Process of Growing a Tree

From the Rootstock to the Orchard

McGrath Nurseries focuses the bulk of their production and sales on the production of a traditional high quality maiden tree produced by budding in a multi-year process.  Trees trap sunlight and there are no shortcuts to producing the highest quality product.  We make no attempt to skimp on inputs in our pursuit of producing the highest quality trees available. We have found that multi-year budded trees have proven to give the best orchard performance over the history of fruit growing under New Zealand conditions.

There are numbers of variations to the methodology of growing a fruit tree, including sleeping eyes, bench grafts, knipboom trees and dormant buds, and we also produce trees of this type to order.

We are often asked how a tree is produced and at times queried about the price of trees.  Producing a high quality tree is an extremely labour and input intensive process taking several years.  Like all horticulture, the crop is totally at risk to the elements at all times and highly trained, detail conscious staff are required to craft a tree for best results in the orchard.

Here is a description of the process we use to grow your tree at McGrath Nurseries:

1st Year

Production of the rootstock

1-mcgrathbudpro 20130305_1726217179_20130708_1248015353 Rootstocks are produced by stool layering.  In this process a clonal apple rootstock of known qualities is planted in a shallow trench, and after one season of growth is pinned to remain flat to the surface of the ground.

Photo:  Geneva® 202 rootstock in stool bed November of the first year of production 
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The plant responds the following spring by sending up adventitious shoots.  These shoots are progressively covered with sawdust using a variety of specialised mechanical devices and some hand work.

Photo:  CG210 rootstock in the first year of production November 2012

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During the autumn of the growing season, the shoot roots itself into the sawdust medium.

Photo:  M9 Rootstocks layered with sawdust mid-growing season - February 2013

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Spraying of rootstock beds with specialized sprayer - February 2013


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During winter (approximately July) the sawdust is removed and the adventitious shoots are severed from the mother plant yielding a small rooted plantlet, referred to as a rootstock, that is genetically identical (clonal) to the mother plant.

Photo:  Geneva® 202 rootstock showing stool bed prior to harvest

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Rootstocks have been undercut and prior to harvesting July 2012


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These plantlets are then harvested, graded and prepared for planting in the nursery. The stool beds are harvested annually and have a life similar to an orchard with little or no production for the first 2-3 years.  The stool beds are a long term investment for the nursery.

Photo:  Staff sorting rootstocks July 2014

2nd Year

Rootstocks are planted - August/September


7-mcgratbudproc 20130305_1846164535_20130708_1373486487 The graded rootstocks are lined out in rows in the nursery during late winter (August/September).  These rootstock are then grown for 4-6 months in a carefully fertilized weed, pest and disease free environment.

Photo:  Rootstocks planted in the nursery in the beginning of Year 2.
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Photo:  A general view of field of Geneva® 202 rootstocks after planting and 3-4 months before budding


Buds are grafted - Feb/March

During February and March the rootstock is grafted with a scion variety. Although there are a number of methods that can be used to achieve this, McGrath Nurseries Ltd. chooses to produce all of its trees by the method of chip budding. While this is slower, the process gives a stronger and more uniform graft union than other methods of budding. The budding process joins together the chosen scion and rootstock combination. The qualities of the resultant scion remain the same as the parent (with exception only for genetic drift and mutation). Therefore, quality control of the scion material is of critical importance. All the scion wood used by McGrath Nurseries 2019 Ltd. for every variety comes from trees that are specifically selected for their superior attributes, known performance, and virus status. Every tree produced at McGrath Nurseries 2019 Ltd. can be tracked to the source of the budwood.

9-mcgratbudproc 20130305_1307487766_20130708_1057009442 The first step of the budding process is removing  a bud from a stick of scion wood
10-mcgratbudproc 20130305_1653637874_20130708_1114455955 First Scion wood cut
11-mcgratbudproc 20130305_1067133458_20130708_1588194745 Second scion wood cut - removing the bud
12-mcgratbudproc 20130305_1168221344_20130708_1347172423 First rootstock cut
13-mcgratbudproc 20130305_1223369278_20130708_1558466066 Second rootstock cut complete
14-mcgratbudproc 20130305_1825724961_20130708_1456445037 Placement of scion bud wood against the rootstock
15-mcgratbudproc 20130305_1166029029_20130708_1615330184 Beginning of taping process
16-mcgrathbudpro 20130305 1393716579 20130708 1447243601 The completed job.  A dormant budded tree awaiting callousing to take place.
17-mcgratbudproc 20130305_1260334851_20130708_1181579019 A happy team completing the budding process in the middle of year 2-February 2013
  During late summer the inserted bud is healed to the tree and the tape is cut and removed.  The resulting rootstock with a single bud of the scion healed to it is known as a dormant budded tree or dormant bud.  Trees are sometimes sold at this stage.
  An alternative item is also produced in exactly the same manner and these are known as ‘sleeping eyes.’  A sleeping eye is essentially produced in the same manner as a dormant bud, but it is grown from the very smallest size grade of rootstock.  Both of these items are almost exclusively used by commercial growers with specific requirements for tree conformity due to the training systems they require in locally adapted environments.  Occasionally dormant buds and sleeping eyes are planted to advance production of a new variety by a part season.


