Monday, September 1, 2014

Reprint: The Long-Awaited, Gigantic, "Starting Fruit Trees From Seed" Valentine's Day Post

The following post is one of my all-time favorites. It was originally published on February 14th, 2013, before I started my plant nursery. Unfortunately, thanks to USDA regulations, I'm not allowed to grow or propagate citrus (in pots) without a special license... so I had to give my little Key Lime trees away since I was fresh out of good microclimates in which to plant them. Some of the other trees I wrote about in this post have since grown large enough to fruit! -DTG

Okay... I've posted on this before... and I've written a bit about starting nutshere, but it's really too juicy a topic to cover in just two little posts. The following is my do-it-yourself guide to starting a variety of trees from seed - with plenty of pictures I took of my own projects. Yes - they're not huge trees yet - but they will be. I've only been at this for three years and I'm already amazed by some of the successes.

I'm madly in love with seeds. They're cheap, readily available and could potentially grow into something amazing. The promise contained in a tiny seed is incredible.

Baby carob trees sprouting in a sunny window. 
However, when it comes to growing trees from seed - fruit and nut trees in particular - we're almost always told "don't do it!!!"


"It won't breed true!!! You'll get tiny/bitter/nasty/worthless fruit!" 

Really? When you save cabbage seed and plant them the next year, do you get tiny/bitter/nasty/worthless plants? No!

The reality is, you won't get exactly what you started with, but most of the time, you'll get something worthwhile. There are always genetic traits we don't like that may pop up, but most of the time, you get something decent - or even excellent - when you plant seeds, fruit trees included.

1-2 year old citrus seedlings in the greenhouse.

Unlike grafted trees, trees that grow on their own roots are often tougher and larger, if not always as productive. Grafting is very useful for commercial farms because it allows them to grow exactly the variety they want. The navel orange, for instance, is a cloned variety that's been around for almost 200 years. The same genes... replicated ad infinitum via cuttings and grafting. It's amazing - but in my mind, not the safest thing to rely on when you're dealing with diseases, pests and changing climates. Where do we get new varieties with disease resistance, larger fruit, higher cold-hardiness, etc.? We get them from planting seeds and seeing what hidden gems might pop out of the plant's genome.

Of course - this doesn't happen overnight. Unlike corn, you can't breed trees quickly. It takes a long time to go from seed to producing tree. Sometimes prohibitively long. But that doesn't mean we give up. That just means we start planting right now

I fully intend to get a variety of something named after me before I die. I'm really not picky - it just has to be something tall, productive and handsome so it compares well with its namesake.

If you're ready to get started with starting trees from seed, the loquat is a great first candidate. It's in fruit at this time of year, so it's likely you can nab some seeds easily. Now let's look at some various trees and how to start them.


Here are some one-year-old loquats I started from seed last spring: 

They're about 2' tall now and growing fast. Pretty much ready to be planted out. Loquats start quite easily from seed and don't need stratification or scarification to germinate. Just pop a handful of fresh pits in the ground and start watering. Most will sprout. When they do, carefully pull out and pot up the ones you want to keep - then plant the rest on a local foreclosure property.


Citrus are also really easy to grow. Here is a key lime tree my daughter started from seed a little less than three years ago:

It's over 4' tall and thriving. Interestingly, unlike some citrus, key limes breed true to type. Plant a key lime seed, you'll get a key lime tree. Most citrus will give you something edible and similar to their parent (see tomorrow's post), but not all. From what I've heard, cross-breeding is often a possibility, as is the occasional reversion to a sour variety. Plant citrus seeds when they're fresh as they don't last long. If they dry out, they're dead.


Avocados are another easy-to-grow tree. Almost every year when I was a kid, my grandmother would start pits impaled with toothpicks and suspended in water. They would grow 1-2' tall in her window, then she'd transplant them out to her backyard where they would invariably die of neglect. This was sort of a hobby of hers, I suppose. (I miss her tons... I wish she was alive so she could read this post and scold me...). The tree below was started from a Hass pit.

The Grandmother Method of starting avocados works well, as does simply burying the pits near the surface of the ground and watering them occasionally until they sprout. Some always will - and avocados also will grow into good trees from seed. I started a pit from a Thai variety with massive fruit the size of cantaloupes, then planted the year-and-a-half old tree in my parents' backyard. You can see it here

(Incidentally, the volunteer-run Edible Plant Project in Gainesville is working on a long-term cold-hardy avocado breeding project if anyone is interested.)


Pomegranates also grow well from seed, so next time you buy a freakishly expensive fruit from the supermarket, plant the seeds.  Here's a dwarf tree I started from a fruit a neighbor gave me:

It bore fruit within a year of me planting it - and, as you can see, it's working on another round right now. Dwarf pomegranates aren't as tasty as the full-size trees, in my experience, but they're still edible. I let the kids spit pomegranate seeds onto paper towels to dry - and then we plant them. They also lose viability over time, so plant earlier rather than later. One nice thing about pomegranates is that they are precocious trees - they only take a few year to bear fruit.


I've no idea whether or not date palms will survive here, especially with our humidity and the various palm diseases spreading across the state - but when you start with seeds, the experiment is basically free. The little palms below were started from a container of dates I bought for a picnic.

Yep. My date palms came from the supermarket. Unfortunately, starting date palms from seed is slightly tricky. There's a lot of strange info online involving various tricks for starting palm seeds. This method worked for me. First I scrubbed the flesh off the date pits, then let them dry for a few days. After that, I soaked them in water for a couple of days, changing the water frequently so they didn't rot. Then I planted them a couple inches deep in a terracotta pot of moist vermiculite and set that on top of the water heater.

