carefully by wrapping the cut end in a damp paper towel, placing the paper towel end into a plastic bag, and saving it in the refrigerator until spring. 

STEP 3: Early spring is the best time to graft your tree. With a grafting knife, carefully take two angled slices about an inch long off the bottom of the scion wood, so that you have two flat cuts coming to a point. 

In the top of the root stock, make a downward slice directly into the center of the wood, about an inch deep. 

Then, like a puzzle, you will slide the point of the scion wood into the gap that you cut into the root stock. The cambium, or the very edge of the live wood, just under the bark, of the two trees should line up. The place where they join is called the “graft union.”

STEP 4: You’ll need to care for your new tree until it is strong enough and ready to be planted. It is important to prevent the wood from drying out. Wrap the graft union in freezer tape to lock in moisture. 

New trees should be stored out of direct sunlight. The root stock should be placed in damp peat moss and wrapped in a plastic bag until the buds above the graft union begin to show growth. Any new buds below the graft union should be quickly removed so that all the energy from the roots is directed to the tree above the graft. Once new growth can be seen, the tree can be transplanted outside!

You need at least two apple trees to produce fruit, but the more you have, the better chance you’ll have of thorough pollination and a good harvest!  


Apple grafting is a critical part of preserving heirloom apple varieties and developing new ones. Many people use it as a means of preserving a tree they loved in childhood, from a grandparent’s farm. Earlier, we said that America produces about 200 apple varieties, but at one time, there were more than 20,000. So, what happened?

Well, apples were not really produced for eating until the 1920s or ’30s. Before then, apples were produced for sugar and fermented cider. During westward expansion in the 1800s, settlers were offered 100 acres of land if they would commit to establishing homesteads and settlements on it. In most cases, they were required to plant fifty apple trees over the course of three years to prove that they were established. About this time, an enterprising man named John Chapman, who you may know as Johnny Appleseed, began planting hundreds of acres of apples across the unexplored west, selling the seedlings, and even selling land planted with apple trees, to frontiersmen. They would cultivate apple orchards and, as new apples were discovered with desirable qualities, nice colors, etc., they would be preserved. 

But in the 1920s and ’30s, as apples became popular for eating and mass production and nationwide shipping fell into popular demand, large companies began selectively growing only a few types of apples that kept well in storage and didn’t bruise easily. Countless varieties of heirloom apples were lost. 

Orchardist John Hoskins says that there has been a push back against mass production with the return of small farmers, apple grafting workshops, and a growing community of heirloom apple enthusiasts. Now, “Fruit Explorers” (that’s really what they’re called!) are out there searching for hundred-year-old apple trees to collect cuttings and preserve varieties. They conduct research to try to identify the tree, and as a result, long-lost apple varieties are coming back into popular cultivation, and the art of apple grafting is being rediscovered.


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