Growing a ‘Family’ Apple Tree – Episode 1

Feature image: a grafted family tree

Since I first heard of the concept, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of ‘family’ fruit trees; a single tree, or root-stock, on which a number of different varieties of compatible fruit are grafted. The more extreme examples are often called ‘Frankentrees’; this one grown by Steven Edholm of self-sufficiency blog has 150 varieties of apple on a single tree:

That’s the longer-term goal, but for the time being, I thought I’d start with something a little smaller. So yesterday, as my boss’s suggestion when we were doing a bit of grafting at work, I lifted an M27 (or possibly M9) rootstock that we grafted onto last year, but whose graft had failed. As it had grown several shoots of the original stock, I was able to graft three different varieties onto the stock: ‘Egremont Russet’, ‘Wareham’s Russet’ and ‘Laxton’s Superb’ (as we only had scions from two types of russet…)

Here’s the newly-grafted tree, along with three others (scions taken from a wilding / seedling that my wife Jo and I noticed, sampled and decided was worth growing on) after I’d brought them back home to the greenhouse yesterday:

These newly-grafted trees will be potted into air-pots to grow on for a year or so.

And here’s a closer look at the grafted ‘family’ tree:

The family tree, stage 1: ‘Egremont Russet’ + ‘Wareham’s Russet’ + ‘Laxton’s Superb’

The three grafted scions are individually labelled, and there’s a fourth rootstock stem, too thin to graft onto this year but it should hopefully thicken up for grafting next year, which is labelled as well. I used a couple of grafting methods: the thinner stem was a whip-and-tongue, whilst the two thicker ones were done with a ‘keyhole’ blade on a grafting tool. Mainly for speed (we were due to pack up and go home) but also a grafting tool is pretty good for ensuring good cambium match-up, which helps grafts to establish. Plastic tape was applied to the graft points to maintain pressure and grafting wax daubed over the plastic to hopefully seal out excess moisture and pests.

The next step will be to pot the new trees up into air-pots to grow on for a year. That should be long enough to see whether or not all the grafts have been successful. An unsuccessful graft is usually obvious: the stem around the graft union dies and the two sections will come apart again. If the union heals nicely and the scion shows signs of healthy new growth then the portents are good.

I have to admit that whilst I’m hopeful, I can’t guarantee that this will work. Bench-grafting three scions straight to a dwarfing rootstock rather than field-grafting to an established, more vigorous tree, might be a dumb idea. The rootstock might not be able to supply the demands of all three scions, so one or all of them might fail.

If they do establish and if the tree does grow on, then within two or maybe three years – because dwarfing rootstocks tend to bring their scions into fruit sooner than more vigorous types – then I might be able to enjoy three, hopefully four different types of apple from one compact tree. Probably only half a dozen of each, but still, it will be good to have those to sample.

Both ‘Egremont Russet’ and ‘Laxton’s Superb’ are in similar pollination groups – I don’t know the group for the Wareham’s Russet as it’s a Cheshire heritage variety that doesn’t either appear in any of the usual databases or doesn’t have the info when it does – so if I was planting this tree on its own then there’s a good chance the varieties would cross-pollinate nicely. Pollination won’t be a problem though, because if the grafts take I’m planning to plant the tree on my allotment, where it will be surrounded by a few dozen potential pollination partners.

I’ll keep you posted once the growing season starts and the scions (hopefully!) start to show signs of life.

How about you? Have you attempted anything similar? Good results to share? Do let me know, via the comments.

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