All good things must come to an end, but it's possible to give your heritage orchard a new beginning if you’re prepared to put in the necessary work. Owners can replace aging orchards or individual trees, either via grafts taken directly from the aging heritage trees, or by planting young trees that have already been propagated from other heritage and modern cultivars known to grow well in Montana. Replanting a beloved orchard can be one way to preserve and enjoy its rich history for years to come. The success of this effort will largely depend on choosing appropriate cultivars and rootstocks and proper care of the young trees. For more information on establishing a new orchard, visit

"A five-year-old apple orchard near Missoula." From the Montana Historical Society's archives.

PHOTO: “A five-year old Apple Orchard near Missoula” in The Bitterroot Valley: The Land of the McIntosh Red. The Board of the County Commissioners of Ravalli County. 1908.

Propagation and Grafting

When you ask an apple enthusiast what their favorite apple is, their answer, rather than being a particular cultivar, will probably revolve around one special tree, like “the one behind my grandparents’ barn,” or “down near the creek I used to fish as a child,” or along the roadside to their favorite trailhead. Even if the tree is a common cultivar like McIntosh or Duchess, it’s often a desire to preserve one or a few unique trees that inspires us to pick up the grafting knife.

Grafting, like pruning, is an art form that takes practice. The two most common and effective methods for propagating heritage trees in Montana are bud grafting and whip and tongue grafting. Bud grafting, which is typically utilized in early to mid-August, is the more popular of the two methods, and is thus the main focus of this page. Whip and tongue grafting, on the other hand, is most often practiced in spring, when wood begins to slip on budding trees. Either technique requires a reliable source of healthy, robust vegetative wood from the parent tree.

Selecting a Parent Tree

When selecting a tree to propagate, several considerations should come to mind:

  • Does this tree have a history of disease?
  • If it is not from a local orchard, is it cold hardy enough to survive in Montana?
  • Is the fruit quality decent?

While sentimental value can be an important element of your decision, it is also your responsibility to set up the offspring tree for success so that it can thrive and be enjoyed for another century to come. If you've found a great candidate for propagation, your next step will be to choose some healthy budwood for grafting (next section). Healthy heritage tree

Selecting Budwood for Bud Grafting

Quality budwood must be disease-free and, ideally, have the diameter of a pencil. For bud grafting, you will need current year’s growth, and your cutting should contain several vegetative buds spaced about one inch apart. It should also be as fresh as possible at the time of grafting. If the cutting needs to be stored for a few days before grafting, it should be sealed in a plastic bag with a moist paper towel and stored in the refrigerator. If you’re performing multiple grafts in one sitting, you should keep your budwood protected, cold, and moist while you work, which can be accomplished with a simple setup of a small cooler and some wet paper towels.

Selecting Rootstock

apple orchard with snow on the ground

An apple tree’s size is dependent on the rootstock, unless it is self-rooted, as demonstrated by these heritage trees at Moon-Randolph Homestead in Missoula.

The selected scion or budwood needs a host tree and its root system to be able to grow. This host is called the rootstock, and it is the portion of the tree that determines its size and influences other key factors like nutrient uptake, drought tolerance, cold hardiness, and disease resistance. Rootstock should be selected first and foremost for its cold hardiness and the size appropriate for your orchard. Several options are available for Montana growers, varying in size from dwarf to standard height trees. These options include B9, M26, Emla 106, M111, Bud 118, Geneva, and seedling rootstocks like Malus baccatta and Malus dolgo.

For spring planting, quarter-inch-caliper rootstock should be ordered from nurseries the preceding fall. Rootstock should be watered, fertilized and weeded until it is grafted in mid-August. Any suckers or buds 12 inches above the ground should be removed to help keep the trunk surface clear for grafting.

Steps for Completing a Bud Graft

Bud grafting, step 1.

Remove a single vegetative bud from budwood (scion). Start with a 45-degree angled cut just below the bottom of the bud.

