Yesterday (February 24th), I took part in an Apple Tree grafting workshop at Ordsall Hall in Salford. Events such as these are well outside of my comfort zone. As odd as it will sound, I much prefer attending things like this when I already know what I’m doing. That’s partly because I hate making mistakes publically, or being exposed for a lack of knowledge. I fully acknowledge that it’s a ridiculous notion, but one I struggle to rid – and the anxiety of it, of course, means I make mistakes.
That seems to extend across multiple areas. I rarely get things wrong when I’m doing things on my own plot, whether it be basic or advanced techniques. I can discuss horticultural topics to a detailed level with other plotholders. Yet, when I’m faced with people whose knowledge is presumably way beyond my own, what I do know seems to completely disappear. I effectively turn into a simpleton, much to my own annoyance.
With that said, I always come away from these things having gained something. Yesterday’s workshop was no exception.
The Grafting Workshop
I’ve never done grafting before, though I did already have a broad understanding of the process. The workshop was presented by Peter Nicols of the Northern Fruit Group, who referred to himself as ‘not a professional’, but evidently knew his onions (or Apples, in this case!). Aided by 3 of the Ordsall Hall gardening team, the small group of attendees weren’t short of help at hand.
We were given an overview of the process and reason for grafting, which was presented in a way I suspect most people would understand regardless of their horticultural knowledge. We then set to work with some sharp knives and practice wood.
It was during the practice period that it became abundantly clear I was going to struggle. It was noted by some that the materials were particularly tough, but my Rheumatic hands were not up to the task of handling the knife well enough to make the required cuts. If I’m honest, I hadn’t even considered this could be an issue beforehand, so I hadn’t mentally prepared for it at all. Coming back to my earlier anxiety issue, you can imagine where my head was at this point.
As those around me were busy making beautiful cuts (some into their own hands, it should be noted also!), and moving on to grafting the ‘real thing’, I’m sat there with practice wood covered in jagged edges and splits. As you can imagine, I’d have been more than happy for the world to swallow me up there and then.
Clearly sat there looking completely lost, Peter approached and I explained why I was struggling so much. He explained that his brother has the same issue and instead uses a grafting tool, rather than the traditional technique being taught. Fortunately for me, Ian from the Ordsall Hall team had such a tool and offered to let me try it. It would be safe to say that this alone transformed the experience for me.
While the grafting tool itself wasn’t ‘easy’ to use – I still had to use both hands on it most of the time to get a sufficiently clean cut, it did give me much greater confidence that I could graft something. Instead of facing the real prospect of walking away from the workshop with nothing but some gained knowledge, I could still come away with something I’d grafted myself – albeit using a technique that was different to everyone else’s.
Choosing the Rootstock
After a dozen or so practice runs, I set to grafting the real thing. We could choose from either MM106 or M27 rootstocks, with a dozen or more Apple Cultivars.
MM106 rootstock will produce a large tree between 2.5 and 4.5m high when fully grown. It can be expected to fruit after 3 or 4 years and the larger rootstock makes it more drought tolerant.
M27 rootstock is very small, growing no more than 2m high. It’s ideal for containers or small spaces but will need watering more often and yields will obviously be smaller. M27 rootstock also needs permanent staking.
I opted for MM106 as Peter explained it would be ideal for Espaliers, which is ideally what I want to create for the plot. For the cultivars, I opted for Blenheim Orange – dual cooking and dessert apple. All 3 of my grafts used this same cultivar. Primarily because it’s an Apple I know will be used at home (fussy children will only eat certain coloured apples!).
The key difference between the technique I used, with the grafting tool, and the technique being taught, was that I needed to match the rootstock and scion sizes as closely as possible. Thereafter, the techniques are the same – wrap with grafting tape and seal with wax.
I produced 3 grafts, which to my eye looked reasonably good. They were promptly wrapped and waxed and now sit on my plot in containers. There is, of course, a risk that the grafts will fail, but I live in hope.
I’d never previously considered grafting trees before, and despite my rather poor show yesterday, it’s something I will try again. Perhaps next time in the comfort zone that is my own plot. I tracked down the grafting tool Ian had, which was surprisingly cost-effective (available on Amazon) and ordered one to have a play around with myself. I’m keen to try vegetable grafting this year too, so I’ll get some use out of it for that as well.
As I mentioned at the opening of this post, I did come away from this workshop having gained something. I gained a more practical experience of grafting that went beyond my limited theoretical knowledge. Regardless of the fact I couldn’t put the traditional technique into practice. I also, of course, discovered grafting tools, which I’d previously been completely unaware of. I will no doubt be playing around with this a fair bit this year.
An Annual Event
The tree grafting course is run every year – and I’d highly recommend it. Regardless of your level of experience, ability or knowledge, the team are keen to help as was proven for me.
If you want to know more about the traditional technique, and perhaps a more ‘usual’ experience of the workshop – head across to the Garden Ninja writeup of the workshop from a year earlier, in which Lee has not only explained the workshop in great detail but also followed up on the progress of the grafts he did.
I’ll update this post in a few months to show how my grafts faired.