Rootstocks are deheaded in July/August


18-mcgrathbudpro 20130305_1662905527_20130708_1796420334 During late winter the rootstock above the bud is removed. This cut is a serious injury to the rootstock and must be painted with a paint containing a compound fungicide.  This paint is also tinted with a color that denotes the type of rootstock.

Photo:  A young pear bud on quince rootstock with the deheading color denoting the rootstock

3rd Year

Growing & Training the Tree - Sept-June


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During spring, the bud of the scion variety begins to grow out from the side of the rootstock and is trained to form the resultant tree. The shoot growing from the implanted bud is the only one allowed to grow. Without any other shoots to compete with, this shoot grows upwards vigorously.

Photo:  Bud growing from rootstock in Spring

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The scion is trained initially by removal of flowers and competing growths and eventually each young tree is individually taped to a stake to keep the tree strong and straight. All lateral growths of the scion below 55 cm are removed.  This process is done progressively.

Photo:  A field of young trees in the process of training to stakes - spring of year 3


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Lateral buds belonging to the rootstock also grow and must be removed by trimming.  This process may be repeated up to seven times as each tree is carefully crafted by staff to remove variability and to train the tree in a form that is most useful to the orchardist.

Photo:  A field of young cherry trees staked and trained


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During the entire growing process, a full spray program for insect pests, funguses and bacteria is in place.  Some plant growth regulators are also applied to promote even branch growth, or feathering, which is particulary important to early orchard productivity. McGrath Nurseries, in conjunction with a number of specialized companies, have developed and built a specialized airboom spraying system which allows extremely accurate application of chemical and minimizes chemical usage and environmental impact. We regularly work with a number of chemical companies to test new advances in chemistries with a view to minimize environmental impact and improve operator health/safety while simultaneously improving our product.

Photo:  Field of Rootstocks in planted in nursery with herbicide spray in progress, Beginning of year 2, November 2012.

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Each tree is painted with a long lasting colour code.  This avoids confusion during the busy planting season and allows the orchardist to identify trees for up to five years.  The colour codes change yearly and are listed in the Resource Section-Colour Codes by Year for your convenience.

Photo:  Example of colour code on tree (KORU® on M9 2012)


The Finished Product - May/June

23-mcgrathbudpro 20130305_1614351990_20130708_1985907169 Our finished product is referred to as a feather rod, or rod, depending on branching.

Photo:  View down a row of feathered apple rods on Geneva® 202 rootstock showing branch development - February 2013
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Elevated view of young apple trees 12 months after budding and 4-7 months before delivery. 

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During the following winter when the trees are in their dormant stage and leaves have fallen, (May-August) the resulting trees are carefully dug from the ground using a combination of specially designed machinery and hand labour.

Photo:  Field crew digging trees July 2014 

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The trees are graded into bundles of identical quality and batched together into orders.

Delivery to your orchard - May-Sept.


Trees are carefully bundled according to your order and then dispatched to your orchard. For small orders couriers are used and larger orders are dispatched either individually by truck and/or rail or most frequently trees are delivered by bulk shipment. 

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Photo:  Newly delivered trees ready for planting in orchard

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The end result is a tree produced for your orchard that is healthy and uniform in both shape and size of tree and fruit produced.

Photo:  Young honey crisp trees three months after planting showing good even spring growth and uniformity of trees.

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Newly planted honey crisp orchard near Timaru, South Island

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KORU® trees showing uniformity of tree growth and fruit.


Bench Grafts:

28-mcgrathbudpro 20130305_1908818177_20130708_1378669551 Sometimes there is a shortage of a particular scion/rootstock combination and an alternative faster method of propagation is used.  A small percentage of a very carefully selected grade of rootstocks is grafted using a whip and tongue graft during the winter immediately following the harvest of the rootstock. These scion/rootstock combinations are then precalloused and lined out in the field, being grown for one year before sale.

Photo:  Bench grafted cherry early in season
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While this process has the advantage of being faster by one year, the resultant tree is smaller and has only primary roots.  These trees also have the disadvantage that the scion wood has not been collected while fruit is on the trees and therefore the selection is not able to be at the same level of accuracy that is available from budwood selected during the fruiting season.

Photo:  Bench Grafted Cherry Rootstock partway during production March 2013

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