If you’ve got a small space but an appetite for a fresh-picked fruit, there is no reason to despair. You don’t need a huge orchard to fill your fruit bowl. Not only can you grow multiple varieties of apples on a single tree. You can even grow an entire fruit salad on the same rootstock.
Yes, you can grow your own “Fruit Salad Trees,” a tree grafted with cuttings from different fruit trees in the same family. It works with both citrus and stone fruit.
Imagine the ease and space-savings achieved by having just one tree that will give you peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots and peachcots? Or how about a citrus tree with not just lemons, but limes, Mandarins, oranges, tangelos and grapefruit?
It’s done through the magic of grafting and budding and there is an art to it. On Sunday, the Redwood Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers will hold their annual winter scion exchange at the Santa Rosa Veterans Building. The gathering, open to all, is a chance to pick up cuttings, or scions, for free. Choose from a world of fruit, from apples, pears, plums, peaches and pluots, to plumcots, nectarines and grapes, jujubes and more. Admission is $5.
Members say that anyone with even a 6-by 6-foot patch of open sunlight can grow a tree with tasty fruit, even if it’s only in a trashcan of soil sitting on pavement.
The group will also have rootstock to buy for $3. And for a nominal fee, members will graft on the cuttings you’ve collected. Or you can take in a grafting demonstration and learn how to create your own multivariety wonder tree.
That’s what David Ulmer, a retired ophthalmologist, will be doing the day of the exchange. Grafting, grafting, grafting.
He grows close to 400 varieties of fruits on his tightly planted one acre hobby farm in Sebastopol. He keeps track of his varieties in a database. But he’s lost track of how many actual trees he has. He figures at least 100. Many although not all, are multi-grafted trees.
To make the best use of his space, this committed fruit collector, who is perpetually nosing out new varieties, will also plant four trees close together in one hole, and prune them so they’re clear in the middle and growing outward.
“When you look at them from afar, it looks like just one tree. You keep the middle opened up so they’re not coming at each other from the middle. The main thing you have to do is get varieties that grow at about the same rate from rootstocks that grow at about the same rate,” he explained. It’s an overcast January afternoon in his mini-farm, where espaliered apples and pears grow along fences surrounding it. The only hint of the summer bounty ahead are the last of the persimmons, which he has left for the birds.
But winter is a good time to plan ahead.
While the main reason for multi-grafting is to maximize space, there are other benefits. Most people can’t eat all the fruit from a prolific tree. Ulmer and his wife Jana, an avid vegetable grower, are serious cooks and use much of what they grow, freezing what can’t be consumed before it goes bad, giving away to friends and donating to the local food bank. But still there may be extra.
By grafting (or budding in the summer) you can have one (or several) branches with one variety and one (or several) branches) with another variety, giving you a more consumable harvest. One member of the Rare Fruit Growers, Fred Revetria, has a single apple tree laden with dozens of different varieties.
There is a third benefit. You can choose your varieties to spread out your harvest, with a mixture of early and late harvest types.
“Gravensteins are an early apple. And Roma is a late apple. So you can have apples throughout the whole season, on one apple tree,” Ulmer declared. “I picked my last apple last week.”
For instance, he has the Australian ‘Lady Williams’ apple, which is the “mother” of ‘Pink Lady.’ He also has the sister of “Pink Lady,’ called ‘Sundowner.’ ‘Lady Pink’ ripens around Thanksgiving, and ‘Sundowner’ ripens around Christmas, with ‘Lady Williams’ ready to eat in January. There are some apple varieties that ripens in early summer, even before the Gravenstein, so conceivably you could be eating fresh apples out of your yard for half the year.
For a “Fruit Salad Tree” featuring multiple types of fruit, you need the right rootstock for success. Most popular for your stone fruits, said Ulmer, is a peach rootstock called Lovell, which at one time produced common cling peaches for canning. The cannery pits were grown for rootstock.
The one stone fruit that doesn’t take on a Fruit Salad tree is cherry. But there is a way around that, with a certain “interstem,” that allows the cherry to be compatible with the rootstock.
A standard semi-dwarf rootstock is used for growing multiple types of citrus fruits on one tree.
There are two ways to join two or more plants so they appear to be growing as a single plant. One is grafting, where you take the upper part or scion of one plant and grow it onto the root system of another plant. You can also combine through “budding.” In that process a bud is taken from one plant and grown onto another. Bud grafting, or budding, is done in late spring or early summer, and tends to be more successful, Ulmer said.
Sticks, or scions, snipped for grafting, can actually last for a few months in the refrigerator. So people picking up scions at the exchange can set them aside for June budding if they prefer. Ulmer recommends planting the rootstock in the spring and collecting the budwood in summer for grafting at that time.
Collectors from all over the state and the country share sticks to get varieties they crave. They can be sent successfully by placing the scion in a damp paper towel or a plastic bag with just a little bit of moisture.
But the local scion exchange is a chance to gather a fruitful harvest of cuttings in person, from experts who can answer questions.
Many of the best tasting fruits, members say, are available only through specialty catalogs or growers or from hobbyists swapping among themselves. They have been snipping scions from their own trees for the exchange, so those who show up can expect to score some special varieties.
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5204.