Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

The Cyber-myth: How to Grow a _______ (fill in the blank) Fruit Tree from Seed

Apple blossom

The first step to the apple seed

I’ve seen this pop­u­lar “inter­net leg­end” float­ing around in a lot of forums, social media sites, and other venues lately. Yes, tech­ni­cally you can grow an apple, peach, cherry — you name it — tree from seed. After all that is how they orig­i­nally started.…..eons ago, that is.

How­ever, most of these cyber-mentions I’ve seen are directed at the idea of sav­ing money when start­ing your fruit gar­den. There is the myth! Many novice fruit gar­den­ers may not real­ize that what you see is highly, highly unlikely to be what you get when it comes to start­ing fruit trees from seed. So, let’s look more closely at why you would, or more seri­ously, why you would not want to try this lit­tle ven­ture. Think back to mid­dle school biol­ogy and the genet­ics unit.

What hap­pens to a plant’s genes dur­ing pol­li­na­tion? In an abbre­vi­ated ver­sion; the cells divide with the sex cells each hold­ing half the com­po­nents (the genes) of the parental genetic mate­r­ial. Two cells are then united in the fer­til­iza­tion process and form a new cell with a full com­po­nent of genes; half from the male and half from the female par­ent. So now you have a cell with a new com­bi­na­tion of genetic mate­r­ial and traits to express. This is pre­cisely why you would not want to try this if you are look­ing to build up a nice lit­tle home orchard of Hon­ey­crisp (or other given vari­ety of) apples. The genes within that newly formed seed are not iden­ti­cal to the Hon­ey­crisp apple you just ate. They will not grow to become just like it. More likely, your new seedlings will be very unlike what you started with. This is the whole point of genetic mix­ing and variability!

The Money-saving Myth

From both a time and money stand-point, the “grow it from seed” idea will cost you in sev­eral ways:
1.    Only about 1% to 2% of seedling crosses result in a new plant with a poten­tially desir­able char­ac­ter­is­tic. Remem­ber, this will only be a sin­gle trait of the many that are required to yield a fruit of high qual­ity.
2.    Seedlings typ­i­cally take a half-dozen or more years before they even bear fruit. That’s a long time to wait to find out you have noth­ing from it that you want to grow or eat.
3.    Often, desir­able prog­eny will need to be grown out for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions to ascer­tain that the desir­able char­ac­ter­is­tic will con­tinue to exhibit itself over time.
4.    Most seedling trees grow to a large mature size; larger than desired by most of today’s home fruit gar­den­ers. Think, poten­tially the 30 foot behe­moth of grandpa’s days. Do you have the space for that?
5.    Once you real­ize the above points, you will still need to invest in a clon­ally prop­a­gated tree of the type you desire. So, really no dol­lars saved. Lots of time lost — time dur­ing which you could have been enjoy­ing a harvest.

When to Give It a Try

Now, to be fair why might you want to give this seed start­ing project a try?

It can be a  fun les­son, espe­cially for kids, to get some under­stand­ing of the con­nec­tion between seed and plant. Haven’t most of us gar­den­ers, as kids, tried some vari­ant of “sprout the avo­cado pit” and had fun with it?
Plant breed­ing can be an inter­est­ing hobby or, for some, a life-long pur­suit and com­mit­ment. If you want to learn more you might start here:
www.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/html_pubs/PLBREED/pl_breed.html
www.arboretum.umn.edu/fruitbreeding.aspx

If you want to explore and exper­i­ment, sure, try grow­ing fruit trees from seed. If, how­ever, you want a ready to pro­duce, true-to-name fruit vari­ety with cer­tain pre­dictable char­ac­ter­is­tics; invest in a clon­ally prop­a­gated tree. Now, that is a story for another day, that I hope to bring you later in the grow­ing sea­son. What­ever way you choose to acquire your fruit trees,  for all you need to know about grow­ing and car­ing for your fruit trees, buy The Back­yard Orchardist: A com­plete guide to grow­ing fruit trees in the home garden.

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