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Fruit tree propagation

Propagation of fruit trees is usually carried out by grafting the desired variety onto a suitable rootstock.

Table of contents
1 History and overview
2 Apple rootstocks
3 Pear Rootstocks
4 Cherries
5 Plums
6 Own Root Fruit Trees
7 See also

History and overview

Much of our present knowledge regarding the cultivation of fruit trees appears to date from the time of the Romans, whose range of technical skills and understanding of the nature of different varieties was extensive, including areas such as grafting and rootstocks.

Trees can be propagated either by sexual or vegetative means. Sexual reproduction occurs when male pollen from one tree fertilises the female part of the flower of another, leading to the production of fruit. In turn this contains seed which when germinated will become a new specimen. However, not unlike human beings, although the new tree will inherit many of the characteristics of its parents, it will not grow 'true'. That is, it will be a fresh individual with many unpredictable characteristics of its own. Although this is desirable in terms of increasing biodiversity and the richness of the gene pool, only rarely will such fruit trees be directly useful or attractive to the tastes of humankind, a tendency to revert to a crablike state being much more common.

Therefore, from the orchard grower or gardener's point of view, it is preferable to propagate fruit cultivars vegetatively in order to ensure reliability. This involves taking a cutting (or scion) of wood from a desirable parent tree which is then grown on to produce a new plant or 'clone' of the original. In effect this means that the original Bramley apple tree, for example, was a successful variety grown from a pip, but that every Bramley since then has been propagated by taking cuttings of living matter from that tree, or one of its descendants.

However, most varieties that bear desirable fruit do not propagate well from cuttings, thus they tend to be grafted onto rootstocks. These are varieties selected for characteristics such as their vigour of growth, hardiness and disease resistance. Grafting is the process of joining these two varieties, ensuring maximum contact between the cambium tissue (that is, the layer of growing plant material just below the bark) of each so that they grow together successfully. Two of the most common grafting techniques are 'whip and tongue', carried out in spring as the sap rises, and 'budding', which is performed around July and August.

Bud grafting

  1. Cut a slice of bud and bark from the parent tree.
  2. Cut a similar sliver off the rootstock, making a little lip at the base to slot the scion into.
  3. Join the two together and bind.
  4. In time, the scion bud will grow into a shoot, which will develop into the desired tree.

Whip and Tongue grafting

  1. Make a sloping cut in the rootstock with a 'tongue' pointing up.
  2. Make a matching cut in the scion wood with a 'tongue' pointing downwards.
  3. Join the two, ensuring maximum contact of the cambium layers. Bind with rafia or polythene tape and seal with grafting wax.

Apple rootstocks

Another reason for grafting onto rootstocks is that this enables the grower to determine the tree's eventual size. Apple tree rootstocks are referred to by numbers prefixed by the letter 'M', this being a reference to East Malling, the horticultural research station at which they are developed. Those most often used, in order of eventual size, are;

Pear Rootstocks

Pears are usually grafted onto quince rootstocks, which produce small to medium sized trees. Some varieties however are not compatible with quince, and these require double working. This means that a piece of pear graft-work compatible with both the quince rootstock and the pear variety is used as an intermediate between the two. If this is not done the pear and the rootstock could eventually separate at the graft. Varieties that require double working include 'Bristol Cross', 'Dr Jules Guyot', 'Doyenné d' été' and 'Williams Bon Chrétien'.

Pear stock: Very vigorous- Pears grafted onto pear rootstocks make very large standard trees, not suitable for most gardens.


Until the 1970's, cherries were grown of the vigorous Malling F12/1 rootstock, which required much space and time before cropping began, thus the growing of cherries was not a realistic option on a garden scale. The introduction of the rootstock 'Colt' enables trees reaching a maximum height of 12-15' to be grown, and if trained as a pyramid it is possible to restrict growth to about 10'. The popular sweet variety 'Stella' could even be grafted onto a 'Colt' rootstock and successfully grown in a pot on the patio.


Plum rootstocks include;

Own Root Fruit Trees

Permaculture designer and fruit nurseryman Phil Corbett has for a number of years been working on an innovative project involving growing fruit trees on their own roots. His work is based on research carried out by Hugh Ermen of the Brogdale Horticultural Research Station, home of the National Apple Collection. Corbett writes; "Hugh discovered that there are several advantages in growing apples on their own roots- that is, not grafted onto a rootstock. The graft union, which is a union between two genetically different individuals, always creates a degree of incompatibility. Not having this incompatibility, own root trees were found to have better health and better fruit quality. The only disadvantage of own root trees is that most varieties are more vigorous than is usually wanted. This means that trees may make a lot of wood at the expense of fruit bud production, giving big trees that take a long time to come into crop. Conventionally this vigour is controlled by grafting onto a dwarfing rootstock. With trees on their own roots, however, a number of traditional techniques can induce early cropping. Once cropping begins, the tree's energies are channelled into fruit production and growth slows down to a controlable level. The techniques that are usually sufficient to bring about cropping are:

Once cropping has begun, a normal feeding and watering regime can begin. The average cropping own-root tree can be maintained at a size very similar to the same variety on MM106 rootstock" (Phil Corbett, from The Common Ground Book Of Orchards, pub Common Ground, 2000)

He is also conducting research into the 'coppice-ability' of own-root fruit trees, including an experimental 'Coppice Orchard' project, wherein own-root trees are planted in north-south rows; "When the canopy of the orchard closes, a north-south row will be coppiced and the land in the row used for light demanding crops while the trees regrow. The trees on either side of the glade will have higher light levels on their sides and produce more fruit buds". Over time a series of parallel sheltered glades will be created which will be coppiced on a rotational basis, allowing for multifunctional use of land in order to produce not only fruit but also small wood products, soft fruit, vegetables and even possibly cereals, fungi and the more traditional bees and poultry. This is a project with much promising potential, and deserving of attention from the wider organic growing movement for the valuable lessons that will no doubt be provided over time.

See also