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How do I start trees and shrubs from seed?
Growing trees and shrubs from seed can be interesting, fun and challenging. However, seeds often need special treatment before they will germinate. Proper harvesting, post-harvest care, storage, and pre-germination treatment all contribute to your seed starting success.
Collect and start more seeds than you need. Harvest seed when ripe, usually late summer or fall. Seeds are usually ripe when the fruit is ripe. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to tell this The winged seeds from maples are ripe when papery. Pine cones are ripe when the cone is brown or purple. Open cones have already dropped their seeds.
To start, remove seeds from the fruit. Soften fleshy fruit, such as apples, by placing them in a plastic bag for several days. Soak seed for 6 to 24 hours to separate seed and pulp. Spread pine cones in a warm location to dry. You can use heat from an oven as long as it isn't over 120 degrees. The scales open and the seeds fall out. Allow black walnut husks to soften then remove by hand. Husks can also be removed mechanically. Wear gloves to avoid stained hands.
Spread seeds to dry before storing. Store seeds in a dark, cool location. Constant temperature and moisture are the keys to success. Put seed in a sealed bag or jar and store it at temperatures of 32 to 50 degrees. You'll have greater success with temperatures kept under 41 degrees. Your refrigerator is a good place to store seeds.
Many plants need special treatment before they will germinate. Requirements vary with each plant. Consider where the plant grows naturally and what type of treatment the seeds would receive in nature. Some seeds do best if you plant them right after you collect them. Unfortunately, our winters are hard on these young seedlings so you may have to store them over winter and plant them in the spring.
Some trees such as honey locust and black locust have hard seed coats. They require special treatment to break the seed coat and allow water uptake. Scarification or scratching the seed coat, occurs naturally outdoors. The weather, animals, and environment all help to scarify seeds. You can use a file or hot water to loosen the seed coat. Scratch carefully or pour 190 degree water over the seeds and let them soak in water for 6 to 12 hours. Don't cook the seeds.
Some seeds are immature even though the fruit is ripe. They need special treatment, to ripen the seed and allow for germination. This is called stratification To do this, bury seeds in moist potting soil or peat moss and store in the refrigerator for at least 2 months. You can also do a cold treatment in any 40 degree location. Then, plant the seeds and let nature take it's course. Protect seeds from squirrels and other rodents.
Other seeds have a double dormancy. They may need alternating cold and warm temperatures or both stratification and scarification.
You may want to visit the library to check these references for more information. Some good references include,: Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Dirr and Heuser's Reference Manual for Woody Plant Propagation, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service Hardy Plants in the U.S., and Hartman and Kester's Plant Propagation.