We are always looking for new and easier ways to grow fruit. That's what we do and what we have been drawn to from the very beginning. For nearly every person who is growing for home use, we are interested in getting fresh fruit as much of the year as we can, given our available growing space. The formula almost always is more varieties with tighter spacing. However, a common way people consider doing that is through "multi-grafted fruit trees". While we think these can be useful for some applications, for most there are better alternatives, which we’ll describe in this article. But let’s first look at the Multi-graft and spot its weaknesses.
A Breakdown of a Multi-Graft
A multi-graft, as the name implies, is a fruit "tree" that has been grafted in multiple places with different varieties of fruit that produce at different times of the year. A popular name for these are "fruit cocktail" trees. Multi-grafts try to make it easier to fit multiple fruits in the same space by using a single trunk to support multiple varieties of fruit.
The Allure of Many Fruit from One Plant
Being able to put into place a single plant that can house 4-5 or more varieties of fruit is quite tempting. It’s possible to go back to that plant day after day after day throughout the year and still be able to eat fruits from it. We definitely understand the allure of the multi-graft.
We have grafted and will continue to graft, multiple varieties onto a single plant, although we’re doing it for different reasons, namely testing and evaluation.
But there are Issues Unique to Multi-grafts
At first it can seem like grafting multiple varieties is a great idea but down the road you may find yourself in precarious situations that only come from relying on multi-grafts. For all the excitement that they can bring in, there are some serious downfalls that everyone should know about.
They Requiring Fine Tuning and Balancing
Multi-grafted trees are more difficult because they require knowing a significant amount of information about the varieties will perform. Unfortunately no two places are the same so it’s difficult to translate the results one person has to another.
In order to create a well-balanced multi-grafted tree that is easy to manage, an exceptionally knowledgeable designer is needed to select the specific fruits, however, it is rarely if-ever the case that these kind of people are involved in designing these trees. Usually the most commonly purchased varieties are grafted on top of a single tree with the user having to deal with the end results.
Namely, some varieties will completely dominate the tree.
The most vigorous varieties should be on the Northside so they don’t shade the others, and each variety has to be pruned and managed not to take too much nutrients.
In short, the more complexity something has the less easier it is.
Some Varieties Will Take Nutrients from the Others
The more vigorous varieties notoriously will rob the others of nutrients needed for fruiting. What you end up with is a tree where some of the varieties fruit well while the others do not, or only fruit a little. This is the problem with combining all these different life forms together. The predictability and the usability drops significantly because they have no choice but to compete on top of each other, with the most vigorous varieties, always winning.
If One Plant Dies, You Lose Them All
You bring home your multi-grafted tree and plant it. You wait a number of years to begin getting fruit, and at first it’s nice. But then for whatever reason the tree happens to die. Unfortunately when this happens, it takes every fruit with it in the process. This is perhaps the single biggest issue with a multi-grafted tree.
Two trees is always better than one, purely from the stand point of durability in the face of a chaotic world.
As far as making things easy, there is nothing more difficult than getting a dead tree to fruit. Remember two is one, one is none.
Having said all this, we can achieve the same results as a multi-graft while minimizing some of the risk and weirdness that occurs.
Solution: Plant More, Plant Denser
We will always advocate planting more plants. Not just because we might benefit from it, but because everyone benefits when more fruit is planted, especially those who are eating from and relying on them. Planting more immediately removes the problems associated with lack of performance by one individual.
Planting more changes the supply and demand equations. In response to this your concerns completely change and you’ll find yourself saying and thinking very different things. Such as…
“I don’t care if you die, I have 10 others just like ya.”
This is why we advocate system thinking rather than individual thinking. For a robust system to go down, more than just a single individual component has to fail. This makes it much easier to succeed than to fail.
Yeah, But What about Space for More Varieties?
The truth is that you can plant plants far denser than most people would ever dream. We inherently know this because we will state that plants too close will compete for nutrients and space. Whether or not they compete is a matter of perspective, however, one thing is for sure, plants will fill the open space that nature allows.
This is why we join the likes of Dave Wilson Nursery in California who advocate growers to begin looking at intensive backyard fruit culture. Three or Four plants planted in the same area will create roughly the same amount of roots as a single one. Each will have a decisive advantage in filling up their own area. In the same space that you might have a single fruit “tree” or a multi-graft you can plant four different varieties and create a “single” tree that acts together.
While this does not solve the issue of a vigorous variety out growing and shading less vigorous ones, it does solve the issue of nutrient “theft” by vigorous varieties grafted onto the same plant. As with any backyard culture basic maintenance is required, but the smaller the tree the less amount of work per tree is needed especially when they are all located in the same space.
I think we need to be careful of some of the marketing that we buy into. There are always new and clever ways to solve some our problems, or make things fit better. However, with solutions there are almost always new set of problems created. Some like a single death wiping out numerous fruits are bad, while others like having too much fruit, can be good. Happy Growing.