Drive down most rural roads and you will see naturalized fruit and nut trees along the roadsides and fence lines. These are scattered here and there by the toss of a core or stone from a passing car or spread by bird, possum or rodent. Left to develop, these natural plantings can evolve into wilding hedgerows or thickets, providing shelter, erosion control and food. Traditional hedgerows would, typically, have regenerated themselves with this same process, fallen or bird-spread seed would have sprouted to fill the gaps left by dead or damaged trees and shrubs. This creates a continually changing and varied landscape, full of plants which are naturally adapted and suited to their local environment. Your location and what grows well there will dictate which edible plants establish in these sites, for us, in the upper Manawatu it is Apples, Plums, Hawthorns, Elders, Blackberry and Walnuts which thrive in these wilding areas (though walnuts due to their production of juglone, which is toxic to some plants, tend to be isolated specimens). While some of these plants are now considered pest species there is still value in their existence. Hawthorns are a valuable medicinal plant with edible young leaves and fruit, and are also a spring nectar source. Elders are sort after for their edible flowers and the ripe berries which are often made into cordials and wine. While harvesting wild blackberries is a common summer past time for many New Zealanders. It is these simple acts of seed dispersal which have resulted in a diverse collection of food, ripe for the taking, be it for human foragers or animal.
In the home garden many of the fruit and nut trees are grafted, this allows the purchaser to be sure of what the tree produces and how it grows. But these trees also have a significant cost if you are looking at planting an edible, fodder/forage hedgerow or food forest and may not be suited to a mixed planting. They have been bred for an orchard or stand-alone type planting not for robustness to compete with other vigorous plants, though some vigorous heritage varieties may do well. It is in these situations where growing your own or purchasing cheaper seedling trees can not only allow for a larger planting at a low-cost but also assist in creating a truly diverse landscape.
Many fruiting and nut plants can be grown from seed and produce true to type (apricots, peaches etc) while other others result in variations of the parent plant. Apples and Pears are less likely to produce plants similar to the parent but that does not mean the trees are without use. Planted in a hedgerow or similar they can provide fruit and edible leaves for the livestock, a diversion for the birds away from your main orchard, fruit for cider or cider vinegar or pollen for the bees. Sometimes the fruit can be nicer than the parent, many of the common and heritage fruit trees today are the result of a chance seedling, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Gravenstein and Braeburn are good examples of this. Others have been bred through controlled cross-pollination, but the result is the same, many seedlings with only a handful selected to develop further. So many trees would be discarded, but that does not mean they didn’t produce, it simply means they didn’t have the characteristics that particular grower was looking for mass production. Seedling nut trees also can produce variable results not necessarily true to the parent plant. But if you have grown a seedling which is vigorous and healthy in your soil and climate then you have the option of grafting on to it. Scion wood can be easily sourced from trees you know produce the fruit or nut you want or purchased online.
We have many wild sown apple trees along the roads in our area, one of which produces large ‘Granny smith’ like apples which are brilliant for cooking, another usually carries masses of ‘Gala’ like apples. Both of these trees grow in difficult areas and yet thrive, while in the home orchard we can have no end of problems with the grafted fruit trees. Our favourite peach is from a tree growing in semi-shade on the bank of a creek, it was not a big tree but had large tasty white flesh peaches each year. Someone threw one of these peach stones into the garden near our front gate at the time. A couple of years later a small peach tree had grown, we only lived there for four years and yet when we left this little peach tree was bigger than the grafted plums we had planted near-by and had been covered in fruit that summer. We still have the off-spring of the original tree and though our climate now is not the best for peaches the trees have grown well in their new home.
While it is said that grafted trees produce fruit much faster than seedling, this is not always the case and you must remember that these grafted trees are already several years old. The act of grafting and often bare-rooting the plant for sale can set it back and removal of fruit is often encouraged to allow it to develop good root structure. While a seedling tree, allowed to grow en-situ or planted young, can put on rapid growth and when it reaches fruit production stage it is well able to handle the load as its roots are fully established.
So, in the small garden or orchard, grafted apple and pear trees allow you certainty about your trees, but seedling stone fruit are worth considering. In the larger garden, orchard or hedgerow situation you have the space to really experiment and develop a truly unique collection of fruit and nut trees which, if locally sourced, are well adapted to your area and climate.