Seedling Apple Trees – Let’s Give ’em a Go

‘Herefordshire Russet x X’ seedlings, ready to pot out.

There’s a section in Stephen Hayes’ hugely informative and rather entertaining book Tales From an English Orchard in which he discusses the pros and cons of breeding your own new apple varieties from pips.

The relevant section is headed “Do not be tempted to raise a new variety yourself!”, which seems unambiguous enough, but just to be clear, here’s a quote to really drive the point home:

"This piece of advice is worth the price of this book: do not try to grow an apple tree from a pip. I realise that my advice may tempt some people into doing just that, to prove they can. OK, you were warned." (author's emphasis)

Reader, I am indeed “some people” and have indeed decided – fully fore-warned as I have been – to give it a go. Yes, even having read through the esteemed Mr. Hayes’ subsequent section, “Most new apples grown from pips are rubbish!” and both digested and fully accepted his further advice, to whit:

"What is the point of taking a long gamble over ten years or more at raising a new variety of doubtful value, while we neglect, forget and risk permanently losing hundreds of old apple varieties of known worth?"

After all that, I’m still stubborn enough to want to try to raise something new and potentially interesting, albeit on a very small scale. Which, yes, limits my chances of success still further. But hey, if all it costs me is a bit of time and attention diverted towards growing on a few seedlings in a few air-pots to see if we get anything vaguely interesting or useful as a result, then even if it does turn out to be a waste of time over the next few years, then I’ve not really lost much in the process.

So, the photo at the top of this post is of a pot of apple seedlings, germinated from the pips of three ‘Herefordshire Russet’ apples, taken from the air-pot grown tree in my back garden. They were sown late last summer, and I freely admit, I have no idea what the other parent might be. The most likely candidate is the ‘Cornish Aromatic’ tree that was growing in the pot next to the ‘Herefordshire Russet’ and was in full bloom at the same time. There’s a ‘Blenheim Orange’ in the next pot along, but as that’s a triploid it’s much less likely to be the parent[1], and there’s also a ‘John Downie’ crab apple in the garden, but it didn’t blossom at all well last year, so the chances of that being the parent are probably lower. Or of course it could also be any of the domestic or crab apples growing in any garden or park for a mile or so around, depending on how far the local bees have been foraging. It all adds to the gleefully chaotic nature of the process, so it’s ‘parent X’ for now.

The next step will be to pot up the seedlings individually in a fresh soil-compost mix, keep them watered and alive over the summer, and see which of them show good signs of growth. Then the strongest few will be potted up into small air-pots and be given a good feed in the autumn, before they enter dormancy. I’ll probably leave them to grow on to for another year or so, then we’ll see what happens. As Stephen Hayes suggests in the section headed “How to best raise a new apple variety, if you must try”[2]:

"In the second winter, or once you have some wood at least 4mm in diameter, cut the scion wood, store cool and moist, and graft onto a dwarf bush apple tree in April ... Label each one as to where the pip came from. Each successful graft will give you an idea about is performance within 3 years or so, and you will have more shots at the target than if you tried to raise whole trees from your pips, so a better chance of one coming right."

The author suggests this method – top-grafting to an existing tree, rather than grafting onto individual dwarfing rootstocks, if I’m reading it right – will save you about five years’ waiting time, compared to trying to raise the trees on their own roots, which could cost you up to 8 years “before discovering that the fruit [is] worthless – as it probably will be – and you’d need far more space.” His concluding words on the subject are well worth repeating:

"So, if you want to try to raise a new variety, take a systematic approach as described above but don't do it instead of planting trees of known performance and quality, but as well as ... Have a go if you're up for it, but make a realistic plan and minimise your losses." (author's emphasis again)

I completely agree, but I also reckon that with an orchard of up to eighteen[3] apple varieties of varying pedigrees on Plot #79 and another dozen or two cordons and/or stepovers coming along on our main Plot #59 allotment orchard, I’m probably doing my bit on the heritage front (for now) and can afford to indulge in a spot of hopeful breeding on the side. Let’s see what happens, eh?

In the meantime, I highly recommend Tales From an English Orchard, which is a very frank, straightforward and practical account of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of planning, establishing and developing a small-scale commercial orchard. It’s only available on Kindle via Amazon[4] priced at a very reasonable £3.77 just at the moment, so a bit of a bargain.

For further advice on a more scientifically rigorous method of manually cross-pollinating apple varieties, take a look at Steven Edholm’s latest video from his SkillCult blog, ‘Updated Apple Pollination Technique For Breeding‘:

How about you? Have you tried to raise your own new apple varieties? Do you have any tips to recommend, or classic pitfalls to watch out for? Do please let me know, via the comments. (Please note, first-time commenters’ contributions are automatically held for moderation, so apologies for any delays in your comment appearing on-site. I’ll try to remember to drop you an email when it’s live.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Because genetics… more on that in another blog post at a later date.
2 I must, sir. I must!
3 Depending on how well the newly-grafted family tree performs over the next few years…
4 This is an affiliate link. If you buy a copy of the book via this link, I’ll earn a very small portion of the cover price, which I promise to put towards expanding my own pomolibrary.

4 comments

  1. Love the idea of top working an established tree, a family tree with your own offspring.
    Good luck.

    1. Cheers Steve. This one was a prime candidate for top-working, as an outgrown MM106 wasn’t ever going to be good for much else. I’m not sure I’d want to partially top-work a tree that couldn’t be taken right back though, I suspect the established branches would sap the vigour from the scions. Bud-grafting seems the much better option for creating a family tree on established stock.

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