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Dr. Natelson preparing an approach graft.
While most people probably spend last Thursday night with their special Valentine, I drove out to the Bear Creek Extension Office to attend the Gulf Coast Fruit Study Group grafting program. I had been asked to assist Dr. Natelson and George McAfee, but I don't know why. Those two master grafters had everything under control all by themselves. Dr. Natelson began by giving a great introduction to grafting and the benefits of learning to graft, such as being able to grow several varieties of fruit on a single tree, or being able to top-work a bad tree into a better variety. Then George McAfee gave a detailed presentation of his grafting toolkit, discussed how to select good budwood, and demonstrated how to cleft graft citrus. I learned that cheap electrical tape can be used instead of parafilm, and that razor blades can be handy for making clean final cuts on a scion.

Overall, the program was not at all like what I expected. The only other grafting program I've ever been to is John Panzarella's annual grafting class in Lake Jackson, where a few grafting techniques are demonstrated, and then everyone gets to try to do it themselves to gain some hands on experience. I guess I just assumed that this would be very similar, which is why I hauled so many rootstocks down there. Of course, I had to leave before the program ended, so people may have had the chance to try their hands at grafting after all. I would have liked to have stayed until the end, but the presentations were still going strong at 8:45 pm. Dr. Wife was home alone with some really cranky kids, I had work the next morning, and it looked like the program might go on to 10 o'clock or later, so I had to call it a night. I feel bad that I had to leave when I did because I hated to leave a bunch of plants for someone else to have to deal with, and I had told one gentleman that I would help him graft his rootstock to a Cara Cara. I really hope that Dr. Natelson or George were able to to it for him, and that everyone that wanted some rootstocks to practice on was able to take some home.

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The masters explaining the tools of the trade.
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George McAfee demonstrating how to cut a scion.
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George McAfee demonstrating a cleft graft.
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Rootstocks I brought to share. Hope they all found homes!
 
 
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Getting ready to propagate!
I have to admit that even though I feel that I have become proficient at cleft grafting and bark inlay grafting, I still feel a sense of trepidation when it comes to t-budding. T-budding is perhaps the most common grafting method used to propagate citrus trees, and according to the Texas A&M Aggie Horticulture website, it usually has a 98% success rate when done properly. The basic technique is pretty simple: You make an incision in the rootstock like an inverted letter T, insert your bud, and wrap it up with parafilm until it heals. Once the bud is healed, you unwrap it, "force" the bud, and the result is a grafted citrus tree.

Part of the reason I am not as practiced in t-budding is that I rarely graft for the purpose of propagating new trees. Usually my goal is to graft another variety onto one of my established trees, so I usually use the cleft or the bark inlay grafting methods. The first grafting technique I learned was the cleft graft, so I'm very comfortable with it. I have used the cleft graft on my apples, pears, plums, peaches, citrus, pomegranates, and figs, so I've had a lot of practice, and on more than just citrus trees. Bark inlay grafting is essentially just like t-budding, but done on a larger scale. With bark inlay grafting you insert a small budstick, not just a single bud. I've also had a lot of practice grafting with the bark inlay method, so I think that with a little t-budding practice, I should be able to become comfortable with it as well (or at least passable).

The trifoliate rootstocks I planted in the tall pots last year have grown very well, although not all have reached grafting size. Rootstocks with the same approximate thickness of a pencil are ideal. Even though it was late October and the rootstocks were a little small, a quick test showed that the bark of the rootstocks was still slipping, so I decided it was time for a little t-budding practice. I decided to try to propagate six trees of three varieties: Pong Koa, Cara Cara Navel Orange, and Ujukitsu. Following Texas A&M's instructions I carefully made the inverted T incisions, trimmed the buds from scionwood, and and carefully slid them in. Working as delicately as possible I wrapped them up with parafilm, and began the long two weeks of waiting to see if the buds would take, or if my surgical skills needed further refinement.


I learned a couple of side lessons during this experiment. First of all, the potting soil I used in the tall pots had compacted significantly, which made it difficult to cut the t-shaped incision at the best location on the rootstock. I have since learned that  many growers cut their potting soil with pine bark nuggets or cedar chips to keep the potting mix from compacting, acidify it slightly, and to ensure good drainage. In addition, using 50% nuggets or chips significantly lowers the cost. Second, I learned that old parafilm can become brittle, and I found myself having to unwrap a good bit of the more weathered tape on the outside of the to get to the good stretchy stuff within. I also only had 1-inch wide tape, which was kind of awkward to use on such small rootstocks. I'll order some half-inch budding tape before I try again.


