Harvesting rootstock trees

Back in August 2018 we tried an experiment to grow our own rootstock trees, in a technique called a stool bed, and the results are out – we’ve just done our first harvest!

Merv harvesting apple trees from Carr's Organic Fruit Tree Nursery stool bed
Merv harvesting apple trees from Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery stool bed

So, did it work?

Well, yes and no.  We have two different sorts of trees in the bed. The first is a semi-dwarfing apple, and they worked fantastically well. We planted just 10 rootstocks of a semi-dwarfing variety called MM102 – we think they’ll perfectly suit our customers.

From the initial 10 we layered into the stoolbed trench, we harvested more than 60 trees! And that’s just year 1. We fully expect to get more than that next year.

Apple rootstocks with lots of roots being heeled in
Apple rootstocks with lots of roots being heeled in

The other rootstock in the stoolbed are cherries, which are notoriously hard to grow from either seed or cutting, so stoolbeds are the traditional way of growing them.

An unsuccessful cherry rootstock from the stoolbed
An unsuccessful cherry rootstock from the stoolbed

We started last August by layering 20 cherry Mazzard rootstock trees, and while we also harvested more than 60 of these, they were much less successful, particularly in the root department.

For some (as yet unknown) reason, root development was very slow. Some trees had enough roots that we’re confident they’ll grow well, but some trees only had a couple of roots, and some had none at all!

Lots of the rootstock trees grew over-large, which makes harvesting them extremely difficult – if we didn’t have Merv’s expertise with his secateurs we would have struggled to get them out of the ground at all!

This excessive vigour is also possibly one of the reasons that roots failed to develop on some of the trees, as it seemed to be more of a problem on the larger trees.

Fingers crossed that next year’s crop of trees is smaller, and much rootier!

Growing Your Own Fruit Trees From Seed

One of the interesting things we do here at the farm is grow fruit trees from scratch, as well as teaching other people how to do it, which is lots of fun.

Pear seed ready to be planted to grow rootstock trees
Pear seed ready to be planted to grow rootstock tree

Some trees are grown from cuttings (e.g., plums) and some are grown from seed. We usually grow our own peach, plum, pear and quince rootstocks this way.

These days we look after the Growing Abundance juice press (which in turn is on long-term loan from the generous folk at The Little Red Apple in Harcourt), which means that Ant can use it to juice his apple and pear seconds at the end of the season.

Ant pressing apples for juice
Ant pressing apples for juice

It’s a great press, and being able to juice fruit from apples grown here on the farm (in those years when there’s a good enough apple harvest) yields enough delicious organic apple juice to share around, as well as plenty for Ant to turn into cider.

Lots of lovely apple juice
Lots of lovely apple juice

But it also means we can easily save the seed to grow organic apple rootstocks. We’ve grown all the apple trees we’ve planted here on the farm that way, a tradition which is now being continued by Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery.

Regardless of whether you’re growing trees from cutting or seed, they don’t grow “true to type”. They grow trees called rootstocks, which are used as a base to graft known fruit varieties onto.

Apple pulp full of seeds
Apple pulp full of seeds

Growing your own trees is a year-round process, with different small jobs to do at different times of year – just like all gardening really! We provide a full grafting calendar in our Grow Your Own Fruit Trees for Free course.

This is the right time of year to be:

  • Gathering scion wood from varieties you want to use for grafting in spring, and storing it correctly to keep it in good condition.
  • Gathering plum cuttings and storing them in damp sand over winter.
  • Gathering seed from apples and pears, extracting the seeds and storing them in damp sand.
  • If you’re planning a tree nursery, preparing the soil.
A box of sand for storing seed
A box of sand for storing seed

Does it sound complicated? It’s really not.

Grafting is an ancient method of preserving heritage fruit varieties that has been practised for hundreds of years, and continues to be passed from fruitgrower to fruitgrower today.

Newly emerged apple seedling
Newly emerged apple seedling

We think teaching people how to grow their own fruit trees from scratch is one of the most important skills we teach (through our grafting courses) because that’s where true fruit security starts.

How to Plant a Fruit Tree

It’s nitty gritty time! Time to get on the end of a shovel, dig a hole, and plant your fruit tree.

Digging a hole to plant a fruit tree
Digging a hole to plant a fruit tree

We often see fruit trees tied to elaborate staking arrangements, but if you plant them the right way, there’s no need for stakes at all, your tree should be totally self-supporting.

Let’s assume you’ve already chosen the right site for your trees, and have done some earlier soil preparation e.g., planted a green manure crop, dug in some compost or manure, or even deep ripped the site.

If you planted a green manure crop, ideally you will have dug it back into the soil a week or two before you plan to plant your trees. If not, it’s best to just cut and drop the plants on the surface of the ground, rather than dig in the green manure just prior to planting your tree, as the green manure will often decompose quickly in the ground, and can create quite a bit of heat, which is not good for your young tree’s roots. 

Don’t worry if you haven’t done any soil prep at all – it’s best to get the tree in the ground asap, and then work on the soil later.

It’s great if you can dip the tree’s roots in an inoculant of some sort to populate the roots with lots of good microbes (e.g., bacteria and fungi) that will help the tree get its nutrition as it grows.

Hugh stirring a lovely inoculant brew
Hugh stirring a lovely inoculant brew

We often use compost tea, or it’s also possible to buy ready-made inoculants, but unfortunately they usually come in industrial quantities.

Next, dig a hole! If you’ve done any soil prep before, the hole only needs to be big enough to accommodate the roots of your tree (and it’s fine to cut the roots back a bit to fit the hole, or to remove any damaged roots). The hole should be deep enough that when the tree is planted it will be at the level it was in the nursery.

A tree in the hole waiting to plant
A tree in the hole waiting to plant

If drainage is an issue, mound the soil up a bit and plant into this, to make sure that any heavy rainfall will be able to drain away from the roots, especially if you’re planting your tree in heavy clay. 

Add any amendments that you’re using, and mix a bit of soil back in.

Now position the tree in the hole so it’s upright, and hold it while you back-fill a few shovels of soil over the roots. Make sure the soil fills the gaps between the roots, and then carefully but firmly tamp the soil down around the roots. Now finish back-filling the hole.

In most situations you don’t need to water the tree in, unless you’re experiencing very dry soil conditions when you plant.

And finally, prune your tree!

A freshly planted (and pruned) cherry tree
A freshly planted (and pruned) cherry tree

Planting is a pretty simple process, though there are a few extra things to consider if you haven’t done any prior soil prep, you’re planting into heavy clay or very sandy soil, or are planting into a heavily weeded or pastured area without doing any soil prep, so we do go into quite a bit more detail about tree planting in the Planting Young Fruit Trees short course.

New fruit trees are a great investment in your garden and your future food security, and will be the beginning of a journey of exploration as you get to know your new tree, and learn how it performs in the location, your climate, and of course the level of care you give it!

Happy planting!