The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Topworking changes mature fruit trees to new varieties

Whip graftingSometimes, I'm amazed how knowing the right word opens research doors that have been slamming in your face.  I've been tossing around the idea of grafting new varieties onto my four year old pear trees, but before I undertook such a major surgery, I wanted to hear from people who had tried the same experiment successfully.  Unfortunately, my internet searches turned up very little information...until I stumbled across the term "topwork".

Topworking is the method that orchardists use to change one tree variety to another.  If your trees (like mine) are pretty small (less than three inches trunk diameter), you can simply take a deep breath and cut the whole top off the tree below the first tier of branches and graft your new variety there.  Otherwise, you'll need to graft six to ten limbs that will be the tree's main scaffolds.  If your tree is more than eight years old, it's probably so big that you should spread your topworking out across two or more years, but otherwise you can do the deed all at once.

How do you perform this high stakes grafting?  I'm most familiar with whip grafts that you use to graft scionwood onto rootstock, but whip grafts are only appropriate if both pieces of tree being grafted are roughly the same diameter.  In topworking, you generally have a pencil-thin piece of scionwood being grafted onto a Cleft graftingmuch larger branch or trunk, so you'll want to choose between budding, cleft grafting, and bark grafting.

Budding is most appropriate for cherries, plums and peaches, while apples and pears respond well to other types of grafts.  The choice between cleft and bark grafts depends upon time of year, with cleft grafting working best just as buds begin to swell while bark grafting comes later in the year when bark begins to slip.  (The photos in this post are from the Missouri Extension Service website, which also gives more in depth information about each kind of graft.)

I've decided to perform one cleft graft on each of my pear trees, lopping off the tree top and then inserting two pieces of scionwood in each.  The double scionwood is a way of hedging my bets --- I'll cut one off next year if both take hold.  Stay tuned for photos once I have scionwood in hand and am ready to take the plunge!

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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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Thanks for this key word. There are probably about 10 miscellaneous fruit trees in the young orchard on the 'new' Oregon place. Prior to sale, at some point in the nefarious past, someone locked goats in the orchard when the goat fence failed. So all of the grafted portions of the trees have died, leaving sprouts coming up from the rootstock. We still haven't successfully identified the rootstocks. I haven't been able to find great resources for identifying fruit trees by leaves and bark. But we are hoping to clean around the roots, apply thick mulch, figure out which sprout to save and prune the rest, and finally graft new stock on the top of these trees.
Comment by Charity Sun Feb 26 08:12:53 2012

Charity --- It sounds like you've got quite an experimental time ahead of you! Are you just trying to identify the species of each rootstock? That should be pretty easy. Of the species with more rounded leaves, pear leaves are smooth, apples fuzzy underneath. Peach leaves are very long and slender, and cherry leaves look a bit like the halfway house between a peach and a pear.

If you do a google image search for "pear leaf", etc., you'll see the differences pretty quickly.

Comment by anna Sun Feb 26 09:53:22 2012

what perfect timing for this post. I've moved to a new place that has some established wild plums that I've been thinking of grafting some plum varieties onto.

On another note...I've been reading about "gritty mix" for growing citrus in...have you ever experimented with that?

Naomi AKA Fostermamas

Comment by Fostermamas Sun Feb 26 21:40:22 2012

Fostermamas --- Glad I got you thinking! I probably could have tried to graft onto my wild plum, but it was so big, it would have been a huge undertaking. And I didn't even think of it until you commented!

I'd never heard of "gritty mix" for citrus. I did a little bit of internet research, and it sounds like the purpose of gritty mix is to make sure the soil for a potted plant doesn't get compacted and end up anaerobic, especially if you don't repot for more than two years in a row. I've never had a problem with my stump dirt/manure compost combo losing its fluff for my fruit trees, but I'll be curious to hear how your gritty mix works. Here's the best site I found about it:

Comment by anna Mon Feb 27 15:22:58 2012

Time to practice your mad scientist laugh.

I am excited to see how your experiment turns out - please take a lot of pictures of your process. As a woodworker it is making my brain go Boing Boing Boing. I just have never thought of performing 'joinery' on a live tree at the scale pictured in that 2nd illustration.

Comment by Jeremiah Wed Feb 29 17:37:44 2012
I'll be sure to report in great detail! (Far more than most people want, I suspect. :-) )
Comment by anna Wed Feb 29 20:37:04 2012

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