Bud grafting, step 2.Make a second cut above the bud, slicing downward toward your first cut. Avoid cutting into the bud itself (you want to cut behind it).

Bud grafting, step 3.Use the petiole as a handle to remove your bud and place it on your rootstock.

Bud grafting, step 4.Try not to touch or contaminate the bud where you cut it.

Bud grafting, step 5.Approx. 3-4” above the ground, find a clean space on the north side of the rootstock and remove a spot for your budwood. Begin with a downward, 45-degree angled cut.

Bud grafting, step 6.Make a second cut that is similar in length and width to your budwood, slicing downward toward your first cut. You should have a clean cut showing both the cambium layers and heartwood of the tree.

Bud grafting, step 7.Use the petiole on your bud as a handle to place it onto its new home, the open cut on the rootstock.

Bud grafting, step 8.Line up the cambium layers between the rootstock and budwood and gently wedge the bud into the rootstock cut. Try not to touch or contaminate the cut side of the bud.

Bud grafting, step 9.Use chip/budding poly tape or parafilm to wrap your bud and seal in moisture. Begin by tightly wrapping around the base of the bud.

Bud grafting, step 10.Continue wrapping to secure the top of the bud to the rootstock.

Bud grafting, step 11.Wrap the remainder of the bud with the remaining tape to complete the seal. Tie off the tape, or if using parafilm, make sure it properly seals by sticking to itself.

apple bud break

The following spring the bud will begin to grow. Once you see growth, cut off the top of the rootstock just above the bud so the tree sends its energy primarily to the new bud.

Apple first growth

The bud will begin to grow tall and the new shoot will form axillary buds. Pinch these off as well as any competing leaders to encourage the tree to grow tall and prevent branching lest the new shoot will become bushy.

apple whip

By September your tree will be 3-5 ft tall and ready to transplant (if need be) the following spring.

A video demonstrating the entire bud grafting process can be found here, on MSU Extension's YouTube channel: Grafting Apple Trees.

Establishing New Heritage Trees

Once you have a young tree that's ready for planting (perhaps one that you purchased through our Montana Heritage Orchard program's tree sale!), you will need to follow some basic planting protocols to ensure a healthy first growing season for your heritage tree.

"Sectional view of a one-year-old apple orchard." From the Montana Historical Society's archives.

PHOTO: “Sectional view of a one-year-old apple orchard.” in The Bitterroot Valley: The Land of the McIntosh Red. The Board of the County Commissioners of Ravalli County. 1908.

Selecting a Location

  • To ensure higher-quality fruit later on, select a location where your tree will receive at least 6-8 hours of sunlight.
  • Remember, your tree will grow! Do not plant the tree in a location where it might interfere with buildings, electrical wires, or other permanent infrastructure in your landscape, including other trees.
  • Plant your tree in an area where it can easily be watered by hand or automatic irrigation. If you plant it in a location that can't be conveniently watered, odds are it will not get watered as much as it needs throughout its life.
  • Choose a site with well-drained soil. If needed, amend the soil with compost to increase its water-holding capacity.
  • If you are incorporating your tree into an existing orchard, make sure to place it in a location where an old tree has not recently been removed to avoid issues with replant disease. Also, if heritage trees are still alive, provide enough space between plantings so that trees do not eventually become crowded. You never know, your old tree might live another 100 years!

New trees planted in the middle of a heritage orchard.

New trees planted at Moon-Randolph Homestead in Missoula, MT. New trees should be planted with appropriate spacing from existing trees and fenced to protect them from deer and other wildlife. Do not plant new trees in places where old trees were recently removed, as they may suffer from apple replant disease.


Most young heritage trees are sold “bare root” and are grafted onto dwarf, semi-dwarf, or cold-hardy standard rootstock. Care must be taken to keep these bare roots moist and protected from sunlight until planting. Protect the roots in transport from the nursery. Plant the tree as soon as possible and before they bud out in the spring. You can “heel” the tree into a temporary location until its permanent location is prepared.

