If I were president, the essay assignment goes when you’re in grade school. I remember thinking “but I don’t want to be president!” But... if I was, I don't think I'd promise a car in every garage, though I'd probably keep the chicken in every pot. When I moved here to Turkeysong, I had to decide what fruit varieties to grow. Inspired by friend and apple guru Freddy Menge, a scrappy young tree that was already here, was used as a framework to test out apple varieties. Before that it produced hard green apples. What started as an interest, grew into something like an obsession and the tree became more diverse every year starting with 25 or so varieties and ending now with about 140. My friend Spring dubbed it Frankentree because, at her house, that’s what they call anything cobbed together from odd parts. The name stuck. The term frankentree is also used for genetically modified tree varieties, but it has already taken off among apple collectors, so we'll just have to see who wins. And maybe someone searching for info about GMO fruit will run across our frankentrees and be ignited into constructive action instead of plunged into despair at how the world can be dumb enough that we take the risk of genetically engineering an apple just so it won't brown when cut.
Frankentrees are awesome! They may take a little attention to maintain, but the advantages are many. There are so many trees out there that provide too much fruit of one variety in too brief a period for the people that use them. Other trees just produce fruit that no one likes. These trees, if they are healthy enough and the form is not too wacky, are very valuable as a base to work from. A reasonably well formed healthy tree can come to yield nourishment in abundance, interest, variety, valuable information, and even self confidence and self reliance, over a long season.
This isn’t going to be a how to article, it’s more to kick you in the butt and get you started thinking and experimenting this year article. If you have a tree, or access to a tree that is not very exciting in the fruit department, why not try grafting on something new? Well, I’ll tell you why you should graft on something new, or actually more like somethings.
Apple trees are an ideal format in which to learn grafting and begin fruit collecting. Pears are a close second, and then plums. Apples are easy to graft, very useful, widely appreciated and there are many varieties to be had, thousands actually. They also are hard to beat in terms of seasonal length. I have very good to excellent eating apples from August to early February, and that is straight off the tree, not accounting for storage. You may not be able to get that in a very cold climate, but the season can still be quite long. The ability to have a long fruiting season is reason enough to make a frankentree, but there are many more motivations.
Frankentreeing will teach you something, and you can teach that to someone else. You’ll learn about different varieties of fruit, what their seasons are, what they taste like, whether they keep or not, and very probably their histories. You’ll learn the art of grafting, without which we would not have all these varieties of fruits in the first place. And you’ll learn what varieties do well in your area, which is extremely valuable.
You'll also end up as a keeper and preserver of variety, a sort of seed bank or scion repository that you can share out or trade from. No doubt some of those varieties will be very old. And old or not, more diversity in more places is assurance not only against permanent genetic loss, but also that diversity has a real place in our daily lives. We have to live our appreciation of variety and the romance of diversity in crops for it to be real and not just an abstract idea we picked up from a foodie book.
Multi-grafted trees are not only ornamental in their own strange way, but they’re also a great conversation piece, and a frankentree will make you look cool! Wait, screw that, if you make a frankentree, you are cool! Everyone who visits here loves frankentree!
You’ll very likely have more fruit on a frankentree. First of all, pollination will be great. Apples can self pollinate to a very small extent, but they really need pollen from other varieties in order to fruit. Your frankentree will be downright indecent in it’s public orgy of bees and pollen! But wait, there’s more! You’ll also get more fruit in the long run because you’ll inevitably end up with some that set fruit very readily and consistently, and some that avoid spring frost because they bloom late.
Your new skill is marketable as I’m finding out. How many people will pay you to make them a fruit tree that gives them four to six months of the most delicious apples adapted to your region? Let’s find out! I just did my first paying frankentree job (bride of frankentree) for my neighbors Dan and Leslie and they seem very pleased to try giving an old apple tree a makeover. It made good apples before, but it will make lots of different good apples now. I have another such job scheduled this spring too.
I’m a problem solver. I not only solve them, it order to be a good problem solver, I have to look for them constantly in everything. Just ask anyone who has had to live with me. So what’s the downside to a frankentree? There are very few really.
If the tree is too old and you have to cut down to large stubs, you could get some rot that will shorten the life of the tree. In many cases, that is not necessary though. I prefer to stay within cuts that are 3/4 inches and down, but you just have to weigh the value of the tree as it is and the value of it as a frankentree, or more usually the value of a certain form of the tree, because if it’s very overgrown, you’ll want to simplify the framework and probably bring the head down. That’s will make it easier to graft, maintain and harvest.
