While he was helping to dig out the well-rotted mixture in one of my compost bins, my grandson spotted dozens of acorns on the ground. My evergreen oak trees, Quercus ilex, that grow wild here in my hillside garden had shed their fruit weeks earlier. Matthew soon filled his pockets to take acorns home to Edinburgh and I suggested that he plant a few in plastic pots filled with the new compost for growing as a windbreak in my garden.
By the following spring, Matthew’s tiny hand-high oak trees were ready to transplant to a nursery bed and are now sturdy saplings. Even young trees are both attractive and useful: they help to counteract global warming by absorbing carbon, their root systems retain moisture and hold the ground in place and thereby reduce flooding and soil erosion.
Yet, long before an ominous future for the planet threatened us, the Woodland Trust, in partnership with Devon County Council, were keen to encourage more trees in the landscape. Anyone living in the county was entitled to request a bundle of free saplings of native trees. We planted ours in the paddock where, I’m told, they are still thriving.
In my Saint Montan garden, many of the trees produce plenty of self-sown saplings. Under my ancient almond tree, leafy 30 centimetre high seedlings grow from almonds that have fallen during the winter months. Each spring I pot up a few to transplant into bare patches of ground. I give surplus saplings to friends – for even a small paved patio or balcony often has room for a well-pruned tree grown in a container or large strong pot.
I particularly like to grow fruit trees for free. Pips from citrus fruit grow into attractive, glossy-leaved specimens in a sunny porch. And even grape pips from a variety you enjoy eating when pressed into a pot of sieved earth and left in a sheltered corner will usually yield a healthy vine for transplanting later. Vines are valued in gardens of the south of France not only for their fruit but as climbers to provide summer shade when trained over a pergola or tonnelle near the house.
Fig trees are easy to grow from a fresh fruit. I find fig saplings grow unnoticed after fruits from a next door tree drop into pots of summer flowers on my terrace and, hey presto, in the spring the bright green leaves show that I have acquired another free fig tree from my neighbour, M Reynaud.
It’s particular pleasing to remember that an apricot tree bearing large, juicy fruit grew from the kernel of a stone tossed into a border following an alfresco lunch one summer afternoon. For it’s an odd fact that trees I acquired for free give me almost more pleasure than those I’ve bought at a local plant nursery and are often hardier and healthier.
Children are usually intrigued by the magic of growing plants from seeds and pips. My children grew up with Keith Mossman’s classic work, The Pip Book – copies are still available on-line – and as I write a handsome, evergreen tree grown from an avocado stone flourishes in the window.
But children rarely expect to make horticultural history when they plant apple pips in the garden. Yet in 1890 young Mary Anne Brailsford managed this in 1809 in Southwell, in Nottinghamshire. The mature tree that grew from one of her apple pips bore large fruit with a smooth pale-green skin later named Bramley Seedling, to become the most popular cooking apple in Britain. When the sharp-tasting, highly acid apples are cooked, the fruit collapses into a puree popular for making traditional dishes such as apple pies and crumbles, and an excellent apple sauce for roast pork.