An advantage of planting bench grafts is that they can be ordered just a few months ahead of the planting date. However, the grower takes on the role of the nursery while the trees become established.
As marketing director of a Washington State tree fruit nursery, Paul Tvergyak is often asked for advice on what to plant. "The question I get asked very often is, "What’s hot? What do I plant?"
Speaking at a Fruit School on Competitive Orchard Systems, Tvergyak said the question of what a person should plant is really more complex than that.
First of all, check with your warehouse and marketers, and ask them what to plant. "Just because you can grow it, doesn’t mean they can sell it, or it’s a profitable commodity for you to grow," he said.
Tvergyak, who is with Cameron Nursery in Eltopia, noted that not all new varieties that are introduced will be successful, but if the grower plays the lottery often enough, eventually they’re likely to win. "If you don’t play in the game, I guarantee you, you will not succeed, but if you play at the game, and play at the right time, you reduce your risk of failure."
After looking into the market potential, consider whether the site is appropriate for the variety you’re interested in. Tvergyak said there’s a saying that a good cherry is one that’s hanging on the tree just before harvest that has no mildew or cracking and is bright red and at the perfect maturity. A better cherry is one that’s in the box. But the very best cherry is the one that’s paid for.
"Go through that scenario when thinking what to plant in your site," he said, noting that it applies to all tree fruits. "Make sure it’s something you’ll get paid for."
For example, Tvergyak tells growers that they should think of the Honeycrisp apple as being similar to Jonagold in terms of the climate it grows best in. It generally is a variety for cooler sites, although growers can use practices such as cooling to manage the heat. But modifying the environment has a cost.
"Given enough money and return, I could grow bananas in north central Washington in greenhouse conditions," he said. "But cost of production is certainly a factor. Any time you are outside the norm for a rootstock/variety combination, it’s going to start costing you."
Also, consider the season. For example, it makes no sense to plant Chelan cherries in a mid- to late-season site, because Chelan is designed to catch the early market. "The second Bings hit the market, the Chelan prices take a nosedive and keep going," he said.
After deciding on the variety, consider what would be the best rootstock. Most blocks in Washington have fairly uniform soils, but in sites that have fingers of heavier soils running through them, he’s seen trees on Budagovsky 9 grow bigger than trees on Malling 26. "Take a good, close look at your soils and see how much variability is in there," he advised.
If considering M.9, there are several clones to choose from, with a 10- to 12-percent difference in vigor between the most vigorous and the weakest clones, Tvergyak said. Part of that difference can be overridden by how high the bud union is planted, he said. With size-controlling rootstocks, the higher the bud union, the greater the dwarfing effect.
The next decision is what type of planting material to order. Nurseries can supply bare-rooted finished trees, bench grafts, sleeping eyes, or potted trees.
To make bench grafts, nurseries take the rootstocks out of the layer bed in November, graft them with the scion and deliver them for planting in April or May.
Bench grafts need to be ordered only six to eight months ahead of time—compared with 2 years for finished trees—though up to a year’s notice might be needed if the grower wants a popular rootstock such as the T.337 clone of M.9. If the time is right for the variety in the market, the shorter wait might make a difference in profitability.
Sleeping eyes need to be ordered about 18 months to two years ahead of time. They start out like nursery trees. The nursery plants the rootstocks in the spring and buds them with the scions in August of the same year. The trees are then cut back to the scion bud, dug in the fall, and delivered the following spring. A full-grown nursery tree would be left to grow for another year in the nursery.
Tvergyak said when planting sleeping eyes or bench grafts, the grower takes on the role of the nurseryman. "It’s not rocket science," he commented. "It’s more commitment." Tvergyak said research shows that feathered nursery trees are better than whips. However, growers who don’t want the feathers should order whips rather than take feathered trees and cut off the feathers, he said. Ordering whips in the first place will be cheaper, save time, and be more efficient.
In response to a suggestion that nurseries should make trees with the bud union higher to avoid the risk of scion rooting in the orchard, Tvergyak noted that the nurseries try to strike a balance, as the lower the buds are on the rootstock, the higher the percentage of bud take.
Another choice that has potential is potted trees, which are similar to bench grafts. The nursery plants a rootstock in a pot in about December, then grafts on the scion in the winter and delivers it for planting in May. A benefit is that the tree is growing, he said. The disadvantage is that the nursery has to ship the soil with the tree in the pot, which is expensive. Tvergyak said this option might be worth exploring if only because of the shorter time between ordering and planting the tree. "You can make the decision in November or December before the season you’re going to be planting them," he said. "They do pretty well."
Tvergyak offered the following observations about certain variety-rootstock combinations:
- The Chelan cherry on a dwarfing Gisela rootstock is likely to be a 1/2-inch caliper tree, not the 5⁄8-inch, 3/4-inch, or 7⁄8-inch tree cherry growers might normally expect. "You’re going to get a small tree," he said. "But that might work to your advantage in your planting."
- Braeburn on M.9 will be a small, stunted tree that’s difficult to manage well unless it’s planted on a vigorous site.
- Braeburn bench grafts on M.26 rootstocks might not thrive when planted in the orchard. "M.26 is like a teenager—it likes to sleep in in the morning," he said, explaining that M.26 rootstocks are slow to come out of dormancy in the spring.
A bench graft on an M.26 rootstock will start growing about a week before the rootstock wakes up, he warned. "We’ve seen a fair amount of Braeburn bench grafts on M.26 collapse on us before the rootstock wakes it up. The rootstock still thinks it’s dormant."
- Honeycrisp is typically a weak grower, so it should not be planted on a rootstock smaller than M.9-T.337.