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Cutting scionwood for a cleft graft

Pear scionwood

My first step after deciding to topwork my two pear trees was to find scionwood.  I wanted to try specific varieties, so I ordered some from Burnt Ridge Nursery, but you can also get scionwood from a neighbor's tree if you know you like the taste and habits of their fruit varieties.  The best scionwood is about the thickness of a pencil, is from last year's growth, doesn't contain flower buds, and does contain two or three leaf buds.  Longer scionwood is fine, and gives you some wiggle room in case you make the first cut wrong --- you can always shorten it to three buds later.

Irregular scionwood cut

Although you should wait to prepare your official scionwood until it's ready to go into place (Thursday's post), raw beginners like me should practice first so we become relatively adept at our cuts before working on the limited scionwood.  Grafting cuts should always be as straight as possible, which means you should try to make them with a single cut rather than "whittling" --- fixing incorrect cuts by making two or three more cuts.  The photo above shows some of my early practice strokes --- you can see the curves that result from whittling.

Cutting practice scionwoodLuckily for me, I had plenty of wood to practice on.  I planned to cut the whole top off my two small pear trees and insert new scionwood in a cleft graft, so nearly all of the twigs on the tree were fair game.

I actually practiced on a little walnut tree I needed to cut out of the yard first, but soon discovered that different trees' twigs behave very differently.  If you're going to graft a pear tree, practice on some pear twigs; if you're going to graft an apple, practice on an apple.

Diagram of scionwood partsWedge shape for cleft graftSo, what did I want my cuts to look like?  The easiest grafting cut is for a whip graft, where you attach two twigs of the same diameter together.  That kind of graft simply requires a long straight cut so that the scionwood comes to a point, as is shown in the drawing to the left.

For my cleft graft, I needed to make a slightly more complex cut.  I wanted to turn the base of the scionwood into a wedge by making two angled cuts.  To complicate matters further, the wedge needed to be pie-shaped in cross-section, with the side containing the lowest bud larger than the other side of the twig.  This sounds complex, but wasn't really that hard to cut, once I wrapped my head around the goal.

Cut off end of twig

Time to start cutting!  Grafting teachers always warn you to make sure the buds point up, which seems ludicrously obvious to me, but maybe folks not as tuned into plants need to be told that?  Once you turn your scionwood right side up, decide which spot will be the bottom of your cut.  I learned the hard way that you won't get a nice, straight cut if you try to go through a node (where the buds are), so I cut my scionwood off just above a bud.

It's best if you also choose a spot where the internode (length of wood between two buds) is Cutting scionwood for cleft graftrelatively long since your angled cut should be at least an inch long, preferably 1.5 to 2 inches.  Longer cuts give your scionwood a better chance of merging with the growing tissue of the tree it's being grafted onto.

Now find a good sharp knife (I used our chicken butchering knife, recently sharpened) and make your first test cut.  Remember, you don't want to whittle, so you should create the wedge shape at the bottom of your piece of scionwood in two quick cuts.  Once you try it a time or two, you'll see why I told you to practice on a twig you didn't care about.

Cleft graft scionwoodAfter making Mark stand around in the sun and watch me whittle for about fifteen minutes, I started to feel like my cuts were going more smoothly.   Time to move on to the next step --- preparing the tree to be grafted onto.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post to learn tips in that department.

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This post is part of our Grafting Experiment lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Nice post! I was thinking about snagging some of the invasive ailanthus trees in our neighborhood to practice on until you pointed out that different woods cut differently. Ailanthus might be the softest, weirdest wood I ever encountered so I probably need another guinea pig.
Comment by Eliza @ Appalachian Feet Tue Mar 6 12:12:05 2012
Eliza --- If I recall correctly, I think ailanthus wood is actually a lot like walnut --- pretty pithy. If you have a maple around, though, it might cut a bit more like an apple or pear.
Comment by anna Tue Mar 6 16:10:14 2012

To be sure, buds up is ludicrously obvious, as buds down is obviously ludicrous.

And I have two black thumbs.

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Comment by Jeremiah Wed Mar 7 17:31:28 2012
I figured I'd better throw that admonition in just in case it wasn't ludicrously obvious. :-)
Comment by anna Wed Mar 7 18:30:16 2012

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