We just dropped the sixth book in the series! My Family’s Apple Farm tells the story of Hayden, a 10-year-old who works with his family on an apple farm. The story targets third grade readers and provides non-fiction text for them to practice their language arts skills. The book is paired with two lesson plans that address food safety issues and the variety of specialty crops grown here in Iowa.
The book will give readers a good understanding of how apples are grown and how an orchard works. But there is a lot more science that goes into growing apples and fruit that we could ever put into one book. For example, grafting. What is it and how does it work? Why do farmers use grafting techniques?
Grafting is a horticultural technique. Tissues of different plants are joined together. The tissues fuse together and the two plants continue to grow as one. The resulting plant will have two completely different sets of DNA on its different parts! Farmers can’t combine just any two plants. The plants have to be similar enough that the rootstock won’t reject the scion that is being grafted to it. It is not too dissimilar to blood transfusions in humans. You want to make sure to use the right type of blood. A person with O- blood should only get O- blood if they need a transfusion. Plants that are commonly grafted are different varieties of apples or different varieties of grapes.
Grafting is done for a number of reasons. One reason is that some varieties of fruit have better roots and some have better fruits. Grafting allows farmers to combine the two and have the best rootstock AND the best fruit. It is a way of combining two plants into one…but it isn’t a GMO. Examples abound in the wine industry. Many of the famous wine grapes from France and elsewhere in Europe did not fair well when brought to America. Local pests and pathogens made for an inhospitable environment for the European grapes. There were local varieties of grapes available to early American settlers but they couldn’t compare to the European grapes for flavor and quality.
Enter grafting. By grafting European grapes to the American rootstocks, wine growers got the flavor of the grapes they were looking for and the hardiness of the American rootstocks.
This same concept can be applied to other plants – specifically fruit trees like apples, pears, cherries, and others. There are several types of grafting techniques that farmers can use. These include bark graft, side-veneer graft, splice graft, whip and tongue graft, saddle graft, bridge graft, and inarch graft.
As the art and science of grafting becomes more precise, budding has emerged. Budding is a grafting technique that uses a single bud from a desired scion. Budding techniques include t-budding and chip budding.
Scions are usually collected in the fall of the year after the plant has dropped all of its leaves and gone dormant. The scions are saved over winter and then grafted onto the desired rootstock in early spring. The plant is actively growing and will be more likely to accept the graft. However, there is a longer window of viability for budding. It can be done at any time the plant is growing throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. If the graft is successful, the bud will likely stay dormant until the next growing season.
Apples can be grafted with apples. Grapes can be grafted with grapes. What else can be grafted? As mentioned before, the rootstock and the scion have to be similar. But, they don’t have to be identical. Plants that are in the same family are usually similar enough that they can be grafted together. For example, apples are in the pomoideae family. They can be paired with other pomes like pears, crabapples, and quince. Citrus like navel oranges, Valencia oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes, and grapefruit can be paired together. Stone fruit – or fruit in the prunus family – can be paired together; like cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, and apricots. So you could have one tree with apples and pears growing on it, but you probably won’t be able to have a tree with apples and lemons growing on it.
Grafting can be a fun science experiment to try at home. You can purchase different root stocks and different trees to harvest scions from your local nursery. Think of it a bit like an operation a doctor might do. You need to have the right tools and keep everything clean to prevent disease. You need to have a plan and have everything laid out and ready to go. You need to make clean, precise cuts. Then afterwards, you need to wrap the site of the operation up so that the tree has the best chance to heal. Experimenting can be a lot of fun to see what kind of tree and what kind of fruit you are able to grow. For a tutorial and how to video on how to graft a fruit tree, check this out.
Apple production in Iowa has a long history with the Red Delicious first being developed by Jesse Hiatt. Red Delicious apples may be one of the most famous cultivars of apples. This cultivar was produced by Jesse Hiatt (on accident) in Madison County, Iowa in the 1800s. Hiatt was originally from Pennsylvania but moved to Madison County in 1856 to be near his brother. Hiatt had developed an orchard including Bellflower and Winesap trees, and had developed two other cultivars; the Hiatt Sweet and Hiatt Black. The first Red Delicious tree began growing in between two rows of apple trees (believed to be the Bellflower and Winesap trees). Ten years after it began growing, it produced its first fruit. Hiatt loved the taste of the apple so much, he marketed it under the name Hawkeye. The name was later changed by the nursery that acquired marketing rights to it.
Apple and fruit production has come a long way since the 1880s. Grafting can help unravel the mysteries of biology in fruit trees and help us understand how plants grow. So get grafting! And share your stories of success (or failure) with us in the comments below!