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How to graft a fruit tree

While Luther Burbank experimented with plants at his home and garden in Santa Rosa, he did the bulk of this work at Gold Ridge, his 11-acre property in Sebastopol. There he grew the famous tree that had 500 different varieties of cherries grafted onto it.

He made these grafts to evaluate the cherries side by side and make his selections for taste, ripening times, yield and other sought-after qualities. He put his choices into breeding programs that, over his lifetime, yielded more than 800 new varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables, flowers and cabinet wood trees.

So, if for no other reason than to honor the techniques of Burbank here on his home turf, consider adding a grafted combination fruit tree to your yard or garden. But you don’t need to look far for other good reasons to plant one of these horticultural wonders.

Combination apple trees, for instance, can have from three to six different varieties growing from one trunk. Depending on the type of apple on the limbs, it can produce early, midseason and late fruit on the same tree. Some apples may be good for making cider, others for eating out of hand and others perfect for apple sauce or cooked pastries and pies.

If you had a separate tree for each kind of apple, they’d make an orchard by themselves and take up a great deal of room. But they can all be on one semi-dwarf tree that you can prune so the fruit stays within reach and you won’t need a ladder. So many people get more fruit than they can eat, leaving much to go to waste. These multi-variety trees are amazingly efficient ways to grow fruit in your backyard.

Genetic differences

Because of genetic differences among the scions — the term for the varieties being grafted onto the main tree with its roots in the ground — different grafted limbs may grow at different rates. You’ll need to keep your eye on limbs that are more vigorous than others and prune them back to maintain balance. If you let the vigorous limbs grow freely, they’ll take over your tree and the other varieties will wither and die.

Ask your supplier which varieties on your combination tree are most and least vigorous. That will help you keep the tree balanced and also will help at planting time. Pick a site for your tree that gets full sun, and orient it with the slowest-growing or weakest limbs facing south to southwest, so they get the most light.

Hard to get so plan now

These combination trees are very popular. They tend to sell out quickly when growers deliver potted young grafted trees or bare-root trees in winter, when the trees are dormant and can be easily planted in the winter-wet ground to wake up in the garden in spring. That’s why it’s wise to be proactive and order these trees now, if your retailer keeps a roster of people who have signed up or prepaid in July for trees in January.

One last thing: you can learn to graft and do the work yourself. It’s not hard, but you do need to know how to do it successfully. While apples need to be grafted to apple stock, stone fruits like peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines can be grafted to almond tree stock because they are all in the genus Prunus.

Local nurseries for combination fruit trees

Friedman’s Home Improvement: Friedman’s three Sonoma County locations carry multi-grafted fruit trees. Check the store closest to you around mid-December to see when trees will arrive. 4055 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-584-7811; 360 Broadway, Sonoma, 707-939-8811 and 429 N. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma, 707-774-8400.

King’s Nursery: King’s Nursery has been a local garden center and plant nursery in Santa Rosa since 1896. It is the longest-running nursery in the county. It carries multi-grafted fruit trees in pots. It currently has a six-in-one espaliered apple tree for sale and will have more combos around the first of the year. 1212 13th St. Santa Rosa, 707-542-4782.

Sonoma Valley Wholesale Nursery: They say they sometimes have multi-grafted trees depending on the year. Call during bare-root season (December to March) to see if they have any. Open for retail sales 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.19655 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 707-732-8019.

Urban Tree Farm Nursery: Multi-grafted trees in large tubs arrive around the end of the year and tend to sell out by February or March. More start to come in during June for the summer months. Currently available is a six-in-one apple tree in a seven-gallon tub. 3010 Fulton Road, Fulton, 707-544-4446.

Online retailers

Raintree Nursery: Pretty much one-stop shopping for combination fruit trees. They carry many apple, cherry, peach, nectarine, plum and pluot three-in-ones and four-in-ones.

They also carry what they call the Fruit Cocktail tree, each of which has at least four of the following six varieties: frost peach, Puget Gold apricot, hardired nectarine, sweetheart cherry, Italian prune plum and Lapins cherry. They are grafted with a special interstem that makes it possible to have cherries on the same tree as the others. Make sure you have 800 to 1,200 hours of chill to guarantee successful flowering and fruiting. (Most of Sonoma County has from 900 to 1,300 chill hours.) Raintree’s combos sell out early, but they will take orders this month for shipping in early 2022. Morton, Washington, 800-391-8892, raintreenursery.com

Home Depot: Home Depot sells four-in-one apple, cherry, plum and pear trees, plus a three-in-one apple combination. They are only sold by mail order, not in the stores, and are mailed to you bare root in early 2022.

To see what they have, go to homedepot.com and search in the box that says, “What can we help you find today?” at the top of the homepage. Type in: online orchards combination fruit trees. You’ll find all their mail-order combo trees on the pages that appear.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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