The magic of seeds never fails to inspire me. You start with a (usually) brown, wizened hard capsule of some sort and within days, weeks, months or years, an almost exact replica of the parent plant reaches maturity and makes its own fruit and seed. Some seeds such as salads, brassicas, peas and beans, germinate within days of sowing. For a gardener that’s magical, brilliant and efficient. But some seeds like tree seeds can take a lot longer.
Trees from seed
Growing trees from seed is a fantastic project for anyone, but especially for children. Encourage them to collect tree seeds and to grow them into little saplings that can be planted in the garden or in their community. A tree will grow with a child and they will grow a special bond. Giving a child a tree and making them guardian of that tree instils an empathy with nature and encourages respect of all living entities. Trees don’t usually have a choice where they grow, they can’t move around to select the best growing environment and they are totally dependent on the dispersal and germination of their seeds to ensure a new generation of their type. That means that wherever you plant a tree, it needs to have everything that it needs in the soil where it grows, starting with germination.
Seeds that grow into trees and shrubs take longer to germinate than most garden plants and seed and many trees use very complicated systems to delay, stimulate or enhance germination. Every plant has different needs.
As winter approaches and the deciduous trees become bare of their leaves, the berries, nuts and fruit that have not fallen to the ground already, shine like beacons in the branches. Many become vital sustenance for the birds, which spread the seeds and fruit far and wide dispersing them to a wider environment where they may later grow. Some seeds need to pass through the digestive tract of a bird or animal before they germinate. Others need the seed capsule to be broken by the teeth of foraging creatures such as mice, squirrels or hedgehogs.
It’s the perfect way to learn about the inventiveness of nature with your children, grandchildren or school gardening group.
There’s nothing better than a nature walk in autumn and winter and it’s a great way to learn about trees, seed dispersal and the cycle of the year. Collect nuts, seeds and fallen fruits from as many trees and shrubs as possible and try and identify them before sowing.
Use the shelter of the greenhouse to prepare pots of gritty seed compost. Separate the seeds into different types, fleshy berries and fruit such as hawthorn, holly, crab apples and white beam need the seeds removing from the fruit. Hard nuts and seeds such as acorns, hazelnuts and beech may benefit from having their outer shell weakened (scarification). Other more naked seeds such as ash, sycamore and birch can be sown on the surface of the compost, with little intervention and should germinate quickly in spring.
Many tree seeds also need a period of dormancy and a period of fairly extreme cold to break their dormancy. This can be achieved by placing the seeds into small bags of moist compost and freezing them in the deep freeze. However, if you sow the seeds into small pots of seed compost and then place them in a cold frame or sheltered spot in the garden for the duration of the whole winter, they will experience the normal winter conditions, including frost, snow and ice, and whatever else is needed to break their dormancy as the weather warms up in spring.
Tender Loving Care
Be sure to explain that not every seed will grow and that some will take longer to grow than others. Encourage the children to make notes and keep records to see how many seeds germinate, how long it takes and what the weather has been like each week or month.
Be sure to protect nutty seeds like hazel, acorn and chestnut from squirrels and mice.
Label your pots clearly and see which germinate next spring. Don’t discard any which don’t come up, some tree seeds need a double dormancy before they will germinate and others are just slow. Once your trees are growing you can decide where to plant them and give them as gifts to community projects or other children to plant and to care for. Why not give garden friendly tree saplings as party gifts to every child at a birthday party, with a gift tag explaining what the tree is, how to plant it and how to care for it, instead of costly toys that will end up in landfill. Create a story around each tree you give and spread the magic of trees and plants to the next generation with love.