It takes time and energy. Sorry, but I see that as a good thing over all. It’s like saying it’s a lot of work. If you’re not totally stoked about making it happen, do something else. Otherwise, activity that gets you outside feeling interested, taking care of your own needs and building self reliance... that’s all up side!
You’ll have to maintain the tree a little more closely. Some varieties are really vigorous and grow large and some are small and weak, so you can sort of keep an eye out to check the big ones and maintain a little light for the weak. I lost sleep over that when I first started, but I didn’t need to, because it’s no big deal. You’ll also have to prune off some suckers here and there as the base tree sprouts a shoot once in a while. sometimes those shoots will be more vigorous than the grafts, almost like the tree would rather grow itself than be a frankentree, which makes sense. My guess is that the investment you have in the project will make you more interested in maintaining the tree well. Your personal investment means value to you. It’s.... well, personal.
You can introduce disease. The one that is most common is virus. It will cause the leaves of some varieties to turn into a mosaic of light and dark areas. It's not fatal and doesn't seem to affect most varieties here. I basically don't worry about it anymore. The affected leaves can become sun burned easily. Frankentree is infected and so are many of my other varieties. Probably many more than I know, since most show minimal to no symptoms.
That’s all I can think of. I may sound like a propaganda machine, but I want to be! That’s how stoked I am about the idea and my enthusiasm comes from the pleasure, interest and knowledge I’ve reaped from me experience in this realm, and the way I see people respond when they find out you can do this, or take the walk to the orchard to meet “frank”. I’ll hopefully be giving you more specific detailed resources for frankentreeing in the future. In the meantime, go to a scion exchange if there is one near you, or join the North American Scion exchange and trade by mail. You may not have much to trade now, but there are quite a few generous collectors out there, and once you get a few varieties, you can start trading. If you don’t know how to graft, check out the many youtube videos, and hopefully I’ll add one sometime as well. I’d even like to do a detailed video just on frankentrees to give you more specific information and tricks to increase your success rates in grafting. In the meantime, here are some basic ideas to keep in mind. And for you locals, remember, the Mendocino Permaculture group's scion and seed exchange is this weekend Feb 1st Saturday 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. It's free with free grafting classes and rootstock for sale. I'm teaching hands on grafting coaching after the main grafting lectures.
Keep the framework of the tree, but thin it out and bring it down in height and in toward the framework, especially if it’s poorly trained, neglected and rangy.
Try to make smaller cuts and graft into wood 3/4 inch and down when possible, but don’t graft to the outside of the tree. Try to graft in closer to large limbs. If you graft only to small outside wood, you’ll end up with a tree that grows out and out and the inside of the tree will all still be the original variety.
Learn cleft grafts. They are easy and good for grafting small sticks to large stubs, which is usually what you end up doing when reworking a tree.
Use grafting paint (“wax”) liberally (I use doc farwell's, hopefully it’s not too toxic :/). Use it to really seal the clefts left open after grafting, but also to paint the whole scion lightly. Painting the scion is helpful to keep moisture in until the graft heals and the tree can start sending moisture and food to the scion. You might have to paint the open ends of the clefts twice to make sure they are sealed well against rain infiltration. It's ok if a little wax gets into the cleft.
Keep your grafting knife sharp!
Use long scions of 6 to 9 buds or so. This will give you fruit sooner.
Thin the area near the graft of other shoots if possible. You want to direct growth energy into the new graft.
If apples form the first year, leave them! You don’t usually have to pull them off to favor growth like you do with a young tree, because the tree is driven by an established root system.
Don’t unwrap the grafts too early. The leafy shoot will act like a sail and can break the graft. Unwrap before the wood becomes constricted. If you are concerned, just re-wrap it till the end of the season.
When you unwrap them for good in the fall, paint the graft union with a thick coat of grafting paint so you can keep track of its location.
Always label! I use aluminum tags with copper, aluminum, or at least galvanized wire. soda cans cut with scissors work fine and sections of aluminum venetian blind strips and old aluminum printing press plates work great. Scratch the name in and write with pencil too.
So, if I’ve sparked your interest, just bust a move this year, even if it’s a small one. Get some scions from a neighbor or a local apple orchard and make a few grafts. You can wrap them tight with cut rubber band strips and paint them with thick latex paint so you don't have to invest in grafting supplies. You can use a utility (razor) knife or pocket knife if you don’t have a grafting knife. Practice on prunings a little until you can make flat cuts and grafts seem to fit pretty well. You’ll learn something and if your few grafts take, you’ll have confidence to move forward. Maybe I need to start a career as a motivational speaker. Are you stoked yet!