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Growing Fruit And Nut Trees From Seed

The vast majority of gardening books, and nurseries, will tell you to buy grafted fruit and nut trees. Although grafted trees play an important role in permaculture systems, in many cases seedling trees may be a better option. Fruit and nut trees grown from seed are tough, need minimal water and are resistant to many diseases. And they’re free.

growing-fruit
White Sapote seedling from fallen fruit. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

How To Grow From Seed

The standard propagation method for such trees is asexual reproduction: a piece of the parent plant is either grafted onto rootstock, usually a cultivar; or the tree is grown from a cutting. The new tree will produce fruit exactly the same as the parent tree.

Producing new trees from a seed is sexual reproduction: the seedling has two parents and a unique mix of genetic characteristics. This is part of the fun with growing from seed – you can produce unique fruit. However, some of these new trees may be low yielding, or have boring or inedible fruit.

Benefits

Seedling trees tend to be larger and more vigorous than grafted trees. They are able to cope with harsher conditions so are good in poor soils, non-irrigated areas and low-input food forest systems, especially where there is a lot of space available.

Which Fruit Trees?

Peaches and nectarines are excellent trees to grow from seed. Because they are self-fertile, the seeds tend to be trueto- type: if you eat a really good peach and plant the seed, your tree should produce a similar, really good peach. They produce fruit early and in dry conditions, and are resistant to diseases such as leaf curl.

In contrast, most apples grown from seedlings will take many years to fruit, and will not be the same as the parent. However, it’s often possible to guess the parents of a seedling apple – the fruit will have characteristics of both. Seedling apples are useful on large properties where trees with less-interesting fruit can be cut for stock fodder – the branches are especially popular with goats.

Which Nut Trees?

Many nuts – including walnuts, pecans, pistachios, chestnuts and pine nuts – have a deep taproot, making them great candidates for growing from seed in situ. It is almost impossible to transplant a taproot, so getting any of these nut trees from a nursery means that the plant will never reach its full potential or be as hardy.

Planting

Planting fruit from seeds is easy: eat the fruit and, if you enjoy it, plant the seed. There is no need to dry or otherwise treat the seed first. With nuts, plant the nut whole, do not shell it.

Seedlings do best when planted where they are going to grow. Suppress grass and other plants around them, and they may need some extra water in the first year or so. Planting them into pots can make care in the first year easier, but this will restrict the roots, negating some of the advantages of seedlings.

Most fruit tree seeds need a period of cold before they germinate, so grow them outside, exposed to the winter weather. Most species will sprout the following spring. In warmer areas, or to germinate seeds faster or out of season, keep them in the fridge for a couple of months to encourage them to sprout.

Disadvantages

Consider carefully what is best for your situation. For example, planting a grown cutting or grafted tree is the only way to preserve a heritage cultivar.

Grafted trees also tend to fruit earlier. Fruiting times for seedlings vary a lot – I’ve had many seedling peaches fruit within the first three years, and some seedling pears that still haven’t fruited after fifteen.

If you have limited space stick to grafted trees, as there is less room to experiment and you can use dwarf rootstocks. And the vigour of a seedling fruit tree maybe too much for a small space!

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Seedling pears and other fruit sprouting in spring. Photo by Beck Lowe

Combined Approach

You can combine the best of both systems, by grafting onto seedling trees. This gives you a good root system with a vigorous plant, and your choice of cultivar. This is a good use for seedling trees that don’t produce interesting fruit – the tree does not need to go to waste!

Graft Or Seedling?

Seedling fruit trees are useful when:

– you want a self-maintaining, low-input food growing system

– developing large areas with space for experimenting

– conditions require a hardy tree, for example sites with poor soil, frequent winds or limited water

– growing peaches and nectarines

– growing trees with a large taproot, such as walnuts, chestnuts and carobs.

Grafted fruit trees are useful when:

– preserving heritage varieties, and in other situations where the cultivar matters

– developing small spaces, where smaller trees are more suitable

– a specific rootstock is needed for purposes such as disease resistance or dwarfing.

A combination – grafting onto seedlings – is useful when:

– there is a medium or large space available

– conditions are particularly tough, you want a hardy tree and the cultivar is important.

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