Success in the nursery

It’s so nice when things work as they’re supposed to!

A successful grafted cherry tree in the nursery
A successful grafted cherry tree in the nursery

The grafting in Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery finished a few weeks ago, and now we can see whether it worked or not. Excitingly, most of them did!

This is always a time of some trepidation, as we’re faced with irrefutable evidence of the quality of our grafting technique.

While our mentor (and Katie’s dad) Merv is always there teaching and advising, he’s handed over the actual grafting to us – so there’s no hiding any more. The success or failure is ours to own!

So it’s incredibly gratifying to see that our success rate this year was actually pretty good, and definitely better than last year!

Spring is also when we get confirmation on whether last summer’s budding was successful. We always check whether the buds appear to have “taken” before we cut the rootstock back to the bud in late winter, but you’re never really sure until you see this:

It’s also a good time to check whether the establishment pruning you did in on your young trees in winter has produced the desired effect.

The point of making a heading cut (as we describe in Pruning Young Fruit Trees) is to create new branches, in the desired location in the tree.

And here’s an ideal result, where the three shoots directly below the cut have all started growing, creating three new branches in this young cherry tree exactly where we want them.

Success is so satisfying!

How old are the fruit trees we sell in our nursery?

Katie in front of Carr's Organic Fruit Tree Nursery
Katie in front of Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery

This is a very common question from people looking to buy a fruit tree from Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery, particularly at this time of year before orders close on June 30.

An apple tree seedling in the nursery
An apple tree seedling in the nursery

Unfortunately it’s a bit tricky to answer, and there’s lots of “ifs” and “buts”, but here goes – we’ll try to answer succinctly, without writing a whole essay on fruit tree production!

Collecting peach seed for planting in the nursery
Collecting peach seed for planting in the nursery

Different types of trees go through different processes in the nursery, which take varying periods of time, and have varying degrees of success. But essentially, the process is always the same:

  1. We collect the propagation material – either cuttings, seed, or occasionally bought rootstocks. This usually happens several months before the right time to plant it out, which means storing the material correctly over winter.
  2. We then plant out the seeds or cuttings in spring to grow a new rootstock tree. We use cuttings for figs and to grow plum rootstocks, (which are used to graft both apricot and plum trees), seed to grow apple, pear, quince, peach and citrus rootstocks, and rootstock trees layered in a stoolbed to grow cherry and dwarfing apple rootstocks.
  3. The new seedlings/rootstock trees then grow over spring and summer.
  4. In February, any that have grown strongly enough are bud grafted.
  5. The rootstocks that are too small for bud grafting are left to continue growing to be grafted the following winter.
  6. The next winter, we cut back to the buds, which then grow over the ensuing spring and summer. These trees are then available to be sold the following winter – which is 2 years after the initial seed/cutting was planted.
  7. In winter we harvest the rootstocks that have grown in the stoolbed. They are then planted out as individual trees, and the bigger ones are grafted (along with the rootstocks from last year that weren’t big enough for summer bud-grafting). The smaller ones are left to grow another summer to be bud-grafted next February.
  8. The grafted trees will grow over the following summer and be available for sale the following winter – which is 3 years after the initial seed/cutting was planted.
Merv planting apple seed (which has started to sprout) in the nursery
Merv planting apple seed (which has started to sprout) in the nursery

Hopefully that all makes sense, and explains the basic processes most of our trees go through, all of which are explained in much more detail in our 5 short online grafting courses.

But of course, it’s not quite that simple! A couple of factors can add layers of complexity. The first one is that at each stage of the process, we don’t get 100% success (though we’re always striving to improve our techniques). So when we do the bud-grafting for example, not all the buds will take. The failures will either be late budded using a different technique, or left to grow and be grafted the following winter.

Grafted cherry trees in the nursery
Grafted cherry trees in the nursery

Likewise, not all grafts are successful, and so the failures will be cut back to the original rootstock and allowed to grow for a bit longer before being bud grafted the next summer.

Multigraft plum trees
Multigraft plum trees

Then there are rootstocks that are destined to be sold as multigrafts. These trees are headed in early summer to create the multiple branches we need, or sometimes failed buds will instead be headed to grow multi-branched rootstocks.

Any that branch and grow strongly enough are then bud-grafted with multiple varieties in February, cut back to the buds the following summer, and become ready for sale the following winter. All up, this may take up to 3 or even 4 years since the original cutting/seed was planted.

Sorry to be complicated! Basically, most trees we sell are between 2 and 4 years old from seed to finished tree.

A cherry tree that's been headed to create a multigraft tree
A cherry tree that’s been headed to create a multigraft tree

But do you know what? It doesn’t really matter!

In most cases once you’ve planted them in your garden they’ll need pruning back quite hard to establish the right number of branches in the right place for the type of tree you want to grow, whether that’s a vase-shaped tree, espalier, or something else, so the age of the tree doesn’t really matter. We call this “establishment pruning” and you can find out more about it in this short online course.

Merv and Sas planting rootstocks
Merv and Sas planting rootstocks

Hopefully that helps, and if still have any questions, either ask us in the comments below or shoot us an email.

It doesn’t cost anything to give it a go!

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!