Properly Pruning Grafted and Budded Plants

So what exactly do the terms grafting and budding mean? Grafting is generally accepted to be the art of melding or attaching, a piece of one plant to another plant, which in turn creates a new plant. Most grafting is done due to the difficulty involved in propagating the desired plant through other means. Budding is simply a form of grafting.

As an example, all dogwoods can easily be grown from seed. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to grow one of the most popular varieties, the Pink Dogwood, from seed. Seeds from a Pink Dogwood, when planted, grow trees that produce blooms that will almost always be white in color.

The single most common method for reproducing Pink Dogwood trees, therefore, is to remove a lone bud from the Pink Dogwood tree and insert or slip it under a small cut in the bark of a White Dogwood seedling. This propagation process is referred to as budding. The seedling is called a rootstock. Budding is normally practiced when the bark of the seedling is easily separated from the tree and the seedling is about 1/4 inch in diameter, during the late summer months.

A very small “T” shaped cut is made into only the bark, and a single bud is slipped into the slot. The actual bud will poke out through the opening at which point the wound is wrapped using a rubber band both below and above the bud. Over the winter, the bud will have attached itself to the seedling. In the spring, the seedling will be cut off just above the Pink Dogwood bud, which will enable the bud to then grow into a Pink Dogwood tree that actually blooms pink.

Usually, a budding graft is done at ground level, and it isn’t uncommon for the rootstock to send up shoots from below the bud union. These shoots are often called suckers and should be removed as soon as they appear. Since they are suckers, they are the same variety as the rootstock and not our desired variety. Another budded variety, Flowering Crabapples, is notorious for sending out suckers.

So it’s important to remember when removing suckers to not just clip them off at ground level, for they will only grow back. What you need to do is literally pull the soil and/or mulch back from the tree to the point where you can see them growing out from the stem. You must get down as low as you can and remove them completely to keep them under control. On older trees that haven’t been pruned properly, take a spade and literally hack the suckers away from the stem. Yes, this will do a bit of damage to the stem of the tree, but the trees will always survive and even thrive.

Some plants are grafted higher up the rootstock to create a weeping effect. The top graft Weeping Cherry is one of the most popular trees grafted in this manner. In this case the rootstock seedling is allowed to grow to a height of approximately 5 feet, at which point the weeping variety is grafted on to the rootstock, which gives the plant an umbrella-type effect. Since the top graft is 5 feet above the ground, it is imperative that any branches growing below the graft union be continually removed.

Not attending to this detail will result in odd branches growing up through the weeping canopy which will completely ruin the desired effect.

Weeping Cotoneaster is another interesting plant propagated through grafting. The seedling that is grown to serve as the rootstock is Paul’s Scarlet Hawthorn, and a Cotoneaster Apiculata is grafted onto the Hawthorn rootstock at a height of 5 feet. Years ago a nurseryman experimenting with grafting found that these two plants are extremely compatible, and the result was a beautiful and unique plant.

In this case, as well, any growth coming from the stem (rootstock) must be removed below the graft point. If not, the growth from the rootstock will be a Hawthorn look completely different from the Cotoneaster it is supposed to be.

The fastest way to maintain this type of pruning is to check your grafted plants when you’re working in the yard. Any sign of new growth coming from below the graft union should be pruned away with your fingernail. Catching new buds when they first emerge makes pruning them off that easy.

Take a walk around your yard and see if you have any grafted or budded plants now. Then see if you can find any that have growth that seems to not match the rest of the plant. If you examine it closely, you will probably find that the odd growth is originating from below a graft or bud union.

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