How to do Grafting and Budding of Trees and Plants

Grafting and budding are horticultural techniques used to join parts from two or more plants so that they appear to grow as a single plant. In grafting, the upper part (scion) of one plant grows on the root system (rootstock) of another plant. In the budding process, a bud is taken from one plant and grown on another.

Although budding is considered a modern art and science, grafting is not new. The practice of grafting can be traced back 4,000 years to ancient China and Mesopotamia. As early as 2,000 years ago, people recognized the incompatibility problems that may occur when grafting olives and other fruiting trees.

Since grafting and budding are asexual or vegetative methods of propagation, the new plant that grows from the scion or bud will be exactly like the plant it came from. These methods of plant reproduction are usually chosen because cuttings from the desired plant root poorly (or not at all). Also, these methods give the plant a certain characteristic of the rootstock – for example, hardiness, drought tolerance, or disease resistance. Since both methods require extensive knowledge of nursery crop species and their compatibility, grafting and budding are two techniques that are usually practiced only by more experienced nursery operators.

Most woody nursery plants can be grafted or budded, but both processes are labor intensive and require a great deal of skill. For these reasons they can be expensive and come with no guarantee of success. The nurseryman must therefore see in them a marked advantage over more convenient propagation techniques to justify the time and cost. Clones or varieties within a species can usually be grafted or budded interchangeably.

Grafting and budding can be performed only at very specific times when weather conditions and the physiological stage of plant growth are both optimum. The timing depends on the species and the technique used.

Reasons for Grafting and Budding

Budding and grafting may increase the productivity of certain horticultural crops because they make it possible to do the following things:

  • Change varieties or cultivars. An older established orchard of fruiting trees may become obsolete as newer varieties or cultivars are developed. The newer varieties may offer improved insect or disease resistance, better drought tolerance, or higher yields. As long as the scion is compatible with the rootstock, the older orchard may be top worked using the improved variety or cultivar.
  • Optimize cross-pollination and pollination. Certain fruit trees are not self-pollinating; they require pollination by a second fruit tree, usually of another variety. This process is known as cross-pollination. Portions of a tree or entire trees may be pollinated with the second variety to ensure fruit set. To ensure good fruit set on the female (pistillate) plant, a male (staminate) plant must be growing nearby. Where this is not possible, the chances that cross-pollination will occur can be increased by grafting a scion from a male plant onto the female plant.
  • Take advantage of particular rootstocks. Compared to the selected scion, certain rootstocks have superior growth habits, disease and insect resistance, and drought tolerance.
  • Benefit from interstocks. An interstock can be particularly valuable when the scion and rootstock are incompatible. In such cases, an interstock that is compatible with both rootstock and scion is used. An interstock could increase the disease resistance or cold hardiness of the scion. Plants also may be double worked to impart dwarfness or influence flowering and fruiting of a scion.
  • Perpetuate clones. Clones of numerous species of horticultural plants cannot be economically reproduced from vegetative cuttings because the percentage of cuttings that root successfully is low. Many can be grafted, however, onto seedling rootstocks.
  • Produce certain plant forms. Numerous horticultural plants owe their beauty to the fact that they are grafted or budded onto a standard, especially those that have a weeping or cascading form. In most cases, multiple scions are grafted or budded 3 feet or higher on the main stem of the rootstock. When used this way, the rootstock is referred to as a standard. It may require staking for several years until the standard is large enough to support the cascading or weeping top.
  • Repair damaged plants. Large trees or specimen plants can be damaged easily at or slightly above the soil line. The damage may be caused by maintenance equipment (such as lawn mowers, trenchers, or construction equipment), or by disease, rodents, or winter storms. The damage can often be repaired by planting several seedlings of the same species around the injured tree and grafting them above the injury. This procedure is referred to as inarching, approach grafting, or bridge grafting.
  • Increase the growth rate of seedlings. The seedling progeny of many fruit and nut breeding programs, if left to develop naturally, may require 8 to 12 years to become fruitful. However, if these progeny are grafted onto established plants, the time required for them to flower and fruit is reduced dramatically. Another way to increase the growth rate of seedlings is to graft more than one seedling onto a mature plant. Using this procedure as a breeding tool saves time, space, and money.
  • Index viruses. Many plants carry viruses, although the symptoms may not always be obvious or even visible. The presence or absence of the virus in the suspect plant can be confirmed by grafting scions from the plant onto another plant that is highly susceptible and will display prominent symptoms.

When to Graft

Unlike budding, which can be performed before or during the growing season, most grafting is done during winter and early spring while both scion and rootstock are still dormant. Containerized plants may be moved indoors during the actual grafting process; after grafting, these plants are placed in protected areas or in unheated overwintering houses. Field-grown stock, of course, must be grafted in place. Some deciduous trees are commonly grafted as bare rootstock during the winter and stored until spring planting. Indoor winter grafting is often referred to as bench grafting because it is accomplished at a bench.

Selecting and Handling Scion Wood

The best quality scion wood usually comes from shoots grown the previous season. Scions should be severed with sharp, clean shears or knives and placed immediately in moistened burlap or plastic bags. It is good practice during the harvesting of scions and the making of grafts to clean the cutting tools regularly. This may be done by flaming or immersing them in a sterilizing solution. Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol also works well as a sterilant, although it evaporates quite readily. An alternative sterilizing solution may be prepared by mixing one part household bleach with nine parts water (by volume). However, this bleach solution can be highly corrosive to certain metals.

For best results, harvest only as much scion wood as can be used for grafting during the same day. Select only healthy scion wood that is free from insect, disease, or winter damage. Be sure the stock plants are of good quality, healthy, and true to type. Scion wood that is frozen at harvest often knits more slowly and in lower percentage. If large quantities of scion wood must be harvested at one time, follow these steps:

  1. Cut all scions to a uniform length, keep their basal ends together, and tie them in bundles of known quantity (for example, 50 scions per bundle).
  2. Label them, recording the cultivar, date of harvest, and location of the stock plant.
  3. Wrap the base of the bundles in moistened burlap or sphagnum, place them in polyethylene or waterproof paper bags, and seal the bags.
  4. Store the bundles for short periods, if necessary, either iced down in insulated coolers or in a commercial storage unit at 32o to 34oF.
  5. Never store scions in refrigerated units where fruits or vegetables are currently kept or have been stored recently. Stored fruits and vegetables release ethylene gas, which can cause woody plant buds to abort, making the scions useless.
  6. Keep the scions from freezing during storage.

NOTE: [click image to enlarge]

In grafting, as well as budding, the vascular cambium of the scion or bud must be aligned with the vascular cambium of rootstock. In woody plants the cambium is a very thin ribbon of actively dividing cells located just below the bark. The cambium produces conductive tissue for the actively growing plant (Figure 1). This vascular cambium initiates callus tissue at the graft and bud unions in addition to stimulating tissue growth on the basal ends of many vegetative cuttings before they have rooted.


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