BACKYARD BLISS | Bark grafting: nature's own magic trick

The results of a successful fruit tree grafting. Picture: Hannah Moloney

The results of a successful fruit tree grafting. Picture: Hannah Moloney

Grafting might as well be called 'one of the best magic tricks ever'. It's where you literally transform a fruit tree with underwhelming fruit but vigorous rootstock, into the most delightful variety of fruit tree ever.

We found bark grafting to be our answer to improve our collection of wild cherry plums that were all pip and no flesh. By grafting we transformed this slightly useless tree into a plum tree producing abundant, tasty fruit for us, our friends and pantry shelves.

When it works, grafting is pretty much the most satisfying thing 'ever'. We've since enjoyed our first crop of big fat juicy plums, so it's been a great success.

But bark grafting does involve some drastic methods.

First of which is chopping the tree down. It sounds counter-intuitive, but by leaving a 'stump' of between 20-50cm, the idea is you can then do multiple grafts directly into the stump. You can leave more of the tree if it's a good healthy structure and is disease free, but you'll have more rootstock branches trying to constantly grow back, so you'll have to be rigorous in pruning their shoots.

To magic a new and better variety onto the rootstock you need to graft on scion wood from a productive, healthy fruit tree. The scion wood is the cuttings you take from another tree with the desired fruit, to then graft onto your rootstock.

We took some cuttings from our neighbour's amazing plum tree to graft onto our very un-amazing wild cherry plum tree. The only thing you really need to remember is that the scion wood and rootstock need to be from the same plant family. The best time to take scion cuttings is in winter when the trees are dormant and have no signs of budding on them.

The grafting process in pictures. Pictures: Hannah Moloney

The grafting process in pictures. Pictures: Hannah Moloney

Here's the full process

STEP 1: Chop the tree down. We left one branch belonging to the rootstock to ensure the tree would still 'draw sap'. This helps increase the chances of the grafts succeeding. Eventually we'll chop this branch off.

STEP 2: Get your very sharp grafting knife and slice down the side of your stump to match the length of you scion wood graft. Also using your knife, gently peel this bark back to slip the scion wood inside.

The cambium layer under the bark is where the real magic happens. You want to line the scion wood with the cambium layer. Generally you're aiming for a super clean finish.

(We should have trimmed the edges of the scion wood down their long side to increase contact between cambium layers. But, practice makes perfect and mistakes are expected to be made along the journey).

STEP 3: Gently wriggle your scion wood into the bark until it perfectly matches with the level of the stump. It's really important that you aim to get the two cambium layers to match up, if they don't, the graft won't work.

STEP 4: Notching. Cut a small notch above the bud you most desire to shoot, it inspires that particular bud to shoot as it thinks it's under threat of dying.

Make sure your knife is sharp so you can get a clean cut. Notching helps determine how the plant will grow, ensuring that all (if not most) buds grow away from the centre of the tree.

You don't want the buds growing into the centre as they'll start to cross with one another and get tangled, which increases the chance of disease (due to decreased air flow) and is darn awkward to harvest and maintain. We had six grafts, all with notches to encourage growth outward, instead of in. We aimed for about half the grafts to take.

STEP 5: Paint all exposed cuts with some eco friendly goop called Tree Stac, which protects wounds from unhealthy bacteria or disease.

STEP 6: Bind all the grafts with electrical tape instead of grafting tape as it lasts for a bit longer. Then wait and watch for the grafts to take.

Some advice I picked up about grafting affirmed my own approach to gardening - "if your graft doesn't work, just try again next year, gardening is very forgiving, just keeping learning and developing your skills".

And so we do. Graft on!

After the grafts have matured wit the rootstock. Picture: Hannah Moloney

After the grafts have matured wit the rootstock. Picture: Hannah Moloney