Growing Your Own Fruit Trees From Seed

One of the interesting things we do here at the farm is grow fruit trees from scratch, as well as teaching other people how to do it, which is lots of fun.

Pear seed ready to be planted to grow rootstock trees
Pear seed ready to be planted to grow rootstock tree

Some trees are grown from cuttings (e.g., plums) and some are grown from seed. We usually grow our own peach, plum, pear and quince rootstocks this way.

These days we look after the Growing Abundance juice press (which in turn is on long-term loan from the generous folk at The Little Red Apple in Harcourt), which means that Ant can use it to juice his apple and pear seconds at the end of the season.

Ant pressing apples for juice
Ant pressing apples for juice

It’s a great press, and being able to juice fruit from apples grown here on the farm (in those years when there’s a good enough apple harvest) yields enough delicious organic apple juice to share around, as well as plenty for Ant to turn into cider.

Lots of lovely apple juice
Lots of lovely apple juice

But it also means we can easily save the seed to grow organic apple rootstocks. We’ve grown all the apple trees we’ve planted here on the farm that way, a tradition which is now being continued by Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery.

Regardless of whether you’re growing trees from cutting or seed, they don’t grow “true to type”. They grow trees called rootstocks, which are used as a base to graft known fruit varieties onto.

Apple pulp full of seeds
Apple pulp full of seeds

Growing your own trees is a year-round process, with different small jobs to do at different times of year – just like all gardening really! We provide a full grafting calendar in our Grow Your Own Fruit Trees for Free course.

This is the right time of year to be:

  • Gathering scion wood from varieties you want to use for grafting in spring, and storing it correctly to keep it in good condition.
  • Gathering plum cuttings and storing them in damp sand over winter.
  • Gathering seed from apples and pears, extracting the seeds and storing them in damp sand.
  • If you’re planning a tree nursery, preparing the soil.
A box of sand for storing seed
A box of sand for storing seed

Does it sound complicated? It’s really not.

Grafting is an ancient method of preserving heritage fruit varieties that has been practised for hundreds of years, and continues to be passed from fruitgrower to fruitgrower today.

Newly emerged apple seedling
Newly emerged apple seedling

We think teaching people how to grow their own fruit trees from scratch is one of the most important skills we teach (through our grafting courses) because that’s where true fruit security starts.

How old are the fruit trees we sell in our nursery?

Katie in front of Carr's Organic Fruit Tree Nursery
Katie in front of Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery

This is a very common question from people looking to buy a fruit tree from Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery, particularly at this time of year before orders close on June 30.

An apple tree seedling in the nursery
An apple tree seedling in the nursery

Unfortunately it’s a bit tricky to answer, and there’s lots of “ifs” and “buts”, but here goes – we’ll try to answer succinctly, without writing a whole essay on fruit tree production!

Collecting peach seed for planting in the nursery
Collecting peach seed for planting in the nursery

Different types of trees go through different processes in the nursery, which take varying periods of time, and have varying degrees of success. But essentially, the process is always the same:

  1. We collect the propagation material – either cuttings, seed, or occasionally bought rootstocks. This usually happens several months before the right time to plant it out, which means storing the material correctly over winter.
  2. We then plant out the seeds or cuttings in spring to grow a new rootstock tree. We use cuttings for figs and to grow plum rootstocks, (which are used to graft both apricot and plum trees), seed to grow apple, pear, quince, peach and citrus rootstocks, and rootstock trees layered in a stoolbed to grow cherry and dwarfing apple rootstocks.
  3. The new seedlings/rootstock trees then grow over spring and summer.
  4. In February, any that have grown strongly enough are bud grafted.
  5. The rootstocks that are too small for bud grafting are left to continue growing to be grafted the following winter.
  6. The next winter, we cut back to the buds, which then grow over the ensuing spring and summer. These trees are then available to be sold the following winter – which is 2 years after the initial seed/cutting was planted.
  7. In winter we harvest the rootstocks that have grown in the stoolbed. They are then planted out as individual trees, and the bigger ones are grafted (along with the rootstocks from last year that weren’t big enough for summer bud-grafting). The smaller ones are left to grow another summer to be bud-grafted next February.
  8. The grafted trees will grow over the following summer and be available for sale the following winter – which is 3 years after the initial seed/cutting was planted.
Merv planting apple seed (which has started to sprout) in the nursery
Merv planting apple seed (which has started to sprout) in the nursery

Hopefully that all makes sense, and explains the basic processes most of our trees go through, all of which are explained in much more detail in our 5 short online grafting courses.

