Apples and satsumas: fodder for new plants? Photograph: Kim Stoddart
Right now I’d normally be shopping for seed, compost and whatever else I might need for the growing season ahead. Not this year though – I’m gardening for free – so this’ll be my first without buying in stock. Ever. On the one hand, this is really rather liberating because I know I either have, or can make enough, of everything essential that I need anyway. But at this somewhat dismal time of year with much less activity in the garden, I find my desire to seek out new varieties of fruit and vegetable seed is still firmly in place.
Bartering is always a good option, and I remember my friend Alex saying I could have some of her jerusalem artichokes to plant. By a stroke of luck it turns out she also has some oca going spare, which is another interesting one for me to add to the list. In return I offer her some of the asparagus seeds I’ve saved along with a few of last year’s soft fruit cuttings. So far so good.
As I’m pondering who else I can instigate some “swopsies” with, my attention turns to the fruit bowl on the table in front of me. The apples, lemons and satsumas are packed full of seed. The fruit has been bought to eat, so it won’t cost me anything to have a stab at using an inedible part of it. In fact while I’m at it – I realise that looking at food in this way could open up a potentially rather large world of new growing opportunities for me. It could be just what I’m looking for to help jazz things up this year.
I know, I know – it’s supposed to be really tricky growing fruit trees this way. If you scan the internet you’ll find lots of useful advice about how to use the seeds from shop-bought vegetables, but a myriad of doom-mongering about the perils of planting fruit seed. “Trees won’t produce any fruit. Waffle, waffle, waffle, don’t waste your time trying this …”
Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but surely it’s natural for trees to produce offspring in this way? That’s the point of the seed-bearing fruit in the first place – it’s all about reproduction. Determined to get my head round this issue and to find out which seed it is possible to work with, I am delighted when I speak to Roger, the nursery man from my local gardening centre, Trefhedyn. He’s enthused by my plans and starts telling me how much he loved experimenting in this way as a child and with his kids. It would appear Roger’s just the man to shed some realistic light on the subject for me.
It’s obviously a very complex area so you can understand the confusion, but it turns out there are some fruits worth trying: apricots, nectarines and peaches for starters because these are the most reliable. Apples are trickier: the varieties we know today are all descended from the original wild hedgerow apple and a lot of crossing can easily occur. But if you don’t mind full-size trees (up to 30 ft) and stick with the older varieties of apple which go well together, such as ‘Cox’ and ‘Bramley’, Roger advises there is a much better chance of success. Yes – it’s possible that cross-pollination could occur with other varieties of apple in my orchard, but there’s a much smaller risk, so in my book this is worth a punt.
To do this I’m going to dry out the seeds, place them on some damp kitchen roll and keep them in the back of the fridge for a few months before planting out into pots.
If you have the space, you can also experiment with other more modern varieties of apple just to see what happens, but this could result in a huge tree with no edible fruit. Instead, Roger advises the best bet would be to take a cutting from an existing tree: this way you can guarantee the sapling produced will be like its parent. Autumn is the time to do this, so you can take cuttings before the frosts have really hit. However, as it’s been so mild this winter with barely a frost, I’m going to take a chance with some cuttings from friends’ trees this week to see what happens. I’ve had a lot of success before with inappropriately-timed soft fruit bush cuttings, so I think this could work.
Now I’ve cracked what I’m going to do with fruit trees, I can turn my attention to the less complicated issue of what other bought produce can be used to grow stuff. Where possible, local and organically-grown groceries are be best to work with; the seed is more likely to germinate, and the resulting plant to prosper in its surroundings. It’s also less likely to be a hybrid or genetically modified. Having said that, if you want to try out more exotic varieties (as I do), you’ll need to look further afield. For example the lemons, satsumas and avocados I plan to work with are obviously not British. I expect at best to get a few nice houseplants out of my efforts here, but you never know.
There’s some great advice on the internet on this subject, from trying out seed from heirloom tomatoes, peppers or chillies to having a stab at getting lemongrass, ginger, various seeds, or (if you are feeling really adventurous) a pineapple crown to root and grow. There are also a lot of references to a book by Richard Langer called The After-Dinner Gardening Book which is about the New York author’s experiences of trying to grow from just about everything that goes through his kitchen – it sounds fascinating and I’m keen to read it.
I’m really excited now – it’s clear there’s a huge amount of room for experimentation with what are essentially leftovers. It may be dark and drizzling outside as I write, but the prospect of a bounty of new varieties now opening up to me has brightened up my January no end.
I’m sure many of you have dabbled a bit in the past here – so I’d love to hear your experiences; especially those where something has worked really well.
• Kim Stoddart is a writer and thrifty living enthusiast who contributes to a variety of publications. She is a former businesswoman and social entrepreneur.