Finally, after two weeks had passed, I carefully unwrapped the grafts. Success! Of my six attempts, four were successful. One of the Pong Koas and one of the Cara Caras didn't make it. I realize that's only a 66% success rate, but considering how small the rootstocks were an the fact that I'm still learning, I'm very pleased. I really should have done it earlier in the year though. Now that the days are shorter and the trifoliate is going dormant, the buds probably won't begin to grow until next spring. That's ok, they'll be safe and warm in the greenhouse until then. I don't have any plans to start propagating trees on a large scale, but its nice to be able to share varieties with friends, and to be able to graft budwood from my experimental seedlings onto trifoliate. I've got 40 more rootstocks to practice with when they start growing again next spring!



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1. Trim off the thorns.
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2. Make the inverted 'T' incision.
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3. Cut the bud from the budwood.
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4. Insert the bud.
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5. Wrap it up with parafilm.
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6. Unwrap after two weeks. Success!
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Forcing the bud.
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Failed bud.
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Tree frog hanging out among the trifoliate.
 
 
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Trifoliate Rootstock Seedlings
When I visited the Texas A&M Citrus Center last year, I was very impressed with how they raised their rootstocks from seed in tall plastic pots. To keep the pots upright, they have built custom tables topped with steel remesh. I've been wanting to build a rootstock propagation table of my own ever since, and this weekend I finally did. I had lots of leftover 2x4s from when I tore down my shed, and plenty of leftover screws from building the play fort for the kids. The only things I needed were the pots and something to keep them from falling over.

I talked to John Watson at the Citrus Center, and he said that they have found 4x4x14 tree pots from Stuewe & Sons work the best for them. I bought a case of pots ($0.41 each) online, and started building my table as soon as they arrived. I am glad I waited until the pots arrived before I bought a sheet of remesh. I don't know where they get the mesh they use in Weslaco, but the remesh at my local Home Depot had 6x6 holes, and was just too big. I couldn't find any other metal fencing that fit the pots well, so I just picked up some wire.

Once the kids went down for their naps I got to work. The dimensions are roughly two feet deep, three feet tall, and five feet wide. Instead of using metal fencing to hold the pots up, I just used wire. I drove nails every five inches along the top rails, and wrapped the wire around them to form a grid. This actually worked out very nicely, and was cheaper than buying a sheet of metal fencing that might not have fit well anyway. The finished table holds 56 tree pots. I had planned to get all of my rootstock seedlings transplanted, but I was out of town most of the weekend, and just didn't have time. I'll just have to find time to get it done sometime this week. John Watson says that by using a good potting soil, deep tree pots, and Osmocote, the Citrus Center is able to grow both sour orange and trifoliate rootstocks to grafting size in one year. I hope I'm able to do it too, and that I'll have 50 rootstocks to graft and share next winter. I'm planning on building a second one for grafted trees that will go in the greenhouse when it's finished.

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Photo from my trip to the Citrus Center.
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Simple Table Frame
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Slats to hold up trees.
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Wire to keep pots from falling over.
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Table holds 56 tree pots
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Boy #2 enjoying the first blueberries of the year.
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Transplanted trifoliate seedlings
 
 
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LSU Gold Fig
I've been wanting to add more varieties of figs to my collection, but I don't have any room for more trees in the yard. The only way I can continue to collect varieties is to graft them onto the trees I've already planted. I looked around on the internet for information on grafting figs, and found very little information. I even contacted the NAFEX fig expert Ray Givan about the best way to graft figs. He replied, "I've never had success grafting figs. Good luck." Fortunately the GCFSG expert grafter and propagator George McAfee was able to give me some pointers at the citrus program last Thursday, and Dr. Randall was kind enough to give me some cuttings from his Banana and Nagle/Mysteak figs, two varieties I've been searching for.

I decided to add the cuttings to my LSU Gold tree because it is the largest fig I have, and I think its in the best location. According to Mr. McAfee, figs can be propagated by cleft grafting, bark inlay grafting, or chip budding. He recommended I try the bark inlay method. I really like the bark inlay graft for citrus, and am comfortable with the method, but I had never attempted it with figs before. I also knew it was going to be challenging because fig wood is soft, exudes a sticky latex sap, and it very gnarled and knobby, making it really hard to find a nice straight piece for trimming symmetrically shaped scions.


