Professor emeritus Joe Sabol keeps alive his passion for education by coordinating and teaching an apple grafting workshop for California high schools.

Professor emeritus Joe Sabol keeps alive his passion for education by coordinating and teaching an apple grafting workshop for California high schools.

What do agriculture teachers do when they retire? Joe Sabol, he found a way to continue to excite and motivate students in horticulture by starting an apple grafting program in high schools.

For three decades Sabol taught agriculture education classes at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, preparing future ag teachers for the classroom. After retirement, it was only natural that he found a way to stay connected with students. The idea for the high school apple grafting program, recently completing its eleventh year, just "evolved," he said during a telephone interview with the Good Fruit Grower. Sabol, a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, solicits Rare Fruit member volunteers and Cal Poly students to help him teach youth about apples and grafting.

The nonprofit Rare Fruit organization, founded in 1968, claims on its Web site to be the largest amateur fruit-growing organization in the world. With 3,000 members and 21 active chapters, the group is interested in any and all edible plants in the home landscape. According to Sabol, the definition of "rare" is rather liberal, with each chapter interested in different fruits. For example, the Santa Rosa chapter focuses on mostly on deciduous fruit, whereas the San Diego region loves fruits of a tropical nature.


Sabol coordinated apple grafting this spring in 20 California high schools and four junior high schools. He also taught three grafting labs to Cal Poly students who then helped with the grafting demonstrations. Although he’s lost track of the total number of students that have participated in the workshops, the volunteer grafters go through about 2,000 apple trees in a three-week period each year.

"Most of the high school vocational agriculture teachers that I work with are former students of mine from Cal Poly," he said.

Santa Ynez High School teacher Kathy Bibby, a Cal Poly alumna, has been involved in the grafting program for ten years. "We were proud to graft our thousandth apple tree this year, knowing that former and present students will remember the lessons learned regarding apple grafting and take an appreciation for gardening wherever their paths take them," she said.

"When asked what the students like about my horticulture class, apple grafting is always one of the highlights."

After students, under the guidance of the volunteers, complete their cleft graft on a semidwarfing rootstock, the potted trees are kept at the school for about two months until they are ready for transplanting at home into containers or gardens. Any extra trees are distributed to local gardeners. Bibby has planted about ten different apple cultivars at the high school farm so that students can enjoy the fruits of their labors and to provide scion wood for the next year’s grafting lesson.

For Sabol, his annual visit to Grizzly Youth Academy, a special program to get troubled kids back on track and graduate from high school, is the high point of his grafting demonstrations. The academy is held at the military Camp San Luis, a National Guard Reserve Center near San Luis Obispo. Only 50 of 200 youth are chosen from the academy to participate in the grafting workshop. Sabol said he is always inspired by the youth, many from Los Angeles and San Francisco, who are working to put their lives back together. Often, the youth discover a hidden interest in growing things.

The high schools provide the soil and containers to pot the grafted trees, and students or schools pay about a dollar to reimburse the Rare Fruit group for each rootstock. The Rare Fruit group buys the rootstock from a nursery in Montana and has received several cash donations and materials from commercial nurseries. "Both commercial nurseries and Central Coast apple growers have been very supportive," Sabol said.

The type of scion wood varies and depends primarily if wood is donated. Gala is one of the more common cultivars used because of its widespread popularity. Fuji is also frequently used, although he concedes that the variety is difficult to grow.

Urban impact

"We now have thousands of trees planted in backyards and at schools that have been grafted by high school students," said Sabol, adding that he has had students years later tell him that the trees they planted are alive and doing well.

Sabol believes that the program is a great way to connect community volunteers with the local school district and local youth.

"I know that when you get kids excited about grafting apples, they also become excited about eating them," he said, noting that it also spurs interest in eating locally grown food.

Asked about backyard trees becoming havens for pests, Sabol said the grafting lesson leads to additional classroom discussions about pests, diseases, and the use of agricultural chemicals.

"It teaches the kids that there’s a lot more to growing an apple than just grafting a tree and taking it home to watch it grow."

High school teachers are often invited to attend Rare Fruit Growers meetings to learn about things like pheromone mating disruption for codling moth.

Several schools have planted some of their trees at the school farm, providing students with hands-on opportunities to learn how to prune and care for them.

Sabol said that he always gives one homework assignment to students who will attend the grafting workshop the next year. He wants them to taste different apples and find out what variety they like best. When they return the following year, they are to choose another cultivar to graft on their tree at home. "They are always shocked to hear that I have a tree at home with 100 different apple varieties on it."