Grow Native Trees and Shrubs from Seed

Are you the gardening equivalent of a fast food junkie when it comes to growing seeds, or are you prepared to wait for your rewards, and enjoy the pleasures of growing your own shrubs and trees from seed?  If you suspect you are the former, stop reading now!  Growing our native wild trees and shrubs by gathering your own seeds from the countryside is immensely rewarding but does demand patience and time.  If a quick screen or specimen tree to attract wildlife is your requirement, it is far better to find a local source of bare-rooted stock that, once planted, will make an impact within a year.  Even if this is the way you wish to go, it may still be worth gathering some fruits and seeds this month to germinate and grow on – these can be used to fill in any gaps that occur in the early years of your hedge or copse.

On the other hand, if you have all the time in the world and the patience of a saint, collecting a few acorns and growing these stalwart natives from seed to fledgling tree is, with the possible exception of growing vegetables, one of the most satisfying tasks a gardener can undertake.   One great advantage of collecting a few seeds from your own local stock is that the wildlife in your area, especially insects and other invertebrates, will be adapted specifically to them. 

Collecting and storing tree and shrub seeds  How many of us on an autumn walk have popped the odd hazelnut or acorn into a coat pocket, simply for the comforting feel of its smooth surface between finger and thumb?  In fact in times past, hazelnuts in particular were carried in a pocket as a good luck charm, to protect the carrier from ill health.  These hardy seeds embodied all things optimistic - they were symbols of the renewal of life in the spring ahead.  Collecting seeds of common species from the wild is legal, but if you plan to collect seeds from private land you will need permission from the landowner. Be frugal with your collecting as these fruits all provide food for wildlife.  If you plan to add an oak tree to your garden, take only five or six acorns as there is a good chance that every one will germinate.  A handful of hips or haws for a new hedgerow will provide twenty or thirty seedling hawthorns or wild roses. Choose trees and shrubs that appear to be growing well and are in good health, collect no more than you need directly into strong paper bags and label them immediately.  It is surprisingly easy to forget which species is in each bag!

Pre-treatment of your seeds  The treatment of the seeds once you get them home is crucial.  Those that are fleshy, such as wild cherry, hawthorn or rose hip will need the fleshy parts removed.  This is something that happens naturally at this time, as the outer parts are eaten and digested by birds.  Indeed this process sometimes hastens germination, as the digestive acids in the bird’s stomach act upon the hard seed coat and begin to gently break it down.  If you have collected just a few seeds, this flesh removal is something that can be done rather messily by hand.

After this, virtually all species will require a period of cold weather before germination will occur.  This means sowing the seeds soon after collection and leaving them outside to allow the winter conditions to work on them and bring about germination in the spring.  However, each of our wild trees and shrubs needs slightly different conditions or treatments to bring about germination, and this is where a little knowledge and a lot of patience and perseverance come in. 

Some species require the seeds to be 'scarified' at the pre-sowing stage.  This involves rubbing hard seeds between pieces of sandpaper to gently break the seed coat, allowing water to enter and start the germination process.  In the wild this will happen naturally – but will take a very long time!  The sandpaper treatment hastens the process considerably.  Stratification is also a process used.  This simply means subjecting the seeds to cold and sometimes also warm conditions in order to break dormancy.  However this will occur naturally if you sow in the winter months.  Check the requirements of your particular species if you wish germination to take place as soon as possible, otherwise, sow and bide your time.  Put your prepared seeds into trays or pots of free draining peat-free compost.  Cover large seeds well, but smaller seeds such as silver birch need only be covered very lightly.  Leave the trays outside, ensure that they are kept moist and sit back and wait.

After care  Once germination has occurred, your small shrubs and trees will need potting on and tending well for at least one growing season.  They can then be planted out in the following autumn with the usual care given to trees and shrubs, including adequate watering throughout their first year of growth.

Reaping the rewards  The rewards of growing your own trees and shrubs from seed are many.  A young oak from an acorn from a favourite tree can evoke memories of winter walks or summer picnics.  A new hedgerow grown entirely from collected seeds could have pride of place in the garden.  Taking time to grow these plants may well slow the pace of life a little, but in a hectic world, there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had from growing your own.

5 top native shrubs

Fruits of hawthorn, blackthorn, wild rose and guelder rose will require removal of the fleshy parts and should be sown in autumn.  Germination may occur the next or following spring.  Hazelnuts should be sown in their shells in the autumn, but protected from squirrels if possible. 

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)  A fantastic hedging shrub or small tree, excellent for wildlife especially birds.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)  Otherwise known as sloe or quickthorn  This is a good nesting shrub, and its early white blossom brightens the spring garden.

Dog Rose (Rosa canina)  A favourite climber that can be planted beneath a hedge and allowed to weave its way through.  Pink, insect-attracting flowers in spring followed by bright red hips in the autumn. 

Hazel (Corylus avellana)  Spring time catkins followed by hazelnuts in the autumn.  A good shrub for encouraging small mammals and several species of moth.

Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)  Not a rose but a species of Viburnum, the guelder rose is happiest on a heavy or damp soil.  The flat plates of beautiful white flowers are followed by red berries which blackbirds relish.

5 top native trees

The seeds of beech, oak and silver birch can be sown immediately after collection.  Crab apples should be cut open and the pips extracted. Remove the flesh of cherries before sowing.

English Oak (Quercus robur) Plant this species for your children and grandchildren!  English oak will make a sizeable tree in 10 years, attracting a huge number of native insect species.

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)  The tiny seeds of silver birch are easy to germinate.  They form graceful and attractive trees quickly on light soils.

Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)  A tree well worth growing for the fruits alone.  Birds and many insects are attracted to this tree.

Bird Cherry (Prunus padus)  Ornamental cherries have beautiful spring flowers and this native is no exception.  The tassels of white flowers are followed by small cherries enjoyed by many birds.

Beech (Fagus sylvatica) Beech seeds or ‘mast’ are produced in great abundance about every seven years (mast years) and populations of some small birds and mammals are very dependant upon them as food.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017