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Field Grafting Grape Vines by Jeff Chorniak

Keep in mind that grafting does not heal sick vines. If your vineyard is
unhealthy, attaching new cuttings to your old rootstocks most likely will not
heal it. Diseases such as leaf roll, fan leaf and crown gall, for example, cannot
be cured by grafting. Whatever made your vines sick in the first place is still in
the vine, and it will just make your new grafts sick as well. Likewise, grafting
does not make old vines young. If your rootstock and trunk is very old, grafting
young healthy new wood will not make the vine young again — it is only as
young as the root.

Any graft is traumatic to a vine, and grafting only works when you bind healthy
cuttings to healthy trunks and rootstocks. Make sure your reasons for grafting
are sound before proceeding.

Desirable Conditions for Field Grafting


You will want to check that your rootstock is compatible with what you will be
grafting.

In addition, the row and vine spacing you have already established for your
current vines should also be compatible with the new fruiting variety you have
planned.

Three Stages of Field Grafting


Field grafting is performed in three stages: pre-grafting, grafting and post-
grafting. All three stages may span an entire season or more.

Pre-grafting operations fall into two parts: preparing the new wood and
preparing the trunk. Grafting is surgery. A successful surgeon does not cut
until his operation is well-planned.

After deciding what varietal you want to graft, you can either buy the scion or
cut it yourself from other vines. First, calculate how much you need. Each scion
that you graft to the trunk should have two buds and each vine trunk will
receive two new scions.

If you are buying scions for the graft, the logistics of cutting and storage will be
out of your control. Make sure your source is reliable and that your scions are
disease free. They should be healthy, have been treated with a fungicide and
properly kept in cold storage until you pick them up.

If you plan to take cuttings from other vines, note that from the moment the
scion is removed from the vine it is vulnerable to infection, injury or drying if
not treated and stored properly. The safest way to store new wood is to leave it
on the vine until as late as possible in the dormant season. Make the cuts
before the dormancy period ends and the buds begin to swell.

Cutting Canes and Preparing Scions


With clean, sharp pruning shears, cut the healthiest, most mature canes from
the vine. These are canes that have been exposed to good sun, and are at least
3/8 to just over 1/2 inch (0.9–1.5 cm) in diameter. Make a cut at the base of the
cane to remove it from the vine. Here’s a tip: When cutting canes or scions,
always make the bottom cut flat and the top cut angled. This will help you to
keep the cane or cutting oriented properly. The angled cut is always the top cut.
After the entire cane has been removed it can be sectioned into scions.

Cut the cane into several 2-bud pieces. Avoid using the ends of the cane, where
the diameter is under 3/8 inch (0.9 cm). Choose healthy buds separated by at
least 2 inches (5 cm).

Although a scion should be a length of cane containing two buds, the actual
piece will also include some internodal wood over the top bud to prevent the
bud from drying out and at least 2 inches (5 cm) of wood below the bottom bud
to shape and fit into your graft cut. See the sidebar on page 44 for how to store
scions prior to grafting.

Preparing the Trunk


The next step is to prepare the receiving trunk. “Prepare” is a rather gentle
word as you are actually going to cut the entire canopy off. This should be done
in spring, just as the vines are getting ready to come out of dormancy. If the
trunk is small (1–2 inches/2.5–5 cm in diameter), you can use large tree
pruning sheers to make a clean cut. For larger trunk diameters, a chain saw is
more suitable.

Heading the Vine


Before removing the canopy, determine where you want your vine to be headed.
If your first trellis wire is at 39 inches (1 meter) and you want to head your vine
there, cut the canopy off about 4 inches (10 cm) below that. This allows for
space for the new grafted wood to grow shoots up to the trellis wire.

Since grafting is done as the vines are coming out of dormancy, the sap is
running and they will “bleed” when cut. This can create quite a lot of internal
pressure in the vine. The pressure can be great enough to push the new graft
out of its union. This sap pressure needs to be relieved before making the graft.
At the base of the vine — a few inches off the ground, on each side of the trunk
— make an incision into the cambium layer. This is the layer of living tissue
underneath the bark. These cuts will reduce the sap pressure at the top of the
trunk, allowing the graft union to heal.

Making the Graft


Now that the scions and trunks are cut, the actual graft cuts will be made
where the scions will bond with the trunk. You will need to cut the scions to get
them to fit into your graft cut. The type of graft you choose determines how you
cut your scions.

Grafting Biology 101


In grafting, the injured tissue of one vine heals to the injured tissue of another.
However, just putting two cut vines together does not guarantee a graft. The
healing only takes place if the cambium layers of both the trunk and the scion
are in permanent contact with each other. The cambium layer is the layer of
green living tissue that lies between the bark and the wood. Therefore, the
incision you make on your trunk, and the shape you cut your scion must be
tailored to allow as much of the cambium tissue on both pieces to contact each
other.

Grafting involves wounding your vines, and working with open wounds on both
the trunk and scion. Open wounds are susceptible to infection. Therefore, the
cutting tools you use should be clean and sharp for the most precision and least
potential for contamination.

Types of Graft
The two easiest grafts to make: cleft grafts and whip grafts. There are other
types of grafts used in vineyards, but they are just variations on the following
themes. Cleft grafting is used for thick trunks, 1–1/2 inches (3.8 cm) or more in
diameter. For small diameter trunks — 1 inch (2.5 cm) or less — whip grafting
is used. The type of graft cut you make will determine how to prepare your
scion for the union.

