Growing apple trees from seeds at home is a rewarding endeavor, and the resulting seedlings often display more vigor than their grafted counterparts from nurseries. Within 3 to 4 years, an apple plant can surpass the size of a potted transplant, eventually growing into a tree with the potential to endure for centuries.
While apple trees are typically propagated through grafting to ensure identical fruit, planting seeds introduces variability akin to genetic diversity. This unpredictability is similar to the genetic inheritance among humans. Given that people generally prefer predictability, cloning through grafting is the preferred method for apple trees.
However, some of the most delicious apple varieties originated as seedlings. Planting apple seeds is akin to a botanical lottery, and considering that the apple core is often destined for compost, there’s nothing to lose in attempting to grow your apple tree.
Choosing seeds from your favorite apple varieties increases the likelihood of producing desirable fruit. Even if some seedlings yield apples suitable for cider or wildlife, they contribute to the ecosystem by providing abundant flowers and nectar for bees, aiding in pollination for other fruit-bearing trees.
Preparing Apple Seeds for Planting:
Apple seeds require cold stratification to break dormancy. Follow these steps:
- Store seeds in a humid refrigerator for a minimum of 6 weeks.
- Place seeds in a damp paper towel inside a partially open plastic bag.
- Store in the refrigerator, checking the towel weekly to maintain moisture.
Planting Apple Seeds:
After the cold stratification period, plant the seeds directly outdoors if the last spring frost has passed. Alternatively, germinate them in pots to protect against predation and enhance germination rates.
- Place around a dozen seeds in a recycled nursery pot with seed starting potting soil.
- Maintain warm, moist conditions, similar to planting other spring seeds like tomatoes.
Germination and Transplanting:
After 6 weeks of stratification, germination occurs rapidly:
- Germinated seeds may emerge quickly from the soil, especially those that started germinating on the paper towel.
- Assuming warm soil temperatures (around 24°C), expect seeds to emerge in 1-2 weeks.
- Grow seedlings in pots until they reach a height of at least 4 inches.
Transplanting Apple Seedlings:
Wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 10°C in spring or early summer before transplanting seedlings into the ground. Planting non-grafted apple trees allows for robust growth, but proper pruning is essential to manage size.
Time to Bear Fruit:
Contrary to expectations, apple seedlings may bear fruit in a comparable timeframe to expensive grafted nursery trees. Typically, apple trees from nurseries begin bearing fruit about 8 years after planting. In contrast, home-grown seedlings can achieve similar results within 5 years, often surpassing grafted nursery trees in height within three years. The exact timeline for fruiting remains uncertain, but patience will reveal the outcome.