Buds are starting to swell and seeds are beginning to germinate…a call to action in the heritage fruit tree nursery. Merv has been busy preparing the soil in the new nursery patch. Katie has been busy selling the last of the beautiful fruit trees that we grew before they come out of their winter sleep and need to be planted in the ground properly again. But now that our saved apple, quince, pear and peach seeds are starting to shoot, its all hands on deck.
This week we planted our cherry rootstock and acquired some compact apple rootstock varieties to experiment with. Along with grafting the cherries in September and budding the apples we’re hoping to experiment with creating a ‘stool bed’. Katie and I haven’t ever done a stool bed so we’re excited to learn this technique from Merv. A stool bed (from my limited understanding) is a way of trench layering a ‘mother plant’ in order to grow multiple root stock trees from a small number of ‘mothers’. This is important for cherry rootstock, which don’t grow readily from seed, and special varieties of rootstock, which you want to multiply true to type.
The plum cuttings are starting to ‘heel up’ (grow a heel/scab over them from which the roots will sprout) which means we’ll plant them out soon . The apple, peach and quince seeds are sprouting so we’ve begun to plant them out in rows. These we will grow up over summer and ‘bud’ in February with a number of different varieties for sale the following year.
We have also been cutting back the trees we budded last February, to the bud union. These trees (see pic) with different colored pipe cleaners are the plum rootstock we budded multiple varieties of plum and apricot onto. Another experiment, which so far seems to be going well…as long as we can keep track of which branch has which variety budded onto it!!
Soon it will be time to sow our green manure crop in the resting nursery patches and sow some more citrus seed in the hot house (yet another experiment). Most of the rootstock we grow, except for our experiments with cherries, citrus and small apple rootstock, we have grown ourselves. We either collect seed or take cuttings to create them, and like Merv always marvels, “it doesn’t cost you anything”! There is a lot of time and care that then goes into turning that seedling into a good fruiting tree, but Merv’s right, it doesn’t cost you anything to give it a go!
As an orchard kid I grew up familiar with the concept of grafting – I knew that all the fruit trees in the orchard had been grafted, but until I decided to take up the orchard business almost 20 years ago I had no idea how, or why. Nor did I realise that grafting has been around for literally thousands of years – in fact it’s one of the oldest horticultural practices known.
Since coming home to the farm I’ve had the chance to learn these truly ancient skills from my Dad. He’s been growing his own trees for the orchard, as well as “top-working” (changing varieties of mature trees in the orchard) for the last 60 years, so it’s been a fantastic chance to learn from a master grafter.
Hugh and I have been steadily planting, replanting and improving the orchard since we came home, and have put in literally thousands of fruit trees in that time – all of which have been grown in our on-farm nursery. It’s saved us thousands of dollars, allowed us to continuously improve the orchards, and given us the chance to learn and practise all the skills needed to grow our own rootstocks and graft the varieties we’ve needed, which we’ve incorporated into our Grow Great Fruit teaching program and workshops.
Now the orchards are pretty much all planted, and we’re handing over management of them to Ant next season, so there’s less need for the on-farm nursery. However, we didn’t want to lose it, so Sas and I are starting the Harcourt Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery!
Hang on, aren’t I meant to be retiring from farming? And surely Sas already has enough to do…so why are we starting a whole new business?
Well, over the years we’ve built up a pretty good collection of fruit varieties on the farm – 140 at last count! Of them, we’re pretty familiar with at least 80 (the rest are not fruiting yet so we don’t know them), which means we can provide pretty reliable info about them: how they do in this climate, reliable harvest dates, etc.
We’re also growing our own rootstocks from seed and cutting; this not only makes it a very low-risk and low-capital business to get off the ground, but also means the trees we’re growing from scratch are more likely to suit this climate because they’ve been grown here.
But the main reason both Sas and I decided to start a nursery is because we love growing trees, and we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn the nursery business from Dad, while he’s still active and interested enough to teach us!
We’re both passionate about learning the many and varied skills you need to produce healthy, vigorous organic trees, so a big part of the appeal for us is that Merv will be here to teach us everything, and oversee the whole operation.
He’s also trying new stuff all the time, which he’s passing on to us. The latest experiment has been trying to grow our own citrus rootstocks, and learning how to graft citrus trees.
Being evergreen, they’re completely different from deciduous trees, so it’s been lots of fun being a bit experimental. And so far, it seems to be working!
Another big appeal is that we know we’ll be helping to preserve some of the older heritage varieties that are hard to buy and in danger of disappearing in favour of the more modern and well-known varieties.
The very first trees are available for sale now – here’s the link to see what we’ve got (anything with MAFG or MAFGS after the name is out of our nursery) but we’ve only taken baby steps so far so there’s not many. For this year at least we’ve continued to source trees from a commercial wholesale nursery as usual, but by next year we hope to massively increase our offering, and have achieved organic certification.
