Growing trees from seeds: which seeds work, and which won’t
by Catherine Winter-Heber
If there are any trees in your area, you may have noticed that a couple of major changes come over them at the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. Branches end up laden with fruit, nuts, seed pods, and cones in preparation for seeding the next generation of trees. These majestic beings have been self-propagating for hundreds of thousands of years, but what if we’d like to harness some of that growing power to start our own food-bearing trees?
Food security is a top priority these days, and with rising food prices, it’s more vital than ever for the average person to learn how to feed themselves. Gardens packed with vegetables, tubers, and berry bushes are spectacular, and adding to one’s outdoor pantry with a couple of food-providing trees can help supply even more nutritious edibles. In this post, what we’re aiming to determine is whether a person of limited means, who has a bit of land but no access to seedlings or orchards, can use a couple of apple seeds or a chestnut to grow a food-bearing tree from it.
Fruit and Nut Trees
When it comes to self-sufficiency, the ability to grow one’s own food isn’t just an asset—it’s a necessity. Fruit and nut trees are invaluable additions to any garden, and can add luscious variety and nutrition to your diet. That said, most people choose to plant fruit tree seedlings that are a few years old with good reason: standard-sized trees can take 5-8 years to bear anything edible (although some dwarf species can start bearing at 3-4 years), and most of these trees are actually clones, wherein branches from existing trees were grafted onto rootstock. If you save the seeds from a gorgeous Empire apple and grow trees from them, you won’t end up with Empire apples: you’ll get the fruit that the rootstock was meant to bear. Should you happen to plant a few different apple varieties, they’ll cross-pollinate and you’ll end up with a variety of different apples altogether. If your goal is just to have edible fruit growing in your garden, or merely to grow trees because they’re beautiful, then go right ahead and start them from seed. Should your ultimate goal be to grow a specific kind of fruit, however, it’s best to purchase an actual seedling.
*Note: Whenever possible, try to use seeds and nuts that have either been sourced from organic plants, or ordered from companies that specialize in organic/heirloom seeds.
If you’re going to try growing a cherry tree from a pit, you’ll have to put it into cold storage for several weeks first: these pits need to experience the cold conditions of over-wintering before they’ll germinate, so once you’ve cleaned the flesh from the pits, pack them in compost-rich soil, tuck them into a lidded container, and chuck them in the back of your fridge for 10-12 weeks.
I’m lumping all of these together because the growing technique for pitted fruits is exactly the same. Additionally, depending on your climate, you may be able to see fruit on your own trees in as little as 3-5 years: much earlier than most other fruit-bearing trees. Try to get local fruit (as you know it’ll thrive in your region), and dry the seeds out well before preparing them for planting.
Now, these are tricky trees to grow from seed. Most apple trees are clones, in the sense that branches from existing trees have been grafted onto rootstock in order to produce the same kind of fruit as the parent tree, so when you plant a tree from an apple seed, you will not get the kind of apple you ate: you’ll get a blending of the parent trees, whatever they were. In fact, if you plant 10 seeds from one single apple, you’ll end up with 10 apple trees that all produce slightly different fruits. Thus, if your goal is to grow a specific kind of apple, you’ll have to purchase seedlings or saplings that have been cultivated by grafting. If your end goal is just to grow some edible fruit and you don’t care whether it’s a pure variety, then you can easily grow from seed. Just remember that the fruit will be far inferior to that grown from a grafted variety.
The bottom line: if you have the means to purchase a few cloned apple seedlings or saplings, it really is best to go that route.
Avocado trees won’t actually bear fruit up here in Canada as the climate isn’t hospitable for such shenanigans, but those of you who live in warmer climes would likely have a fair bit of luck with these beauties. I managed to grow one from seed several years ago (and named it “Clarence”), and it grew to over 15 feet in height; not bad for a tropical tree planted outdoors in downtown Toronto.
There are a few different ways of growing avocados from their pits, and the most common method is to suspend the pit in water to allow it to root. I never had much success doing it that way, and instead just planted mine in a compost-rich soil and kept it very well watered until it sprouted.
Image © the author
These beauties are ideal for gardens in hot, sunny climates, but can also produce fairly well if grown indoors. If you’re growing indoors, aim for Meyer lemon seeds, as the plants tend to be smaller. Lemon trees grow amazingly well from seed, and you don’t have to grow more than one for cross-pollination; you’ll get lemons as soon as it’s mature enough to produce, which will be around 3-5 years. Just keep in mind that the flowers need to be pollinated by insects, so if the occasional bee or butterfly gets into your house, let it do its work.
Image © Eagle Effi
These seem to grow really well from nuts, provided that you choose those that are either indigenous to your area, or of a similar planting zone: a chestnut that thrives in Virginia will not do as well in Alberta. Keep in mind that at least 2 chestnut trees are needed for cross-pollination, and most won’t begin to bear until they’re at least 5 years old—more like 10-15 for some species. If you can get your hands on some saplings instead, it’s best to go that route.
This bearer of tasty morsels can also be grown easily from their nuts, but like cherry pits, they need to have a period of cold dormancy or they won’t germinate. You’ll need at least 2 trees for cross-pollination, and they have to be from different parent plants: there has to be significant genetic difference between them or they won’t pollinate. Ideally, you’ll have 3 or 4 genetically different trees on your property, with no more than 30 feet between them.
These trees are ridiculously easy to grow from seeds. As anyone with a maple tree within 100 ft of their property can attest, if they don’t rake up the little spinny “helicopters” that carry maple seeds, they’ll end up with an entire lawn full of seedlings to pull out. If you’re considering growing maple trees because you’d like to tap them for sap (mmm, maple syrup), keep in mind that most maple trees aren’t tapped until they’re at least 40 years old. This is fine if you’re a patient sort and longevity runs in your family, but don’t expect to see your little seedling turn into a decent maple syrup harvest anytime in the near future.
I only heard about this tree recently, after trying out some of the leaves in powdered form. It’s native to northern India, is now grown in sub-tropical regions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and its leaves are absolutely packed with protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin A. Its seeds are also high in protein, and can be processed into meal or flour. This tree is being hailed as a possible savior for poverty-stricken, soil-depleted nations, as it’s an incredible food source and can grow in the meanest conditions.
Although moringa trees can be grown from cuttings, it’s also ridiculously easy to grow them from seed, and can be grown indoors or outdoors. Since these trees grow incredibly quickly—often more than 10 feet per year—they can overtake other trees planted nearby, or overwhelm a smaller indoor space. Should you decide to grow one indoors, it’s of vital importance to keep these trees pruned and tamed so you don’t wake up one morning to discover that your home is just a collection of furniture around a giant tree. That said, if you’re diligent about keeping your moringa well pruned, you can have a great source of vegetable protein year-round, as these will thrive indoors in even the coldest climates, provided that they’re kept warm and are given extra artificial light and plenty ofwater.