Apple Rootstock

In the late summer of 2009, Joyce’s nephew, Will, came to visit and help me clear some trails through our woods. One of the trails was smothered in wild grape vine. As we began clearing it, we realised that the tree that we were uncovering was an apple. And there were a couple of apples still on the tree. Using a stick, I flipped it into his hands. It was large, yellow-skinned and completely unblemished. There were no signs that insects had bored into it. So we sliced it open to find the flesh completely unblemished. Biting into it, our eyebrows shot skyward. It was crisp, juicy, and SWEET! I was pretty sure that it was a wild apple since this area of our property hasn’t been under cultivation for at least 40 years. Since each apple tree that grows from a seed is unique, i.e., the seed does not come true to the parent, my first thought was that we might have something special. To “reproduce” the tree, I would need to graft a scion onto rootstock. Scion wood should be last year’s growth. But in a tree that has rarely or never pruned, growth slows and it’s difficult to find and identify last year’s growth. I knew that pruning would produce water sprouts which would be the scions I needed. Finding rootstock was a far bigger problem than I expected: it didn’t seem to be available in Canada to the amateur who only wanted a few rootstocks. I finally found someone in British Columbia who would sell me the dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties that I was interested in. As I was placing the order, I decided to increase it so that I could propagate my own rootstock even though I had only a vague idea of how to go about it. As it turns out, that decision was inspired because the BC seller no longer makes rootstock available.

So I placed at order for six each of M9, B9, M26 and M7 which arrived at the end of March 2010. So I had rootstock but immediately was confronted with a significant difference in diameter between the rootstock and the scion wood that I had. OK, time to slow down a bit and think. I needed to find a hands-on mentor since I didn’t have a lot of rootstock to spare. And the scion wood was a bit sketchy since the tree had only just been pruned and hadn’t produced water shoots yet. I decided not to have a go at grafting that year but I had no place to put the rootstock.  Rubbermaid to the rescue.

And so they sat all summer long on the veranda.  They bushed out quite nicely and only one died.  But along came the fall and once again the problem was what to do with the rootstock.  I figured they might die if they stayed on the veranda all winter long.  So I decided to sink the Rubbermaid containers into one of our raised beds reasoning that the roots would be surrounded by the soil of the bed even though they weren’t growing in it.   Then we had a heavy downpour and the containers were overflowing and I realized that there were no drainage holes.  So I  got a bit extension for my drill and drilled ½” holes into the bottom.  Sometime one-thing-leads-to-another can be tedious.  So there they sat tucked in for the winter.

Fast forward to spring 2011. Bud break in the orchard was matched by bud break in the rootstock.  I still didn’t have a mentor but the previous spring’s pruning had produced lots of identifiable new growth. There’s a small-ish window for grafting before bud break.  Miss it and you might as well wait until next year.  I missed it but things have progressed well nonetheless.  First of all, a friend directed me to someone he knows who grafts fruit-trees so the mentor problem may be solved.  And I did a fair bit of digging trying to find out how to propagate apple rootstock.  I found lots of very poor descriptions that talked about stooling and layering but weren’t very complete. Then I found  The Step by Step Guide to Plant Propagation and the process became much clearer.

Left click the image for a larger view.

So I transferred that rootstock from the tupperware containers to a raised bed.  There is a second technique called trench layering.  I decided to try both.

Trench Layering

Stool Bed










In the process of layering, I found that one of the rootstocks had sprouted from below the soil and that the sprout had roots.

Two shoots from below the soil level with roots

That and this video on raising your own apple tree rootstock

make me feel I’m on the right track. I hope so because that yellow apple in the woods already has a name – Will’s Gold.

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9 Responses to Apple Rootstock

  1. Mike says:

    Very , very interesting…looks like I have some reading to do. Sounds to me like you will have no more need for boughten rootstock going forward….good for you.

    • MikeH says:

      Hi Mike,

      Yep. I’m quite excited about the possibilities. It’s not just the wild apples down in our woods but that the USDA will share scion wood in their genebank. I think the idea of growing an apple from Kazakhstan- the home of apples – and knowing exactly where it came from is a fascinating idea. It seems that apples are a mostly overlooked and taken for granted plant. Perhaps that’s because the process of seed to fruit is so long; we are not patient.