I sprayed the branches with 90% alcohol to kill any mold spores, disinfected my pruners and grafting knife, and cut off three of the large branches. After I let the white sap run for a little bit, I made an initial incision into the bark along the top of one of the branches. I was happy to find the bark slipped very easily. I then did my best to cut and trim a shallow scion wedge from one of Dr. Randall's cuttings, and slid it under the bark. Finally, I wrapped the stock and scion with parafilm, and secured it in place with a rubber band. I did two of these grafts, and then attempted a cleft graft. I'll be surprised if the cleft graft takes, since I couldn't get a nice straight cut of scion wood, and I had a really hard time getting the cambium layers to line up well. Hopefully at least one of them will take. I'll know in a few weeks.

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Cut back branches on one side.
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Branch before bark inlay grafting.
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3-inch incision along the top of the branch.
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Banana fig scion trimmed to a narrow wedge.
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Sliding the scion under the incision in the bark.
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Stock and scion wrapped in parafilm.
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I tried two bark inlay grafts and a cleft graft.
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This experiment cost me at least 9 big figs. Hope it works.
 
 
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Anna Apple Blossoms
My apple trees have already started blooming! I thought I had more time, but this winter has been so mild that many of my trees never lost all their leaves. Last year I didn't prune the trees until late February, but since they're already waking up I got to work pruning the trees this week. All the books say to prune apples (and many other fruits) to a modified central leader, but this can be tricky for a novice. I made a lot of mistakes early on while learning how to prune, and now I'm having to correct them to bring my trees into balance. I definitely could have benefited from a hands on tutorial like the ones offered by Urban Harvest.

I think one problem for someone starting out is that almost all of the pruning instructions out there assume you're starting out with a one-year-old whip. However, what most of us buy in the nursery or fruit tree sales is a two-year-old tree that has already branched, and may or may not have good scaffold development. More likely than not, these trees spent the last year growing shoulder to shoulder in pots, and the branches have had to grow almost straight up to capture the available light, and have bad crotch angles as a result. Fixing this is a daunting task for the new orchardist.

When I first started, I was afraid to cut off too much wood, and wound up leaving crossing and upright branches, scaffold branches right above each other, competing central leaders, and not training young branches to good crotch angles. Last year I just made limb spreaders with sticks, but they fell out of place within a month or two. This year I got some real ones made of stiff plastic, and they work much better. Fortunately, a bad pruning/training job is like a bad haircut. It might look bad for a while, but it will grow back. After a few years of corrective pruning, my trees are starting to look much better.

I also recently found out that we might be able to grow Honeycrisp apples in Houston. The Honeycrisp is perhaps the best apple I've ever had, and I still remember the first one I ever ate. You can imagine my disappointment when I read that it required 800-1,000 chill hours. However, according to Kuffel Creek the Honeycrisp apple has been productive in southern California, and may also produce here. Given this new information, I decided to give it a shot and try to grow some myself.

A couple years ago I planted two Honeycrisp and two Anna trees in my grandmother's backyard in Waco, Texas. I pruned the trees for her in early January this year, and brought home a couple of scions just for the heck of it. I figured I would graft one onto a little branch, and maybe get an apple every odd year when we got enough chill. Since reading about Kuffel Creek's results, I decided to graft on four scions to my Anna apple tree, and in a couple years I should know if they really will produce well in Houston. If anyone else is growing Honeycrisps apples in Houston, I'd love to hear about it.


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Dorsett before pruning.
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Dorsett with limb spreaders.
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Dorsett after pruning.
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Anna before pruning.
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Anna with limb spreaders.
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Anna after pruning.
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Cleft Graft (not my best work)
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Graft wrapped with parafilm and a rubber band to hold it tight.
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Four Honeycrisp apple grafts on my Anna.
 
 
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Bark Inlay Graft
With no ripe fruit to eat right now, I decided to go around the yard and unwrap all my grafts from back in March. I had top-worked my Meyer lemon into a multi-mandarin tree with Fairchild, Pixie, Kinnow, and Dobashi Beni mandarins/satsumas, and I top-worked my container Everhard navel to a multi-blood orange tree with Ruby, Moro, and Tarocco blood oranges.

I had ordered citrus budwood from the Texas A&M Citrus Center in Weslaco, Texas, and another TXRFG member was kind enough to give me some Dobashi Beni budwood. I used cleft grafts and Joe Real's citrus bark graft method, with almost 100% success. I had one Dobashi Beni cleft graft fail, but the others took with no problems. I also used cleft and whip grafts on my plum tree to add Santa Rosa and Beauty to my Methley plum.

One thing I learned is that I shouldn't wrap the grafts so tightly. Especially on the plum grafts, I could see where the rubber bands and green plastic wrap was constraining growth. In the future I'll try to wrap the grafts snug but not tight, and unwrap them sooner. However, in spite of this all the grafts healed very quickly, and I've been amazed at how vigorously they've grown. If I ever sell my house, the new owners will probably be very surprised to see different kinds of fruit coming from one tree.