But of course, it’s not quite that simple! A couple of factors can add layers of complexity. The first one is that at each stage of the process, we don’t get 100% success (though we’re always striving to improve our techniques). So when we do the bud-grafting for example, not all the buds will take. The failures will either be late budded using a different technique, or left to grow and be grafted the following winter.

Grafted cherry trees in the nursery
Grafted cherry trees in the nursery

Likewise, not all grafts are successful, and so the failures will be cut back to the original rootstock and allowed to grow for a bit longer before being bud grafted the next summer.

Multigraft plum trees
Multigraft plum trees

Then there are rootstocks that are destined to be sold as multigrafts. These trees are headed in early summer to create the multiple branches we need, or sometimes failed buds will instead be headed to grow multi-branched rootstocks.

Any that branch and grow strongly enough are then bud-grafted with multiple varieties in February, cut back to the buds the following summer, and become ready for sale the following winter. All up, this may take up to 3 or even 4 years since the original cutting/seed was planted.

Sorry to be complicated! Basically, most trees we sell are between 2 and 4 years old from seed to finished tree.

A cherry tree that's been headed to create a multigraft tree
A cherry tree that’s been headed to create a multigraft tree

But do you know what? It doesn’t really matter!

In most cases once you’ve planted them in your garden they’ll need pruning back quite hard to establish the right number of branches in the right place for the type of tree you want to grow, whether that’s a vase-shaped tree, espalier, or something else, so the age of the tree doesn’t really matter. We call this “establishment pruning” and you can find out more about it in this short online course.

Merv and Sas planting rootstocks
Merv and Sas planting rootstocks

Hopefully that helps, and if still have any questions, either ask us in the comments below or shoot us an email.

Create art in your garden with multigraft fruit trees

Multigrafts, double-grafts, ‘family’ trees, fruit salad trees, cocktail trees – there’s lots of different names for them, but they’re essentially all the same thing. Fruit trees with different varieties or cultivars grafted onto the same rootstock.

A multigraft plum tree: the different varieties are showing their autumn colours at different times, making a beautiful display in the garden
A multigraft plum tree: the different varieties are showing their autumn colours at different times, making a beautiful display in the garden

If the different grafts are all the same variety (e.g., all apples), they will normally be sold as multigrafts, whereas a ‘fruit salad tree’ describes a tree that has different types of fruit from the same family, e.g., apricots and plums.

Generally speaking, fruits from the same family can be grafted onto the same rootstock, e.g., plums and apricots are compatible, peaches and nectarines, and pears and quinces.

However, due to the magic of grafting, other combinations may also be compatible, e.g., some varieties of peaches and nectarines are compatible with plum rootstocks, allowing for glorious combinations of 4 fruit types on the same tree.

While it’s safer to stick to known compatibilities, it’s always worth experimenting with odd and unusual combinations, because apart from your time, there’s absolutely minimal cost involved.

The artist's rendition of a tree from the 'Tree of 40 Fruit' series by Sam Aken (from www.treeof40fruit.com)
The artist’s rendition of a tree from the ‘Tree of 40 Fruit’ series by Sam Aken (from www.treeof40fruit.com)

One of the best ways to think about a multigraft is as a work of art that you are constantly reviewing and improving.  A famous examples of this is the ‘Tree of 40 Fruits’ Series by New York artist Sam Aken.

Many of the problems that can happen with multigrafts (see the list below) are avoidable or fixable by paying careful attention to graft placement and detailed pruning, and then by reviewing and responding to how the tree has actually grown and performed each season.

Clare feeling very proud of her multi-grafted fruit tree
Clare feeling very proud of her multi-grafted fruit tree

If you think of your tree as a living work of art (rather than the ‘plant and forget’ model that most gardeners use), and have high expectations of what you want to achieve with the tree, it’s possible to make them incredibly productive.