Multigrafts, double-grafts, ‘family’ trees, fruit salad trees, cocktail trees – there’s lots of different names for them, but they’re essentially all the same thing. Fruit trees with different varieties or cultivars grafted onto the same rootstock.
If the different grafts are all the same variety (e.g., all apples), they will normally be sold as multigrafts, whereas a ‘fruit salad tree’ describes a tree that has different types of fruit from the same family, e.g., apricots and plums.
Generally speaking, fruits from the same family can be grafted onto the same rootstock, e.g., plums and apricots are compatible, peaches and nectarines, and pears and quinces. However, due to the magic of grafting, other combinations may also be compatible, e.g., some varieties of peaches and nectarines are compatible with plum rootstocks, allowing for glorious combinations of 4 fruit types on the same tree. While it’s safer to stick to known compatibilities, it’s always worth experimenting with odd and unusual combinations, because apart from your time, there’s absolutely minimal cost involved.
One of the best ways to think about a multigraft is as a work of art that you are constantly reviewing and improving. A famous examples of this is the ‘Tree of 40 Fruits’ Series by New York artist Sam Aken.
Many of the problems that can happen with multigrafts (see the list below) are avoidable or fixable by paying careful attention to graft placement and detailed pruning, and then by reviewing and responding to how the tree has actually grown and performed each season.
If you think of your tree as a living work of art (rather than the ‘plant and forget’ model that most gardeners use), and have high expectations of what you want to achieve with the tree, it’s possible to make them incredibly productive.
If you’re prepared to put the work into them, there are lots of benefits of having these trees in your garden, one of the most important being that they allow you to increase your food security in a small space.
How does that work? The more biodiversity that you can stack into your garden, the more you’ll be protecting your food supply from the many disasters and natural events that can ruin a crop. If you’re growing 10 varieties of apple, rather than just one, then if a hail storm comes along or you get a particular disease outbreak, chances are that some varieties will fare better than others, which reduces your chances of total wipeout.
The more varieties you can play with in the garden, the more you can work towards a consistent, even harvest throughout the entire growing season, rather than the normal cycle of glut and scarcity that most home fruit growers have to deal with.
Other benefits of growing multigrafts include
increasing food production in a small space
practising your grafting skills
making the most of an existing tree with an established root system, rather than having to get a new tree established
Inappropriate varieties – not all varieties grow as well as each other in a given locations, so there’s a risk that some varieties you choose to graft won’t thrive, but, so what? Just regraft with another variety.
Pruning. It’s a very common scenario that some varieties will be more dominant than others, either because they are more compatible with the rootstock, the graft was better quality, or the variety is happier in the location. This can make it more difficult to train the tree into a balanced shape and the dominant branches can end up being bigger and more vigorous. This needs careful management with pruning to prevent the problem becoming worse by allowing the dominant side to crowd out or shade the slower-growing varieties.
Branch positioning. It is important that the grafted branches are evenly spaced along the main trunk to produce a balanced form in the mature tree and to avoid undesirable crowding. On a single-variety tree, a misplaced branch can simply be pruned off to allow well-placed branches to grow. However, pruning off any of the first branches of a multigraft tree means sacrificing one of the varieties.
Providing pollination partners is one of the main reasons for creating multigrafts, but unless varieties are carefully chosen with this goal specifically in mind, it doesn’t always work. The varieties need to not only be compatible, but also flower simultaneously. In order for all varieties on a multigrafted tree to be pollinated, they must be carefully selected for flowering times to overlap sufficiently. Again, this problem, should it occur, is very fixable by regrafting with a more suitable variety.
Different varieties can be vulnerable to different pests and diseases. In the worst-case scenario, the introduction of disease by one variety on a multigrafted tree can compromise the health of the entire tree, particularly if you accidentally introduce a virus to the tree by using infected grafting wood. This is offset to a large degree by the advantages of increasing biodiversity (see above), but it’s good practise to only ever use grafting wood from trees with no visible signs of ill-health, and ideally a good record of productivity as well.
Labelling. This almost seems too frivolous to include in this list, but it’s probably one of the problems we hear about most regularly, for all fruit trees, not just multigrafts. It is hard to find a good labelling system that can easily withstand the ravages of time and the weather and remain not only in place but also readable! Our solution is to take a four-pronged approach:
make effective, permanent, low-cost labels by cutting up aluminium cans into labels, and using a nail to etch the name into the metal. Punch a hole in the label and use a piece of wire to attach it to the tree. Don’t attach it too tightly around the branch or it’s easy to strangle the branch as it grows.
Check the labels at least once a year. Make sure they’re still in place and still readable, and loosen the wire if necessary.
Keep a paper (or computerised) record of the location of each tree, its variety, and any varieties you add by grafting.
Take photos to back up the computerised record.
Multigraft fruit trees take a bit more work and diligence than single-variety trees, but the benefits are huge, not just in terms of increased production, but through providing other environmental services to your garden, providing beautiful sculptural trees, and providing a life-long interest and passion.