Growing apples from seed is a viable option for increasing and finding new fruit bearing trees. Work with the space you have, and have fun planting seeds and seeing what grows. The best thing about growing apples from seed is that there’s no huge costs involved, just the seeds from the apples you eat during the year.
I’ve been planting a lot of fruit and nut seeds this fall. Hundreds of them, in fact. When I was a child I was told, in school, that apples won’t grow from seed. Maybe you were told that, too. The story is that apple seed will grow but the tree they produce won’t make good eating apples, so don’t plant them.
I learned, just in the last couple years, that wasn’t the truth. In fact, every apple variety you find in the store originally came from a tree that started as a seedling or pippin. We were told that good apples are one in a thousand. But the reality is about 1 out of every 20 trees will produce a good eating apple. Those are great odds.
There are a few other things that make planting apple seeds awesome too. Trees that grow from apple seeds have a long tap root, so are drought resistant. Trees grown from seed may be hardier in winter, because seedlings that make it through the initial winter season and selection are likely to be hardy to your area.
Apples grown from seeds have a diversity of genetics. You never know what surprise lies inside that seed, but I guarantee, if you plant an apple seed you will get an apple tree. If you plant a pear seed you will get a pear tree. These trees, due to the diversity of genetics, have an increased likelihood to have resistance to diseases, rusts, fungi, and your other local environmental challenges. Don’t try to baby a pippin apple tree, as you want the ones that survive well on their own to thrive, and there’s no high risk in letting a pippin seedling tree die, you can always plant more seeds.
If you have a lot of space on your land, you can plant the seeds close together and make a hedge of apple trees, pear trees, plum trees and even peach trees. Trees that don’t end up having good fruits can always be used for grafting, since the roots will be well established. You may end up with more standard sized trees, rather than dwarf, but you can prune trees to keep fruit bearing within reach.
But seeded fruit trees take too long to bear?
A grafted apple tree is about 2 or 3 years old when you buy it. One year for the root stock to root and one year for the graft to take. (One more year if you buy from a retail plant nursery instead of the wholesale apple nursery.) These trees generally bear in 3 to five years or when they are five to seven years old. Seeded apple and pear trees will start to bare when they are five to seven years old, too. Other fruit like peaches or plums might bear in their third year, depending on where you live.
A friend told me the other day that they tossed an apple core into the bush a few years ago and it grew into a tree that gave them several pounds of fruit this year. What if you don’t like that particular fruit? It’s too small or too sour? You can over graft the tree with fruit that you do like, or make a multi graft tree of different apple varieties that you do like, like a fruit salad tree. If you grow a lot of seedlings you can even use them to learn to graft. How cool is that? And even sour apples can be used for animal feed, and small but sweet apples make great cider, vinegar, or syrup.
Feeding livestock with apple trees
But another thing you can when growing apples from seed and when you end up with a lot of seedling apple trees, is use the branches and fruit to feed your livestock. That’s especially valuable right now when feed prices are going up, up, up.
Apples are good food for pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, and even chickens. They have some keeping qualities, so you can harvest the fruit and store it to feed over a few weeks. Hunters will even plant apple trees intentionally to feed deer, turkey, and grouse over the fall, and support healthy wildlife populations.
The leafy branches of apple trees also make good fodder for ruminants. Called “tree hay,” it is an ancient form of animal feed that doesn’t require a tractor or specialized equipment to harvest. Many trees that thrive with coppice techniques are also used for tree hay, like beech and willow. Trees can provide an abundance of forage material, as well as providing fruit. However, if you’re creating hedgerows of stone fruit, you do want to avoid using wilted leaves for forage, as they can contain toxic compounds once wilted. However, the leaves are still great for the garden, and as garden mulch away from your livestock.
Growing Apples From Seed:
Start with apple seeds from whatever your favorite apple variety is. I love Golden Delicious, and Pink Lady is another favorite, you may like Macintosh or Granny Smith, or even one of the early fruiting apples like Transparent. Grab seeds from all the apples you enjoy, the more diverse the locations, farms, and varieties, the more diversity you’ll end up with in your pippin trees. Don’t worry about climate at this time, the seeds that grow in your region and the plants that survive your winter are the ones that will keep thriving in your growing zone.
You can simply start growing apples from seed by putting the seeds into pots, and watering them until something sprouts. I like putting my seeds in a paper towel, dampened with hydrogen peroxide, in the refrigerator for two to four weeks. Then I just plant the seeds that sprouted into pots, filled with an organic potting mix.
The refrigerator period is a form of cold stratification. You can get pre-sprouted seeds in some spring time grocery store apples, due to how long they’ve been in cold storage! Planting already sprouted seeds does improve the germination rate. I usually anticipate about a 50% germination rate from seeds that are directly planted in the ground, possibly as low as a 10% rate if there are voles or mice around to eat the seeds. There’s lots of other gardening tricks you can use too, not just these ones.
Once you have stratified and sprouted apple seeds, put them in the ground where you want your apple seedlings to grow, or put them in pots and place the pots in the ground, or in a layer of straw. The straw or ground layer will help protect your seedlings roots from excessive cold.
Planting seeds directly in the ground, roughly where you’ll want trees, helps form the taproot and makes it less likely that you’ll need to destroy the taproot to move the tree. I do like using pots, if you’re just experimenting, or just don’t know where you want to put the trees yet.
You’ll need patience with the young trees once they start growing. It takes the same 7 years for seedling trees to have their first apples as it does for grafted trees, including the time the graft and rootstock were initially growing. Your hedgerow trees will also provide nectar for pollinators, and additional habitat for other beneficial birds and insects.
Once your own apple trees are three or so years old, you can start pruning for single leader and doing maintenance to make the trees look nice. Don’t be afraid to cull trees that appear prone to insects, rust, or fungal attacks. You’re creating your own trees, and you want the trees that are healthy enough to thrive with minimal support or interference in your micro-climate.
You can increase your chances of success, and having thriving trees with good apples, by ruthlessly removing any ailing or unhealthy trees. Once a tree produces it’s first apples, check the taste and decide if it’s worth keeping, maybe decent, or a hard “no” for flavor. Good trees can have prunings or branches grafted over to the trees with less tasty fruits and you still get the benefits of the hardy, well-rooted root stock.
Back to You:
What seeds are you going to try to grow this year that may be unexpected? You can get the same results with stone fruit seeds and pear seeds as you can with growing apples from seed. My daughter has even grown dragonfruit cacti from seeds from a store bought fruit. Now those are growing indoors, but it can always be an adventure to try germinating and growing an unusual seed. We’re also trying to grow some nuts from store bought, namely sweet chestnuts from the Christmas markdowns, starting with cold stratification in the fridge.
So, what will you grow that’s unusual this year? Leave a comment!