This winter I plan on grafting several more varieties of citrus, figs, persimmons, pears, and apples to my trees. I'm thinking of hosting a grafting class/demonstration in the spring as well. It would be kind of like the class taught by John Panzarella in Lake Jackson, only it would have to be smaller, and I don't have near the experience and expertise that John does. However, I do have 20+ trifoliate rootstocks, a source for citrus budwood, and plenty of grafting tape. Send me an email and let me know if you'd be interested, and if there are enough takers I'll try to set it up.

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Multi-Blood Orange Tree - Before and After
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Multi-Mandarin Tree - Before and After
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Bark Inlay Graft
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Bark Inlay Graft
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Bark Inlay Graft
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Healed Whip Graft
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Cleft Graft - Wrapped Too Tight
 
 
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Fairchild Mandarin Graft
Back in March I got the wild idea to top-work my Meyer lemon tree. The tree was large and healthy, but what do you do with that many lemons? It wasn't going to fruit this year anyway due to the hard freezes in February. So I decided to chop it down, and graft on more cold hardy mandarins and satsumas.

I ordered citrus budwood from the Texas A&M Citrus Center in Weslaco, Texas, and used Joe Real's citrus bark graft method. The weather kept fluctuating, and we had some fairly cold nights throughout March, so I worried whether or not the grafts would take.


The grafts didn't grow at first, but they stayed green, and finally when the weather started to warm up I noticed some growth. All of the mandarin/satsuma grafts on the Meyer lemon, and all of the blood orange grafts on the Everhard naval were successful, with one exception. One of the Dobashi Beni grafts on the Meyer lemon failed, but the other one is growing well. The Minneola tangelo grafts were successful, and the Chandler I grafted onto the Sarawak pummelo is still green, but it hasn't grown yet. My attempt at t-budding failed, but I kind of expected that since the bark wasn't slipping really well.

I had also done a mix of cleft and whip-and-tongue grafts on my plum trees, and I was very pleasantly surprised to see them all take. So far, I have not noticed any difference in the vigor of the two graft methods. I need to do a little pruning to direct the tree's energy into the grafts and not into side-shoots. Special thanks to Dr. Wife for letting my borrow her camera to photograph the grafts.



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Ruby Blood Orange Graft
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Minneola Tangelo Graft
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Kinnow Mandarin Graft
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Pixie Mandarin Grafts
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Beauty Plum Graft
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Failed Dobashi Beni Satsuma Graft
 
 
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Everhard navel orange before grafting.
In addition to top-working my lemon tree, I also grafted several different varieties onto my other trees. I've had an Everhard navel orange in a large pot by the rain tank for awhile, and it fruited last year. The oranges were Ok, but not spectacular. They pretty much tasted like your standard supermarket orange, so I decided add some more flavorful blood oranges.

The bark was slipping well, so I added Ruby, Moro, and Tarocco blood oranges using Joe Real's citrus bark graft. I left one small branch of the Everhard navel, but if I can ever get a sanguinelli blood orange budstick, I'll probably add it and remove the Everhard entirely. If you've never tasted a blood orange, you need to. To me they taste like an mixture of citrus and red wine. I'm told that they don't develop their distinctive 'blood' pigmentation in Houston, but that doesn't affect their flavor.There's debate among the local citrus gurus as to which is the best, with John Panzarella (Lake Jackson) preferring the Tarocco, Mr. Texas (Beaumont) preferring the Sanguinelli, and many Houstonians preferring the Moro.

I also ordered Minneola tangelo and Chandler pummelo budwood. I added the Minneola tanglo to my Orlando tangelo and Wekiwa tangelo trees, and the Chanlder pummelo to my sad looking Sarawak pummelo tree. The bark of the Sarawak tree split during this last really hard freeze, and I'm worried they tree may not survive. The bark of these trees weren't slipping because they're on trifoliate rootstock, so I used the cleft graft to attach the scions.

I had a lot of little pieces of budsticks leftover after all the bark and cleft grafting. They were too small to use, so I decided to trim the buds and practice t-budding. T-budding is where you cut an upside-down "T" into the stock, lift the bark, and insert a bud. The practice stock I chose was only half-slipping, so it may not work. But it was still good to practice making the cut and trimming and inserting the bud. I'll let you know if they all take. I did learn that it's very difficult to keep everything straight when you're t-budding 6-7 kinds of citrus onto one stock! I'm not sure I know what is what. I guess I'll find out when it fruits.