      You can get rootstock from Raintree or One Green World. I’m sure that there are others but I’ve heard nothing but good words about these two, especially OGW.


  2. Diana says:

    Interesting read. I did read that apple seeds will probably not grow exactly like its parents. It makes me think of another fruit ‘durian’. Not many are found wild anymore in the forest. Most of it are grown like apples. Supermarkets durians are like apples with grade and name. Probably find some country farmer that sells durian from the forest but it is extremely rare and surely not in Malaysia west peninsular. But only in Borneo island. If I have the chance I would certainly like to grow them from seeds or the method that you shared.

    • MikeH says:

      Hi Diana,

      Each seed is unique:

      (From Old Southern Apples, Revised and Expanded Edition: A Comprehensive History and Description of Varieties for Collectors, Growers, and Fruit Enthusiasts)

      177 unique fruit from a single apple cross

      177 unique fruit from a single apple cross.

      Durian sounds like an interesting fruit. It certainly doesn’t look like anything that I know. If you are looking for wild seed, you could probably find some somewhere on the Net. Perhaps a permaculturist somewhere has seeds.


  3. Dan says:

    I am desperately looking for a rootstock supplier that will ship me a few rootstocks to Saskatchewan, Canada. Any help finding one would be appreciated. Thanks

  4. Don says:

    Nice article. I, too, tried to get some apple BC rootstock, a few years ago. As I recall, I got an icy-cold shoulder from every grower I contacted. In the US, most, but not all, of the growers are pretty friendly and willing to sell roostock, if you talk to the right person. However, should be pre-ordered AT LEAST several months in advance (in the Fall) for Spring grafting because they always run out of the newer, popular roostocks (Geneva series), and certain diameters of others (M9, M26, etc.).

    Unfortunately, shipping across international borders is a problem. Shipping into the US requires USDA import permits, plant certification of being disease free, and quarnatine. I imagine Canada has the same requirements. I’ve been looking, but have yet to find anyone in Europe who will sell me any of the new M116 rootstock, even in contacting the top people who are supposed to be licensed to do so.

    I tried to get Gisela 5 and Gisela 6 (cherry tree) rootstocks a few years ago, and found out the sellers have to have an expensive license from the patent holder, and then they are sold only after they are re-propagated – never as as roostock. I did purchase about ten Gisela 5 propagated trees, but they didn’t do well; In fact they died. Now, some of these rootstock that supposedly died along with the scion have sprung up little Gisela 5 rootstocks that I’m in the process of mount layering! I think it’s time to either buy some Gisela 6 budded trees, or find someone with Gisela 6 rootstock who wants to swap for Gisela 5!!

    Here is the title and a link to a PDF file, from… I’m not sure, either Cornell University, the USDA, or both, on the Geneva rootstock breeding programs. It shows the processes that are being used to develop their new rootstocks, the amount of required resources being much, much greater than I thought:

    Concepts of Apple Rootstock Breeding and Selection:A Journey Through the Development of New Apple RootstocksG. Fazio, H. Alwinckle, T. Robinson.

    Thank you for posting this information on rootstock propagation!!!

    • MikeH says:

      Hi Don,

      Yep, rootstock for any fruiting tree or bush is difficult to obtain in Canada. That’s why I started looking at how to propagate rootstock. I was able to obtain pear, plum, and cherry rootstock this year. Root cuttings are a completely overlooked propagation technique for woody plants. Take them in the spring while the plant is still dormant. I was able to get some persimmon and beach root cuttings to take. Anything that suckers is a candidate for root cuttings. Since persimmon doesn’t tend to suckering, it’s worth trying root cuttings on anything.

      Why are you so interested in Gisela rootstock?


  5. ajetteaqua says:

    It’s been a while since anyone commented on this one, but we have a grown at my parents a Norland x Dolgo seedlings. The cross resembles what was done with the Vineland series, a Kerr crossed with M9 – I think. Anyhow, the outcome of our Norland x Dolgo seedling is a dwarf 6 feet tall tree, very early producer, resistant to drough – incidentally producing excellent 5 cm crabs too!
    I am hoping to propagate it to use it as a super hardy dwarfing rootstock.
    It did not suffer at all from last winter’s -45’C too!
    The only downside is it is still untested when it comes to fireblight resistance and I do not know if it will propagate easily from cuttings or bed layering. I’ll have to try and we’ll see if it succeeds.

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