Cleft grafting is the easiest kind of graft. After removing the top of the vine,
simply split the top of the trunk about 2 inches (5 cm) down with a cold chisel or
small axe. Make sure the split line follows the direction of your trellis line. Hold
the split open and fit two pre-shaped scions into the cut — one on each side,
ensuring the cambium layer of both the trunk and the scions are in contact with
each other. The natural tension of the split wood wanting to close again should
grip the scions and hold them in place while you work.
The scions for cleft grafting are cut into a two-sided taper, about 2 inches (5 cm)
long from below the lower bud, down the trailing length of the cutting. It will
look like a little wedge extending from the bottom bud. When inserting the
scion into the cleft, make the intersection of the two cambium layers as long as
possible to increase tissue contact and the odds of bonding.

Now that both scions are placed into the cut, the open wound must be protected
against drying and infection. Even if the natural jaw pressure of the cleft is
enough to hold the scions in place, wrap the grafting area with raffia or 1 inch
(2.54 cm) wide grafting tape to clamp the scions in the cleft.

After the graft is completed, the entire wound area needs to be completely
sealed with grafting compound to prevent infection, and drying of tissue. There
are a number of grafting compounds, which look like black asphalt paint, on the
market. Tree Seal or Tree Heal are two examples. Apply the compound with a
disposable 1 1/2 inch bristle brush. After applying the compound, the brush
should be disposed of at the end of the day. Use a fresh brush if you continue
making grafts on another session. Coat every portion of the top of the cut
stump, the inside of the cleft as well as the scions that are in place. Also, seal
the upper green tips of the scions with compound. After the compound is dry,
paint the entire graft union and scions with white interior latex paint. This will
ensure the graft heats up less in the sun and the graft is sealed to hold
moisture inside.

Whip Grafting
Whip grafting is used when a trunk’s diameter is so small that it will only hold
one scion. Make an angled cut at least 2 inches (5 cm) long, just above the
ground. Cut the scion at a complementary angle. If you can find a scion that is
the same diameter of the trunk, this is best. If not, then the cambium layer of
the trunk and the cambium layer of the scion can only be matched on one side
of the cut.

Place the scion on the trunk and wrap it in place with raffia, or 1 inch (2.5 cm)
compound tape. As with cleft grafting, coat the entire union with grafting
compound then white latex paint.

Post Graft
Graft unions are fragile and should not be touched again during the healing
process.

Although trunk incisions were made before the graft, pressure may build up
again and push the graft union, or prevent it from healing. Avoid this by
confirming the incisions you made in the trunk earlier. Make new incisions just
above the old ones and repeat at least every week, if needed.

As the vine heals, suckers will emerge out of, and at the base of, the trunk. All
but one sucker should be removed. The remaining sucker has a dual purpose —
it may divert sap and help reduce vine pressure, and, if the graft union does not
take, the sucker can be cultivated into new growth to make another graft later.
When it appears that the graft is growing healthy shoots up to 10 inches (25
cm) long, remove the sucker.

As soon as the shoot is at the wire, tie it on. The graft union is still very fragile,
and even strong wind could break it off. Since the graft is supporting the weight
of a 12 inch (30 cm) shoot, it should be gently tied.

What to Expect
You will, of course, be anxious to see positive results — but remember that you
just performed major surgery on your vine. It will take time to heal and not
every graft is successful. Some of your buds may begin to show growth within
weeks. You may even see them emerge and then die. This does not necessarily
mean the graft was unsuccessful. The primary buds may push out naturally,
but die due to the trauma of surgery. Allow the secondary buds to emerge. They
may take several more weeks or even months. In the meantime, you can keep a
sucker alive as a standby.

Within a season or two, you can begin to see fruit. It will take a few years for
your vine to mature, but you are still a few years, and a lot of labor, ahead of
replanting the entire vineyard. You have a healthy root system, and the
fruiting varietal you always wanted.

Tips for Cold Storage of vine cuttings


If you need to cut your new wood into scions well before grafting time, they can
be stored. Cuttings need to be kept cool and damp during cold storage. With
proper care, cuttings can be stored for several months.

Cuttings should not be frozen. The ideal storage temperature is between 34–36
°F (1–2 °C).

Before storing, organize the cuttings in bundles of 10 or 20, held together with
small gauge wire. Be gentle with the buds while handling. Keep the cuttings
oriented so that the tops and bottom cuts are all in the same direction. If you
are grafting more than one type of varietal, make sure they are labelled as
separate bundles.
Cuttings can be stored in three ways:

Refrigeration
If you have space in your refrigerator, bundle the cuttings in groups, and wrap
them in moistened newspaper, wood shavings or peat moss. (Make sure it is not
dripping wet.) Store the cuttings in well-sealed plastic bags. This is the
simplest method of storage.

Bin Storage
If the temperature where you live is cold, but remains above freezing, or if you
have a cold cellar where the temperature remains consistently below 36 °F (2
°C) and above freezing, you can store the vines in a plastic lined bin full of
moist wood shavings. Rubbermaid containers will work if the lid can be sealed
to hold in the moisture. The bin needs to keep the cuttings cool without
allowing them to dry out. Check frequently to make sure the cuttings and
shavings are damp.

Burial
Cuttings can also be buried in a shallow pit or trench in the ground, if the
temperature is right. Ground temperatures are the most unstable since they
react to weather, sun, rain, and snow.

Prepare a well-drained trench at least a foot deep (30 cm), in a location shaded
from daytime sun to maintain the least amount of temperature fluctuation.
Ensure that the hole is not a water trap in case of rain. A sandy pit is ideal.
Heavy clay is high risk as it traps water.

Wet the cuttings first to make them damp. Wrap and package the cuttings as
you would if storing in a refrigerator. Cover them with soil. Remember to mark
the burial place to find them again.

Some have found success by simply burying the bundled vines in sand or soil,
unwrapped — as long as they do not become saturated or dry.