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Everhard navel orange top-worked with Ruby, Tarocco, and Moro blood oranges.
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Cleft graft of Minneola tangelo onto Wekiwa tangelo.
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After dark grafting set-up.
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Cut and upside-down 'T' into the stock.
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Kinnow mandarin bud trimmed from budstick.
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Bud inserted into stock and wrapped with parafilm.
 
 
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Budwood from Texas A&M Citrus Center
There was already a Meyer lemon tree in our yard when we moved in October 2007. It was being shaded out the wax-leaf legustrums, so I cut those back to let sun onto the lemon tree. Bam! That thing grew  like crazy, and the next year we had somewhere on the order of 200-300 lemons.

What do you do with that many lemons? We made jar after jar of marmalade, froze tons of lemon juice (still have some), gave away grocery sacks of lemons, lemonade, lemon pie, and on and on. That many lemons is a lot of work because you can't just eat them!

We haven't had that many lemons again thanks to the hard freezes we've had the past few years, but the experience got me thinking. Could I graft something else onto the lemon tree, something the kids and I could eat without preparation? Could I change it into a different kind of tree altogether?
I later learned that this was called top-working, and not only was it possible, it was a common way for growers to change whole groves of fruit trees to new varieties without harming the root systems.

So this year I finally built up the courage, and decided to top-work that lemon tree into a multiple-variety mandarin tree. I chose mandarins because I wanted to grow something that would produce fruit almost every year, even if there was a bad freeze, and mandarins are some of the most cold hardy citrus you can grow. After much deliberation, I contacted the Texas A&M Citrus Center in Weslaco, Texas, and ordered Kinnow, Pixie, and Fairchild mandarin budwood. I also ordered Page, but they didn't have any mature budwood. A fellow fruit grower gave me some Dobashi Beni Satsuma budwood from his tree, so I still had four varieties to work with.

I chopped the tree back to the main trunks, and used Joe Real's citrus bark graft method to join the budwood scions to the stocks. It was much easier than I thought it would be. The bark of Meyer lemon slipped very easily, and I was very very careful to sanitize my knife before each cut. It took a little over an hour to do two to three grafts of each variety, but I was being very deliberate and cautious. In a few weeks I should know if my grafts were successful or not. If the grafts failed, there is still time to place another budwood order and try again, or just let the lemon tree take over again until next year.

Special thanks to Dr. Wife for taking the close up shots with her macro lens!


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Meyer lemon tree before topworking.
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After being cut back.
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Making the incision and peeling back the bark.
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Prepared stock, ready for scion.
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Inserting the scion.
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Finished citrus bark graft.
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Meyer lemon topworked to 'Multi-Mandarin' tree.
 
 
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Santa Rosa and Methley Plum Trees
Last year I picked up two plums from the clearance rack at Plants for All Season as an impulse buy. What can I say? I'm weak. I planted them out front where the Methley got good sun, but the Santa Rosa only got partial sun. When I decided to plant the row of pawpaws, I dug up the Santa Rosa and put it in a big pot until I could find another place for it.

I decided to practice grafting by swapping scions between the two trees. Plus, I figured that if I couldn't find a home for the Santa Rosa tree, I would still get Santa Rosa plums. Let me begin by saying that I am new to grafting, but I am rapidly learning that the more you do, the better you get.

I essentially know two grafts; the Whip and Tongue Graft, and the Cleft Graft. Both are very easy, can be learned in 5 minutes, and are very forgiving. All you need is a sharp knife and some parafilm (or saran wrap). Not having any experience grafting plums, I swapped wood between the two trees using both methods. I was very pleased about a week later to see that all of my grafts were successful! I now had two 2-in-1 plum trees.


This weekend a fellow fruit enthusiast dropped by to swap some citrus budwood with me (Thanks John!). He was also kind enough to bring me some Burgundy and Beauty budwood. So I got out the tape, and grafted these varieties on too. Thanks to John, I now have two 3-in-1 plum trees!

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Grafting tools and equipment I use.
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Using the wrench to measure the width of the stock.
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Checking to see that the stock and scion will fit together. I had to cut this again to make a better, sharper angle.
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Santa Rosa scions grafted onto the Methley tree.
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Scion cut into a wedge shape for cleft grafting.
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Fitting the scion into the cleft, making sure the cambium of the scion is in contact with the cambium of the stock.
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Methley scion cleft grafted onto Santa Rosa tree.
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Buds forcing through parafilm after about one week.
 

The Bell House - Growing Fruit Trees in Northwest Houston