Apple seeds are easy to grow at home with the proper preparation, and seedlings are often more vigorous than their grafted nursery counterparts. Give an apple tree seedling 3-4 years and it’ll catch up to and pass a potted transplant in size. From there, you have a tree that may bear for centuries.
The main reason apples aren’t grown from seed is that they don’t “come true to seed.” Just like humans, the offspring may have some resemblance to their parents, but with their own flavor and habits. Humans tend to want predictability, and for that reason, apple trees are cloned by grafting rather than starting from seed.
The thing is…all the tastiest apple varieties were a seedling at some point in history. Planting an apple from seed is like playing the lottery, and since you’re likely going to compost that apple core anyway, you’ve got nothing to lose.
A few hundred years ago settlers carried with them apple seeds and started seedling orchards all over the Northeast, and those same orchards became the parents of many of the heirloom varieties I now treasure. Those that were less tasty eaten out of hand went into hard cider, which requires a certain percentage of high tannin or high acid apples to brew properly.
One year we bought more than 30 apple varieties from a local heirloom apple orchard and did a big apple taste test. Since all the trees were in an heirloom orchard, there’s no telling who the second parent tree was…but it’s less likely that the father tree was a wild crab apple and more likely that it was another tasty heirloom. This improves the chances that any given seed will bear offspring with good characteristics.
Since a seedling tree will have some of the characteristics of its parents, we chose the seeds from our very favorite varieties to plant. There’s a good chance many of them will be best suited for hard cider or to please the deer as windfalls, but even then they’ll still feed the bees with abundant blossoms and nectar in the spring. And at the very least they’ll help pollinate our other tastier trees, so it’s a win either way.
Preparing Apple Seeds for Planting
Apple seeds need cold stratification to break dormancy. The seeds need to be kept under moist refrigeration for at least 6 weeks before they’re planted. Place apple seeds in a moist paper towel, and then put that paper towel inside a plastic bag, leaving it open just a crack for air exchange. Store it in the back of the refrigerator, checking on the towel every week or so to make sure it’s moist.
At the end of 6 weeks, some of the seeds may have started to sprout already. That’s a good thing since apple seeds have a very low germination rate. Some sources say as low as 30%, though I’d guess ours were more like 60% at least, so clearly, it’s variable.
If you buy local apples late in the season, months after harvest, they’ve already been kept under refrigeration for many months. It’s a good idea to cold stratify those seeds in a moist paper towel too because extra stratification won’t hurt them, but not enough cold hours means no apple seedlings. When you cut long stored local apples open, there’s a chance that some of the seeds may have already started to germinate inside the apple…
How to Plant Apple Seeds
After a minimum of 6 weeks in a moist paper towel in the refrigerator, you can plant apple seeds just as you would any other seed. They can be direct seeded outdoors if it’s after last spring frost and the soil can be worked. Since germination rates are low, and predation from squirrels, mice, and voles can be an issue early on, we generally sprout them in pots.
I place about a dozen seeds in a recycled one-gallon nursery pot along with a bit of seed starting potting mix. Keep the soil warm and moist, as you would any other spring planted seed start (ie. tomatoes).
How Long Do Apple Seeds Take to Germinate?
After 6 weeks of cold stratification, apple seeds actually germinate fairly quickly. Many of the seeds will already be germinating on the paper towel in your refrigerator, and those will emerge from the soil quickest after planting. Assuming soil temperatures are fairly warm (about 75 degrees F) the seeds should emerge from the soil in 1-2 weeks.
From there, we tend the apple seedlings in pots until the young trees are at least 4-6 inches tall. That means we’re less likely to lose them where they’re planted, but staking them is also a great idea because one casual step can mean the end of a young tree at this stage.
Transplanting Apple Seedlings
If you’d like to get them into the ground sooner rather than later, just wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees in the spring (or early summer here in the north country).
Once the apple seedlings are in the ground, they’ll begin the work of growing into a full-sized tree. Since they’re not grafted on dwarfing rootstock that handicaps them and limits their nutrients, seedling apples will grow strong and healthy, but also large. Good pruning can keep apple trees smaller, but full-sized apples should still be planted at least 20 feet apart.
How Long Does It Take Apple Seedlings to Bear Fruit?
Surprisingly, not really any longer than an expensive grafted nursery tree. Nursery bought apple trees generally bear about 8 years after planting. They may have been in the pot for some time, which caused them to become a bit root-bound and stunted. Even in the best of cases, large 6” tall nursery trees don’t take transplanting well and it takes them some time to recover and begin to grow vigorously again.
After three years in the dirt, our apple seedlings are now actually taller than our grafted nursery trees. We’re expecting them to come to bare alongside our other standard apple varieties in about 5 more years, but time will tell.