A Sure Hand and a Sharp Knife

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One of my favorite early spring activities involves a sure hand and a sharp knife. I admit, it’s not an activity most people think about, but it does keep me (mostly) out of trouble. What am I talking about, you ask? In a word, grafting.

I’ve been grafting for about 15 years now, after attending a public workshop with my dad the year after I moved into Patmar House. I don’t actually have any of those original trees any more; mainly because at the time I had no idea what apple varieties I wanted to grow. That workshop had scion wood for about a hundred different varieties of apples, both antique and modern, with intriguing names like Sops-in-wine, Kandil Sinap, and Calville Blanc d’Hiver. There were so many possibilities to explore, far too many to decide on just two.

And this was before I even tried to make the graft. Sure, I had just sat through the 20-minute class, frantically taking notes, trying desperately not to miss anything vital. Even with the ready assistance of several grafting instructors, I was all thumbs, barely keeping the knife in my hand and fearing I’d carve the fingers from my other hand. I have no doubt I did just about everything wrong that year, making the same cut several times, and frustrating myself to no end. 

You know what? Both of my grafts survived. Despite my best efforts, they knitted together, formed trees and grew. They grew long enough for me to learn how to prune properly (by pruning improperly), and to learn the importance of carefully choosing the placement of permanent plantings in the landscape (by, you guessed it, choosing poorly). They even grew long enough to allow us to sample the fruits of that mostly random, mostly romanticized selection of two varieties of antique apple. Life is too short, and an apple tree’s lifespan is too long for blindly grabbing at varieties. There are reasons why we don’t have those two trees any more.

Regardless, I still graft, just not for my own plantings. A few days ago, I grafted twenty trees for my group, the Backyard Fruit Growers, to be sold at an herb fair two years from now, at Landis Valley Museum. Every year, we offer fifty or sixty antique apple trees to the public, along with some friendly assistance and encouragement (and some experienced advice on which apple would be a good fit, like Paradise or Keepsake for a sweet apple, Calville Blanc d’Hiver or Winesap for a tart apple).

Twenty trees are a lot to graft, at least for me. I do know a few people who graft a few hundred in an afternoon. Twenty took me about two hours. If you’re keeping track, that’s about six minutes and two cuts per tree. Many grafters use a whip-and-tongue graft, or a cleft graft. My clefts look terrible, and I never could make a good tongue union, so I do a simple whip graft; tricky to bind together, but clean healing and well connected.

The key to a good graft is a scary sharp knife. When I say scary sharp, I mean it. A wrong cut will mean stitches. Paradoxically, the sharper the knife is, the safer the cut will be. Seriously. A sharp knife will pass through wood much easier than a dull knife. Okay, maybe it won’t cut like butter, but it won’t stick and bind, either. Whey you start sawing and rocking the knife through stubborn wood is when things get ugly. Quick.

Like all skills, knife sharpening requires a lot of practice to build proficiency. Since I really only graft once a year, I don’t exactly have that proficiency. I make up for it in near constant retouching, stoning the edge between every tree, in fact. My goal is an edge fine enough to dry shave. 

One February, my wife asked me what was wrong with the skin on my forearm, what kind of rash would make me lose patches of hair? She was less than impressed with the reason. Now, I test the edge on my leg hair; no one sees my calves for another three months, at least.

Oh, and what trees do I have growing now? I have a Ditlow’s Hard Winter apple that may fruit for the first time this year, a newly grafted local antique Paradise apple, a rescue pear from my Dad’s farm (the mother tree is an ancient tree, a seedling, I suspect), and a newly grafted Seckel pear, also from my Dad’s farm.

I first heard the following rhyme in relation to scythe work, but it applies equally well to grafting knives.

Sharp me when you lay me down,
Sharp me when you find me.
And if you find I’ll cut no more,
Take me up and grind me.