It is hard to imagine that one tiny seed or nut will some day become a tree that will feed you for 20 years or more. While starting a food forest from seed is not for the impatient, it can be a rewarding and effective way to expand your forest garden over time for less cost than buying started trees.
But can you really make this work? It seems a little crazy to think you can grow a whole forest from seed, and yet nature does this all the time.
Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of starting a food forest from seed so you can see if this is a good option for you.
[Not sure what a food forest is? Check out this post on Food Forest Abundance]
PROS of Starting a Food Forest From Seed
It is WAY cheaper to buy seeds and grow the plants than it is to buy all the started trees or shrubs you need to create a food forest. For the cost of one tree, which can run anywhere from $20 to $150 depending on the type, age and size of the plant, you can typically buy a LOT of seed. Tree seeds typically run $10-15 for 8 to 15 tree seeds. That’s a big cost difference.
Nursery stock is often limited to what is popular at the time and the “best selling” varieties may not actually be what you are looking for. Growing from seed means you have a much wider selection of tree & shrub species and varieties. You can take your time and carefully match your food preferences and your growing conditions with the variety you purchase. You are not dependent on what’s in stock at the nursery or what you can order for that year.
Cycle of Life
When you start your food trees (or shrubs) from seed, you get to participate in the full cycle of life. It is truly remarkable to go on this journey, at least once in your life, where you start a large perennial food plant from seed. It makes you appreciate all the trees around you!
If you are buying standing stock from a nursery or ordering bareroot trees, you get whatever shows up. Although not all of your tree seeds will survive to become producing trees (see the cons), you will get to choose among your starts for the highest and best quality trees to plant into your forest. That can end up saving you a lot of disappointment in the long run.
Less Space at the Beginning
Most growers will start their tree and shrub seeds in pots first, or windrows. That means you need a lot less space to start your forest adventure! That also means that you can start growing your food trees 2 or even 3 years before you have your food forest design finished. Start growing the trees now, decide where they all go later.
Direct Seeding is an Option
No matter how carefully you transplant a potted or bareroot tree, there can be issues with establishment that just don’t occur when you direct seed. Depending on where you live, you may simply be able to plant the seeds where you want your food forest to grow and then watch for the results.
Some seeds may still require pre-treatment before sowing directly outdoors depending on the time of year and your growing climate. And you might have to put up some protection around the site to avoid trampling on the newly emerging trees.
Maximum Carbon Capture
Starting a tree from seed and nurturing it throughout its lifecycle will provide the greatest carbon capture possible on site. If you are concerned about offsetting your carbon use, then growing trees and shrubs from seed can be an excellent way to give back to the planet.
Lot to Share
Because tree seeds are a lot cheaper than buying started stock, you can grow extras to give to family and friends, or even to sell. Growing food trees from seed creates an opportunity to share the benefits!
CONS of Starting a Food Forest From Seed
Takes More Time
The most obvious con of producing a food forest from seed is that it will simply take longer. You are starting from Day 0 when that tree seed first (finally) germinates. So if the variety takes 5 years to produce fruit or 10 years to produce nuts, then you have a long wait ahead for that first amazing home-grown bite. There is no question that bareroot or grafted stock will produce faster, but it will cost you a lot more money.
Takes More Work
Starting trees from seeds takes more work and more patients than most other gardening endeavors. Many tree seeds require you to mimic their natural growing cycles in order for the seed to germinate. That means, you have to re-create the winter or summer conditions under which the tree seed would naturally germinate.
This requires you, the grower, to learn about the seed and provide the right conditions. That may mean you need to soak the seed, stratify them in cold or warm conditions, scratch (scarify) hard seeds, or perform combinations of these treatments. Some tree seed can require 120-150 DAYS of treatment before you ever get to put the seed into a pot! So while these pre-steps are not particularly hard to do, they simply have to be done, and that adds to the challenges of producing a forest from seed (even though nature does this all the time!).
Not All Tree Seedlings Survive
Again, if we look in nature, trees produce a LOT of seed so that some will one day grow into mature trees. The same will be true for you tree seedlings. It can take 1 to 3 years of nurturing (sometimes more) to get the trees tall enough to withstand the challenges rodents, grazing animals, snow press, and other factors that can derail your future tree’s size and productivity. Some of your tree seedlings might die along the way. That means you will need to factor in potential loss in order to end up with the “right” number of trees you hope to plant into your food forest.
If you live in a particularly harsh climate, then growing food trees and shrubs from seed might actually be the wrong choice for you. Food plants grafted onto hardier root stock can often withstand much colder conditions than the same type of plant grown from seed on its natural roots. This is something to consider when designing your food forest and choosing the types of plants you want to include. Not all types that CAN grow from seed will be suitable in all growing conditions. Choose wisely.
Tree Seeds Are a Viable Choice
The decision to grow food trees and shrubs from seeds boils down to the time, money and work aspects of the project. If you have lots of money and want to move faster, then started stock will get you there. But if you are on a budget or want to have specific trees included in your forest, then starting from seed may be your best choice. Remember to consider hardiness when making these decisions and whether a grafted stock plant will provide you with more or less survivability for where you live and grow.
For me, I’ll be using a combination of approaches to achieve my desired results here on Rose Hill Farm. I started my first trees from seed here in 2022 which included some Sugar Maples, Hazelnut and Shagbark Hickory. It will be interesting to see how these tree seedlings survive their first winter here in Lillooet in pots.
I will also buy some started trees in 2023 to cut down on my timeline to food, even though in 2023 I will start another round of trees from seed too. The combination of tree varieties and the challenge of saying I grew THAT from seed, make me encouraged to keep trying. For tips on how you can diversify your garden and landscape check out: 11 Easy And Practical Ways To Create A Biodiverse Garden (Let a Little Wild In!)
You can follow along on my food forest adventure and other tips for creating food abundance by joining the FAR Community.