Follow these steps to make sure the graft is not buried and your tree experiences as little transplanting stress as possible:

  1. Prepare a hole for the tree about twice as wide as the root spread and deep enough to cover the roots (example pictured below on left). Do not try to wrap roots to fit in the hole, as they will eventually girdle the tree by wrapping around themselves.
  2. Place the tree into the hole leaving about 2 to 3 inches (usually the equivalent depth of 3 fingers, as pictured below on right) of the graft union above the ground. Do not bury the graft union or your tree will begin to form roots from the bud wood (i.e. the fruiting wood) instead of the rootstock, and your tree will not be true to the size, disease resistance, and cold hardiness benefits provided by the rootstock.

    Holes should be dug at least twice as wide as the root spread. Graft union must be 2-3 inches or approx. 3 fingers above the ground to ensure it is not buried.
  3. Fill the hole with water and cover the roots with soil. Tamp the soil down as you add it to ensure no air pockets are left and the tree is anchored in place. If through soil testing you've found that your soil needs to be amended, whether with phosphorus or organic matter (compost), planting is the best time to incorporate these.

  4. Ensure the tree is straight and stake it, if need be. Dwarf trees will need support throughout their life (typically through trellising), while semi-dwarf and standard size trees can stand alone once established.

  5. Water with 2 to 3 gallons of water. Add more soil if any roots are left exposed after the soil has settled.

  6. To keep soil moist, mulch with 2 inches of wood chips or compost, leaving a 4 to 6-inch circle clear of all materials around the tree trunk. Do not use plastic or landscape fabric, as these materials can become habitat for voles.


In general, trees should receive approximately 10 gallons of water per 1 inch of trunk diameter per week. This means that your new tree will likely need 10 gallons of water per week in its first year. The amount applied and number of waterings will depend on your irrigation system, soil, and weather. These are some things to keep in mind when determining your irrigation rate:

  • Soil should not be left dry (pictured below left), nor should water pool under trees for long periods of time (pictured below right).
  • Do not use overhead sprinklers that hit the tree’s canopy, as this can spread disease.
  • Concentrate watering in the rooting zone around the tree.
Tree that has been left too dry. Tree with pooling water that is absorbing too slowly.


Young trees must be actively protected from wildlife, diseases, cold injury, and other competing vegetation. Here are the most helpful protections you can put in place for your tree:

  • Painted trunks on apple trees.
    Make sure your planting area is fenced off from deer, elk, bears, and other wildlife. Bears can climb fences, so exclusions intended for them must be electrified.
  • Tree guards around the trunks of trees can help prevent rodent damage, and keeping vegetation around trees mowed short can help reduce rodent habitat. For more information on visit Voles and Pocket Gophers in Montana Orchards.
  • Keep the area around the tree clear from weeds and other vegetation, as these will compete for water and important nutrients.
  • Trees should be painted with white latex paint mixed with water at a 1:1 ratio to prevent winter injury from sunscald (pictured right).
  • For the first 2 to 3 years after planting, remove flower blossoms. This will help focus the tree’s energy on growing strong roots and limbs, as well as prevent potential infection from fire blight.

Pruning and Training

As we discussed in the pruning section of this guide, there are two main forms that most orchardists will choose for their young trees: open vase or central leader. Below are diagrams of the cuts you will want to make on your young tree in order to encourage either form.

Heritage Open Vase Form

If you want your tree to have the heritage open vase form, prune it at planting to remove the central leader, as shown.

pruning to create open vase shape

Central Leader Form

If you want your tree to take a central leader form, do not top your tree. Remove any branches competing with the leader or growing too low to the ground.

pruning to create central leader

Regardless of which style you choose, for the first few years, pruning should be limited to dead, diseased, vertical, and inward-growing branches and/or competing leaders. Young branches can be weighted, spread or notched by cutting a small crescent in cambium below the branch bud to achieve a wider angle, which is desirable for forming a strong structure for fruit production.

You can find more information about establishing new orcharads and growing apple trees in Montana at