Starting Fruit Tree from Seed

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Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

An old friend of mine, Joe Noel, asked me how to germinate a seed from some fruit he had. That is a request that I tend to get frequently. “I had the best peach the other day, and I kept the seed and want to grow a peach tree so I can have my own fruit just like this” the question goes.

Homeowners and amateur fruit growers often like to experiment and grow tree fruit from seed. The first difficulty is germinating a seed and expecting it to produce in our climate. The second challenge is getting it to taste as good you the one you ate.

Many of our fruits come from climates much different than ours. Think of citrus from Florida. While it is true that we can grow some varieties of citrus here, it is highly doubtful that variety that takes Florida’s weather would make it through our winter.

Additionally, the fruit that you so enjoyed was obviously harvested off a tree variety that produces a good type of ‘fruit’. But the seed within the fruit has a genetic combination of the tree variety it grew on the whatever pollen it was that pollinated it. So, the tree grown from seed may certainly not produce fruit exactly like the fruit we saw and ate.

Now, seed from an apple will produce apples, peach seeds will produce peach trees, and so on. But the fruit, however, will have a mixture of the two parent’s characteristics. Although this may be disheartening for the person trying to preserve that favorite fruit, it should be pointed out that many of our current cultivars were discovered as chance seedlings. Several good examples with apples include Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and McIntosh.

If you want to give it a try, please do so and let everyone know if you come up with a better variety.

Another reason for growing plants from seed is to produce seedlings onto which you can vegetatively propagate a desired cultivar. Let’s say the resulting tree does not match expectations. You do still have the option of grafting a known quality pear variety onto the pear tree you grew. Grafting is an excellent and dying horticultural art whereby you can take the genetics from a good tree and change the fruiting wood (or everything above the roots) of a similar species tree.

In either case, tree fruit can be grown from seed if handled properly. There are some basic methods that can be used. Both methods require a period of after ripening of the seed. Tree fruit seeds require a period, after the fruit is ripe, before they will germinate and form new plants. During that period the embryo of the seed develops until it is mature. The ripening is usually accomplished by exposing the seeds to a period of cold.

The first method is to prepare a garden soil plot in the fall as you would for planting any other type of seeds. Make a furrow that is no more than 1 to 2 times deeper than the longest dimension of the seed. Cover the seeds with a light cover soil and add 1 to 2 inches of sand over the row. This will prevent crusting of the soil which inhibits germination.

Some research states that if you have a large squirrel problem, you may need to place a wire screen over the row. Push the edges of the screen several inches into the soil on all four sides. I have never heard of that being a problem, but I’ll go ahead and share it.

The second method is to remove the seeds and/or pits from the fruit of which you wish to grow. Remove all adhering fruit portions and allow the seeds to air dry. Then place them in a glass jar to which a loosely fitted lid or cover may be added. Set the seeds aside in a dark, cool location until mid-January. Mix the seeds (in mid-January) with either moist (but not wet) sphagnum peat moss, sand or shredded paper towels. Return the mixture to the jar and replace the lid.

Place the jar with the seeds in a refrigerator until after the last severe spring frosts have occurred. The seeds should remain in the refrigerator for at least 60 days. In the early spring prepare a seedbed, with furrows as described earlier, and plant the seeds. Germination may be enhanced by soaking the seeds in water for 12 to 24 hours before planting. Keep the soil moist. Do not add fertilizer at planting.

For apples and pears, collect the seeds that had been in cold storage for a month or so; rinse them in a 10% Clorox solution; then dust them with Captan or a similar fungicide. Line the seeds out in a seed tray (or aluminum pan with holes punched in the bottom) with moist peat moss or vermiculite. After they germinate, plant them about 1 inch deep in parallel lines about 2 inches apart.

Stone fruits (such as peaches and plums) have a hard covering over the seed embryo. To facilitate germination, it is helpful to crack the hard covering slightly using a nutcracker just before planting. Be careful not to crush the embryo inside the covering. The new seedlings will develop a tap root. To aid with transplanting, it is necessary to cut the taproot by pushing your shovel deep under each plant. The spade should be pushed into the soil to cut the taproot about 5 to 6 inches below the surface.

Whichever method you try, after the seedlings are 6 to 8 inches tall, carefully band 1 to 2 tablespoons of urea along each 12 inches of row. Keep the fertilizer about 2 inches away from the plants. Water thoroughly every 10 to 12 days.

What you get, may or may not be as good as you wanted. If it’s not what you wanted, grafting a known variety onto your rootstock would be an option. But if this piques your interest, keep trying. We may eventually have a fruit variety named after you!

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