A couple months later, I dug in to see what was going on and discovered a few of the seeds had developed roots. I took those out and put them in pots outside to continue growing. I had sporadic germinations occur on top of the water heater for another month or so, and I potted those out as well. After a few weeks outside, they'd poke up leaves and it was off to the races. Overall, I'd say I had a germination rate of maybe 25%.


Peaches are tricky in Florida for a couple of reasons.

1. They require rather specific chill hours. If you plant pits from the grocery store, chances are the tree will never thrive even if it manages to reach maturity. Unless they're bred for it, they can't set fruit without getting enough cold. Their dormancy cycles get messed up, they flower sporadically, they tend to get frozen down at weird times, etc. 

2. Nematodes can be deadly for peaches. There's a root stock used here called "Nemaguard" that is resistant to the darned things - but when you plant from seed, you're playing the lottery.

Those two contingencies haven't stopped me. I plant them anyways. In the summer of last year, I got a bunch of fruit from the popular low-chill cultivar "Tropic Beauty" - then I did what any mad horticulturalist should - I figured out how to germinate the seeds.

Unlike our previous subjects, peaches need stratification to germinate. That means they need a cold period - a real or simulated winter - in order to start growth.

Here's how I started mine. First I cleaned and dried a pile of pits, then carefully cracked them open with a nutcracker and removed the seeds inside. I then soaked those in water for a day or two. After that, I put them in baggies of moist potting soil and popped those baggies in the refrigerator. 

About two months later... a miracle happened. The pits started forming roots. As they did, I put them out in pots and flats to grow - which they did quite well. Now I'm sticking little peach trees in the ground around my yard and hoping they survive the nematodes. Total cost? $0.00.


Growing trees from seed is cheap and satisfying. If you have more time than money - or like to experiment - or need to fill a large area with trees - this is the way to go. I took all the pictures in this post last week. Those trees basically cost me nothing. If you plant seeds every year, you've always got something new coming up... and trees growing older and bigger from last year... and the year before... and the year before.

It's not an instant gratification thing, but over time you can get a wonderful variety of trees going and find excitement in knowing that no one else has the varieties you're growing. If you plant plenty of seeds, you're bound to get some good trees. If one of your home-grown trees produces poorly or bears sour fruit - so what? Graft onto it. Cut it down and make a melon pit. Turn it into wood for your smoker. Make marmalade! What did it cost you? $0.00. There's no risk!

And who knows - maybe one day, just like me, you'll get a variety named after you.

Tomorrow I'll share another fruit tree seed starting success story. Until then, get off the 'net and go plant something. (After you kiss your sweetheart, of course.)



At September 1, 2014 at 7:52 AM , Blogger FlowerLady Lorraine said...

Thanks for your interesting and informative post.

How long does it take for a Key Lime tree grown from seed to get fruit?

I came here via eli's blog.

Have a nice day today ~ FlowerLady

At September 1, 2014 at 5:36 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

Hi FlowerLady!

Citrus usually takes about 8-10 years; however, Key limes are supposed to be precocious. I believe you could get fruit in 6 years or less if the tree was well-tended.

At September 6, 2014 at 9:48 PM , Anonymous David McRee said...

Seedling fruit trees definitely have their place, though I go with grafted varieties with most trees because of my limited space and impatience. Where I grew up, Bradenton, FL, seedling mango trees were everywhere. While most were full of fiber to varying degrees and many had a turpentine flavor, they were, hands down, the sweetest mangos one could imagine. Much better than the grafted varieties. But some were nearly inedible. It was quite an adventure riding around town on bikes and trying out different mangos. And date palms...I had a high school surfing buddy that lived out on Anna Maria Island. On the way from his house down to the beach there was a really tall date palm. We'd pick the dates up off the ground and munch on them, but they were nothing like the ones grown out in the desert. Dates require a very hot dry environment to ripen properly and develop a high sugar content. In Florida they tend to ferment on the tree. For some fruit trees I've had good luck with air-layering. Guavas are very easy to propagate that way. And I've seen Chinese gardeners air-layer lychee and longan trees. I knew an old man organic gardener back in the '70s that air-layered macadamia trees and I think fig trees as well. Great blog. Enjoy the pics and posts!

At September 6, 2014 at 10:03 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

Very cool. It's interesting how much variation pops up in flavor from seedling to seedling. You're right about the dates, too. Pindo palms are much better palm fruit for the northern half of the state.

I've done some loquat grafting lately and it's gone wonderfully.

Which fruit trees have air-layered well for you?

At September 7, 2014 at 11:17 PM , Anonymous David McRee said...

I'm impressed with anyone who can graft anything successfully. I tried many years ago with some citrus and failed. The only tree I've done well air-layering is guava. I tried sapodilla, but the tree was located several miles from my house and the rats or squirrels kept chewing into my work for the moisture I guess and I was unable to monitor and maintain. As I recall, using a rooting hormone was helpful. I think most any tropical will respond to air-layering, though it does take patience as some take many months to form good roots. Always wanted to try with mango but never really pursued it.

At September 8, 2014 at 12:26 AM , Blogger David The Good said...

Many tropicals are pretty vigorous growers, though apparently mango is almost impossible to air-layer (though easy to graft).

I once air-layered an orange tree and had it work.


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