Some of the most fun I've had in gardening is when I've grown dogwood and magnolia trees from seed. It's not an especially practical thing to do -- and it certainly isn't for the impatient -- but it's satisfying. And it's thrifty. It's also an ideal project for a parent or grandparent to do with a child.
Because seeds of hybrids don't come true (that is, the tree that grows from the seed of a named cultivar or variety may not be like the parent), it's usually recommended that you stick with the seeds of native plants.
I'd echo that advice if you're serious about having these trees make a contribution to your landscape. But if you're just having fun, go on and plant the bright-red seeds of that Southern magnolia -- kids love 'em. I do, too.
Planting seeds of a dogwood tree, a pussy willow shrub, or a Dutchman’s pipe vine isn’t difficult. But it’s not exactly like sowing packets of marigold seeds.
First, you need to know when and how to collect ripe seeds from native shrubs and trees. Then do you plant them right away or should you dry the seeds and store them for a future planting time?
Many need to go through some weeks or months of cold temperatures before they’ll germinate. This is called stratification, and it's what happens naturally when seeds fall to the ground in autumn, are chilled over winter, and then germinate in spring or summer.
If that makes the process sound complicated, an informative new book, “Growing Trees From Seed,” by Henry Kock with Paul Aird, John Ambrose, and Gerald Waldron (Firefly Books, $45), shows that it isn’t at all.
They make it simple: Just look up the plant that you want to collect seed from and read the book’s easy-to-follow instructions. Then head back to Chapters 2 and 3 to learn how to tell if the fruit is ripe, the best way to collect the seeds, how to clean them, and any special treatment that might be needed.
How about growing an oak tree from an acorn? The best time to gather acorns is about the middle of the season, when the squirrels become especially interested in them.
Cut one open to see if it’s white or yellow all through and not bug-infested. Because of oaks’ long tap root, you'll want to plant the acorn where it will grow -- giving it plenty of space all around, since oaks grow big.
Before planting, remove the end cap but not the thin brown coating around the acorn. Then plant at a depth that equals one to two times the acorn's thickness. Generally a tiny seedling will emerge in May, depending on where you live.
If you can't plant right away, place the acorn in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until spring and then plant it.
But growing trees from seed isn't a project to undertake just in fall. Some maples produce winged fruit in spring and these can be planted, too.
Once you get in the habit of looking for the seeds – serviceberry, buckeye, walnut, witch hazel, juniper, elderberry -- you'll find many opportunities to have a satisfying time growing free plants.
And "Growing Trees From Seed" is an invaluable resource to guide you along the way to success.