Benefits (Pros)

If you’re prepared to put the work into them, there are lots of benefits of having these trees in your garden, one of the most important being that they allow you to increase your food security in a small space.

How does that work? The more biodiversity that you can stack into your garden, the more you’ll be protecting your food supply from the many disasters and natural events that can ruin a crop. If you’re growing 10 varieties of apple, rather than just one, then if a hail storm comes along or you get a particular disease outbreak, chances are that some varieties will fare better than others, which reduces your chances of total wipeout.

The more varieties you can play with in the garden, the more you can work towards a consistent, even harvest throughout the entire growing season, rather than the normal cycle of glut and scarcity that most home fruit growers have to deal with.

Other benefits of growing multigrafts include:

  • pollination
  • increasing food production in a small space
  • practising your grafting skills
  • making the most of an existing tree with an established root system, rather than having to get a new tree established

Problems (Cons):

  • Inappropriate varieties – not all varieties grow as well as each other in a given locations, so there’s a risk that some varieties you choose to graft won’t thrive, but, so what? Just regraft with another variety.
  • Pruning. It’s a very common scenario that some varieties will be more dominant than others, either because they are more compatible with the rootstock, the graft was better quality, or the variety is happier in the location.  This can make it more difficult to train the tree into a balanced shape and the dominant branches can end up being bigger and more vigorous. This needs careful management with pruning to prevent the problem becoming worse by allowing the dominant side to crowd out or shade the slower-growing varieties.
  • Branch positioning. It is important that the grafted branches are evenly spaced along the main trunk to produce a balanced form in the mature tree and to avoid undesirable crowding. On a single-variety tree, a misplaced branch can simply be pruned off to allow well-placed branches to grow. However, pruning off any of the first branches of a multigraft tree means sacrificing one of the varieties.
  • Providing pollination partners is one of the main reasons for creating multigrafts, but unless varieties are carefully chosen with this goal specifically in mind, it doesn’t always work. The varieties need to not only be compatible, but also flower simultaneously. In order for all varieties on a multigrafted tree to be pollinated, they must be carefully selected for flowering times to overlap sufficiently. Again, this problem, should it occur, is very fixable by regrafting with a more suitable variety.
  • Different varieties can be vulnerable to different pests and diseases. In the worst-case scenario, the introduction of disease by one variety on a multigrafted tree can compromise the health of the entire tree, particularly if you accidentally introduce a virus to the tree by using infected grafting wood. This is offset to a large degree by the advantages of increasing biodiversity (see above), but it’s good practise to only ever use grafting wood from trees with no visible signs of ill-health, and ideally a good record of productivity as well.
  • Labelling. This almost seems too frivolous to include in this list, but it’s probably one of the problems we hear about most regularly, for all fruit trees, not just multigrafts. It is hard to find a good labelling system that can easily withstand the ravages of time and the weather and remain not only in place but also readable! Our solution is to take a four-pronged approach:
    • make effective, permanent, low-cost labels by cutting up aluminium cans into labels, and using a nail to etch the name into the metal. Punch a hole in the label and use a piece of wire to attach it to the tree. Don’t attach it too tightly around the branch or it’s easy to strangle the branch as it grows.
    • Check the labels at least once a year. Make sure they’re still in place and still readable, and loosen the wire if necessary.
    • Keep a paper (or computerised) record of the location of each tree, its variety, and any varieties you add by grafting.
    • Take photos to back up the computerised record.

Multigraft fruit trees take a bit more work and diligence than single-variety trees, but the benefits are huge, not just in terms of increased production, but through providing other environmental services to your garden, providing beautiful sculptural trees, and providing a life-long interest and passion.

A mature plum tree being converted into a mult-graft with 5 different varieties (note the "nurse" limb that's been left on the tree to keep it alive
A mature plum tree being converted into a mult-graft with 5 different varieties (note the “nurse” limb that’s been left on the tree to keep it alive

You can buy pre-grafted multigraft trees from Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery or learn how to grow your own with our series of grafting short courses.

But be warned – it’s addictive!