How to grow trees from seed the easy way
Nov 11, 2020.

These are fruit of a small native tree, Euclea racemosa.These are the edible fruit of a small native tree, Euclea racemosa.

I spoke about the advantages of growing trees from seed in a recent Greenidiom regenerative gardening blog post. Growing native trees is especially beneficial to urban biodiversity. This was part of series of 12 blog posts on easy to do regenerative gardening activities that can start you off on the regenerative path in your garden, and now I'll explain how I grow trees from seed with lots of pictures and some more detail. 

I recommend over sowing. Sow much more than you will need. Also over plant, planting many more trees than you will need. This way, if you lose trees you will not grieve too much, and you can also eliminate male trees if you have too many, which you will not know till they bloom.

The Euclea racemosa seed came up very well. In the wild they often succumb to a parasite.The Euclea racemosa seed came up very well. In the wild they often succumb to a parasite that bored into the seeds.

Gathering the seed

My very basic methods are to collect seed by sweeping it up off the street, or picking it up in parks or in nature areas, taking them from bought fruit, or swapping with other growers. If it has a fruit, its best to clean it up, as the fruit may have a growth retardant or encourage bad molds. Some like to be fermented a little, and that helps get rid of the fruit flesh. Some do not react well to this and its impossible to predict. Experience will tell.

Generally, but not always, the fresher the better. When the seed falls, sow it, that is nature's way. Stale acorns are not much good for example. It is not necessary to dry seed and keeping it in bags before sowing. That is only necessary for seed trading, and to preserve seed to withstand seasons of no growth. Reduction in viability is assumed with storage.

Growing the trees

Clean the seed of excess fruit and lay them on about two inches of soil in a seed tray. Cover with soil the depth of the longest length of the seed. Water regularly but not too much. You are trying to create constant stable moisture in the soil, which favors germination, but also they must not be too wet as seedlings tend to succumb to fungi. Mix plenty of vermicast into the soil to help combat fungi and hold water and stabilize the moisture content. 

For seed trays I use recycled fish trays made of polystyrene, picked up for free outside a supermarket. Any deep non biodegradable box or tray will do, I scatter the seed on the surface of 2 inches or 10 cm of soil, and cover with more soil as deep as the seed's length.

Sorting my wild gathered seeds into cover crop seeds in the foreground and trees at the back.Sorting my wild gathered seeds into cover crop seeds in the foreground and trees at the back.

I've found that big tree seeds just will not germinate in tiny six pack containers. Seeds are very intelligent, and they know there isn't room. The moisture levels are less stable in tiny containers and may message the seed to wait for better times.

Then the watering and waiting starts. It can take months. When you have some seedlings emerging, wait till they have 4-6 leaves and transplant into single containers post haste, or some of them will grow long tap roots and get damaged on transplanting. The tap roots of an oak go right out of the container at the bottom before it has 6 leaves so speed is needed, unless you want them to be stunted, which I do. My garden is too small for forest giants.

A sieve for separating the biochar from the liquid, buckets of ferments and vermicast.A sieve for separating the biochar from the liquid, buckets of ferments and vermicast.

I had to bulk process the trans planting of the seedlings from the tray into individual containers, as so many had germinated. I tried an experiment. This is not yet proven successful, and is by no means necessary when planting up. To insure diverse microbial life in the potting soil I added about a third vermicompost which has a very good diversity from the worm's gut, smelly fermented compost tea, and some biochar which had charged in fermented urine for months. This biochar smelled mildly of old hay. The ammonia had long since evaporated. I am hoping that rather than by killing microbes with heat and bleach, I can supply healthy soil by promoting microbial diversity and microbial competition.

Into this mix I transplanted nearly a hundred native tree seedlings. You can see all the equipment I needed for the transplanting: the buckets of plant brew, trays of planters, the polystyrene fish boxes I use for seed trays and for holding planters, and the big tubs for mixing the potting soil. I had quite a workout.

Potting soil, additives, planters and trays.Potting soil, additives, planters and trays.

I used milk cartons, as they also have good bacteria in the form of Lactobacillus which is known to combat some pathogenic plant fungi. I also had a lot of them available as using preserved carton milk is one way I've avoided having to shop often during the pandemic. So I cut off the bottoms, and the nasty little spiky plastic mouths and turned them upside down. I recon the holes where the mouths used to be will make nice drainage holes.

De-capping the milk cartons. They have a waxed cardboard exterior and a plastic and foil lining.De-capping the milk cartons. They have a waxed cardboard exterior and a plastic and foil lining.

The cartons are kept in poly trays to facilitate shifting them around in bulk. I keep the plant trays light always, to avoid getting back problems. Soil is shoveled over the poly tray till the cartons are full, and then they are moved to a new poly tray and I can tip out all the soil that landed between the cartons.

Ready for filling with the spade.Ready for filling with the spade-fulls of soil.
Moving filled planters to a clean cartonMoving soil filled planters to a clean carton

Then I water the whole lot at one go and stand the tray of seedlings in some water. It usually helps disentangle the roots better having them so wet. One by one I gently teased out the seedlings' roots and planted one seedling into each milk carton. Normally I would plant two, but these seedlings are very precious. Competition between the twins in a planter often leads to the demise of one of them, so I wanted them all to have a better chance.

It took about four hours to plant up nearly a hundred seedlings, but this means, with the inevitable loss of some of them, that I have enough for two gardens and a pavement planting garden project. It would have taken much longer if I had not resorted to some means of  mass production and faster processes.

A quick aside on food growing style

I'm always thinking of busy people. I want urban re-greening to be do-able by everyone and I'm always pushing the project towards zero cost and zero time. Its impossible to reach either of course.

Once the type of work described above is done, which is the heavy lifting in keeping a home nursery, the rest takes about ten minutes a day of watering and keeping an eye on things. I do these major plant ups about four times a year, so that is 16 hours a year.

I avoid growing vegetables correctly spaced in a well kept vegetable garden. From personal experience I know its not do-able without putting in hours and hours a week. I grow food by scattering seeds I've found in wild places and growing food bearing trees. I don't water except on a very hot day with a dry wind blowing, because I put a lot of mental effort into building soil that doesn't dry out as fast.

I don't have time because I'm working such long hours trying to make a living, like many people. But I get enormous satisfaction out of the ten minutes a day I do invest. I believe I will find gardening solutions that are highly relevant to urban lifestyles in a warming world. I'm mostly on my own in this experiment and I am working in a space in which few others are with me pushing the boundaries of gardening minimalism, yet my garden is gorgeous, lush and thrives on neglect.  I think my garden may as productive as some of the well kept ones.

If  you have the time to manure and double dig and sweat and do crop rotation and inter planting and weeding and mulching, and sow replacement plants on an almost weekly basis, or bring in a ton of organic material every growing season, why not. You will get more classic exhibition vegetables out of your work. You will get a lot of satisfaction. You could also be culturing eventual soil sterility and the dehydration of the whole urban landscape if you don't do it regeneratively.

A hundred Euclea racemosa seedlings planted into individual containers.A hundred Euclea racemosa seedlings in individual containers.

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