The apple harvest in Sonoma County runs about three months, beginning with the arrival of the renowned Gravenstein in mid-August and continuing into November with the late-bearing varieties. The volunteers of Slow Food are very busy during that time, but the apple trees are busy all year long. If you want to engage with apple trees now, there’s no better way than grafting. You can find all sorts of grafting tutorials on the Internet, but let me share my personal experiences.
I am no farmer, but I’ve had some success, and lots of fun, grafting. Farmers say the best time to graft an apple tree here is around St. Patrick’s Day – mid-March. You’ll need an adult apple tree, branches or twigs from a different variety of tree (called scion wood), some tape and a sharp knife. I bought my knife at Harmony Farm Supply 12 years ago and the price tag on the handle shows I paid $16; they now cost $20 – not bad.
The best place to collect scion wood is at the scion wood exchange hosted in Santa Rosa by the Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers. Proving the point that apple trees are busy all year long, the scion wood exchange is held in late January of each year because that is when most fruit trees have been pruned. If you didn’t collect scion wood at the exchange last month, maybe you have a friend or neighbor with apple varieties you like who will let you clip off some scion wood. If not, consider joining the Rare Fruit Growers so you get notice of the exchange next year.
It’s a great feeling to visit your apple tree and see shiny green leaves on the leaf-less twig you grafted a month or two earlier. Not all of my grafts succeed, of course, and I always wonder if the failure resulted from a poor connection, dehydration, extreme temperature, contamination or some other cause. When you think of all the things that can go wrong, it makes success all the sweeter.
Deer visit our orchard every night, and they love apple tree leaves. I learned the hard way that deer eat up to four feet above the ground; so better do your grafting higher than that.
You usually have to wait a year or two for the grafted wood to bear apples, but last year I was surprised to see an apple growing on each of three grafts of scion wood from the variety known as San Jacinto. The grafts were less than six months old and the apples were beautiful – the deepest, darkest red I had ever seen on an apple. But when I bit into one of the San Jacintos I had to rate it as one of the most unpleasant apples I had ever tasted. I’m sure there’s a profound life lesson here, perhaps something about how record-breaking speed doesn’t translate into pleasing taste. Maybe slowness is essential.
But maybe this year the San Jacintos will taste good, maybe even great. After all, by this season the tree will have had a full year to work its magic on the grafts. And I’m convinced the trees work all year long. Time will tell.
Bob Burke has been a member of Slow Food Russian River, and a member of the Apple Core, for more than ten years. He is a Fellow of the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, and an Associate Director of the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District. Bob is a retired lawyer and an avid reader, grandparent and catch-and-release fly fisherman.