How to Grow Trees From Seed

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Growing trees from seed can be an interesting adventure for the amateur and expert gardener, alike. It’s exciting enough to see a small seed germinate into a flower or vegetable, just imagine watching trees mature knowing that you planted and nursed them from seed! Fruit and nut trees are wonderful edible additions to your garden, whereas woody and flowering varieties can add character, and much needed shade. While there are some downfalls to the process, growing trees from seed can be an interesting, educational, and rewarding experience. Read on to find out how!

Tree Suitability

Before you begin to sow any seeds, you’ll want to decide what kind of trees and how many you would like to have. Find trees that are suitable for your land. Do some research and make sure your climate, soil pH, and land restrictions are compatible with the trees you want to grow. Most citrus trees won’t flourish in cooler climates, for example, but apple and cherry trees may thrive. Try not to fight with nature, or tamper with soil too much. Grow trees that want to live where you live. That’s the best way to ensure tree longevity, and healthy produce for decades to come.

Sourcing Seeds

The cheapest way to get seeds is to gather them yourself. Choose local varieties, since you know they already grow in your area. Make sure to sort and clean them, and store properly until needed. Special varieties like ornamental, flowering, or fruit trees are often on private property, so you may not be able to easily forage these kinds – but, you can buy fruit at the grocery store! Citrus seeds, apple cores, and cherry and avocado pits are just a few examples of seeds you can use for the price of the fruit itself - but beware, their efficacy is unreliable. You can source other varieties from garden centers and reputable seed companies, either in-store or online. Look for organic and heirloom varieties, when possible.

Seeds vs. Seedlings

The major con of planting a tree from seed is the time it will take to mature. Buying a seedling or young tree may bear fruit or flower within a couple years instead of having to wait longer. Also, a fruit tree seedling will most likely be a clone that has been grafted on root-stock, meaning it will bear a specific kind of fruit or nut. If you want exact fruit species, seedlings are the way to go, but if you are okay with having a variety of fruit, regardless of type, then seeds will do the trick. If you have patience, and get excited by the idea of going through the process of seed-to-tree, then by all means, gather up those seeds!

a young tree growing in dirt

Tree Genetics

Different trees will germinate in different ways. The majority of fruit trees need to be cross-pollinated to produce any yield. Because of this, it’s unlikely that you will ever be able to get an exact replication of your favorite apple tree from seed, for example – it will always be a combination of the tree and whatever wind or animal pollinator paid a visit. The only way you will get a “true” cultivar is if it is a self-pollinator, and no other pollinators interfere. Woody trees, like the deciduous varieties that grow in four season climates go through a trickier process before germination can even occur. If you want to plant one of these trees, you have to mimic the conditions by creating a similar environment and process for the seed to break dormancy, known as scarification and/or stratification.

Scarification

Most tree seeds will have a hard, outer shell or coat that needs to be cracked open or softened for successful germination. The term for this process is scarification, and can be left to natural means or, assisted. Filing, sanding, boiling, and using certain chemicals are all ways to manually prepare the seed for germination. Relying on nature isn’t a sure bet, since seeds are usually broken down slowly; sometimes by passing through animal digestive tracts, extreme weather conditions like a freeze and thaw or heat, or through microbes in the soil. Assisted scarification will help ensure germination with better results.

Stratification

Not all seeds need to undergo scarification, however, the majority must go through cold stratification. In nature, seeds only germinate once they are exposed to cool, moist weather conditions for weeks or months. Essentially, winter is what breaks a seeds dormant period. Assisted stratification can be done in your home, manually. Place your seeds in a mixture of equal parts peat moss and sand in a sealed, plastic container, and leave in the refrigerator for a few weeks or months, depending on the tree variety. Do not put it in the freezer, as the moisture is just as important as the cold.

sprouting seed

Germination

Once you notice germination, you can keep seeds inside under grow lights before planting in your yard or orchard. Germination time will depend on the species, but once you notice sprouts you may want to nurse the seedlings just like any others, and keep them indoors until they are strong enough to survive on their own. Lots of light is always essential for this period, and some may even benefit from houseplant fertilizer. Most saplings prefer to be planted in the spring or fall, while some species, especially warmer climate ones, can be planted anytime as long as it isn’t too hot. It’s really quite specific to the tree variety.

Trees are great self-propagators and surely don’t need human intervention to re-populate, however, there are many reasons that homeowners may want to grow their own trees from seed. It’s a relatively cheap and easy way to experiment with different tree varieties, and a great way to learn more about planting techniques. While it may not be for everyone, and definitely not for those who don’t want to wait long to see results, growing a tree from seed may be one of the greatest achievements that a DIY gardener could attain.