Ok, so who doesn’t like free? I sure do, and free plants is even better!
So in that spirit, I put together several different ways you can get free or cheap fruit and nut trees (and bushes).
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Why fruit and nut trees?
Growing your own food is one of the best ways to get great food at a great price. Since we all should be concerned about health and conserving money, perennial food production of fruit and nut trees is a great way to get a yield for many years to come.
Fruit trees live for between 50 to 100+ years, and some nut trees can live far longer. White oak trees can live up to 600 years.
Talk about planting a legacy for future generations!
Some people will voice objections to planting trees.
- It takes years to get your first harvest
- It might die before you get anything
- It’s too hard to take care of
True, it may take a few years to see some production, but it’s an investment. People (with some sense) don’t put money into a retirement account and then immediately demand a return from it.
Sometimes investments don’t work out, but that’s why in money as well as food production, your investments should be diversified. In tree terms, this means planting in different microclimates, using different varieties as well as different types of of food-producing trees and bushes.
Some years you may have an awesome crop of apple but your apricots got frosted and lost. Or maybe you had a huge mast fall of acorns but birds got all your cherries. Diversity is a Good Thing.
Fruit trees are actually pretty easy to take care of. Except for regular watering (which can be automated), they really only need care a few times a year. Some pruning and fertilizing, and you’re all set. They actually take far less work than a vegetable garden.
Fruit/nut tree do cost more if you buy them from a local nursery or big box store. You can plan on spending at least $25 per tree, but it will probably be more. But this post is all about ways to get that cost down to free or cheap.
So here we go, 5 ways to get free (or cheap) fruit & nut trees!
Free trees Tip #1: Woody propagation AKA grafting & cloning
Grafting trees is an art/skill and science that goes far back in history many thousands of years. It was a common widespread practice for grape production by 500 BC. I cannot possible cover grafting in detail here, but suffice it to say that grafting is a way of making one tree grow on another tree. It’s used by nearly all (if not all) commercial nurseries to propagate new trees.
Usually, for fruit trees, this is used to make a rootstock tree section (for vigor, disease resistance or height control) connect with a scion tree section. The scion is what makes the fruit. It’s why all Granny Smith or Spitzenburg or Cox Orange Pippin apples taste and look the same. It is literally a clone of the mother tree.
Graft, the good kind
There are many graft unions like whip and tongue, V-graft, chip/bark graft, omega graft, etc., but basically you line up the cambium layers (growing part of the tree). The size of the pieces vary with graft union type, for example whip-and-tongue graft is usually done with pencil-sized pieces for easier manipulation.
For an excellent book on the subject of woody propagation, see The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation by Michael A. Dirr. It covers seeds, cuttings, and grafting with specific recommendations for each species.
It’s not hard, but expect to spend a little time learning the different grafting techniques. But you don’t have to learn them all! Just learn the ones that you’re planning to do, and spend the time you save reading articles on The Permaculture Life! 😉
If you want to make it a little easier, instead of using a knife there are grafting tools available. This grafting tool cuts both Omega or V-graft points at the same time on the rootstock and scion, which makes it more likely your graft will match up and connect properly.
For an entertaining look at grafting see the oft-hilarious David The Good on YouTube. And he even tells you how to compost your enemies…
Free trees Tip #2: Seeds
Fruit and nut seeds often require a time of stratification, or hot/cold period to break dormancy and allow it to sprout. Nature does this over winter, and seeds experience a long period of damp cold, followed by warming up in the spring.
We can simulate this by putting seeds in damp peat moss in the refrigerator for a few months, with the exact time varying by species. They may start to sprout near the end of that time, but some seeds may require a second cycle of cold.
You could be even more hands-off, by planting the seeds in their permanent spot in the fall. They are more susceptible to animals and weather this way, but it is easier. I suggest planting more than you think you want, as you will have losses, and any extras you can pluck out or transplant elsewhere.
Seeds may also require scarification, depending on species. This means either nicking the seed coat just a little with a knife, rubbing them with sandpaper, or soaking in very hot water. What you’re trying to do is break through the hard outer seed coat to let the seed know it’s time to grow.
Planting tree seeds
When they do sprout, pot the seeds up gently without breaking the roots, into good potting soil, and let them have filtered light in a sheltered spot. If you have a shade house or greenhouse that’s not too hot, they should be happy in there.
Personally, I don’t have room to grow anything else in my greenhouse or I’d have some tree seeds growing right now!
You want them to not dry out and not get too hot or cold. These are babies, remember? If desired, you can plant directly in the ground with the same precautions.
Sidenote: Fruit & nut trees grown directly from seed can grow better and be hardier & more drought resistant. Some species also have a taproot that’s broken when transplanted. This is especially true of large trees like oaks, but as long as the baby tree is protected from harsh sun and wind, it will benefit from direct planting.
After a full season you may be able to (again depending on species, ad nauseum) plant them in their permanent location. If they’re not grown up enough yet, re-pot to a bigger size and leave them for another year before planting.
You should expect to get fruit from 3 to 10 years after starting from seed. Yes, 10 years is a long time, but if you started 10 years ago you could be getting fruit now. If you keep planting trees year after year, your harvest will keep getting bigger and bigger year after year.
Not true to type?
One objection with planting trees from seed is that some (apples especially, sometimes pears) do not grow true to type from seed. This means the plant that grows from seeds doesn’t make fruit like the parent. But this is not necessarily a bad thing!
Some trees do grow true from seed like apricots/peaches/nectarines/almond (all related, BTW), most citrus, pawpaw, black locust (darling of permaculture trees), elder, sea buckthorn/seaberry, hawthorn, and many others.
And there actually is a apple tree varietal called Antonovka from Russia originally, that is true-to-type and cold hardy. It’s widely used as a hardy rootstock for apple trees. And unlike most rootstock apple trees, it makes good apples too!
Just so you know, growing from seed is how all new fruit tree varietals are discovered. Trees are allowed (or forced) to cross-pollinate with other trees pollen. The genetic lottery determines the characteristics of the new tree, and it can be a huge variety. Luther Burbank (a California city is named after him) produced many new varieties of many different types of trees.
In the USA during expansion across the continent, people planted massive numbers of apple trees, and picked the good ones for eating, and used the not so great ones for cider. John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed also propagated apples, but not like the children’s stories say. He started more nurseries and was more into grafting than seeding.
By the way, cider apples usually don’t taste very good, because of the sugar, acidity, and tannin requirements of cider apples. For apple seeds, I’ve heard somewhere around 20% will be very good, 20% “spitters” AKA cider apples, and the rest decent. Not bad odds, really. You won’t find better in Las Vegas!
Drink your apples!
Before Prohibition in the USA, hard cider (called scrumpy in England) was a very popular drink, and many people grew home apple orchards. Funny enough, it was more common to drink your apples than eat them!
During Prohibition, people cut down many orchards (so sad!) and ciders makers turned to non-alcoholic drinks. But cider is gaining in popularity again. So drink some scrumpy, and be happy about your not-true-to-type apple seeds!
The fact is, even trees producing fruit not good for eating are top-grafted with scionwood from trees you do like. So there’s no loss from rolling the genetic dice on tree seeds!
Free trees Tip #3: Govt forestry programs
In most states there is a forestry program that sells inexpensive seedling trees (usually native) to the public. The ones I’ve seen are from $0.90 to $2 per tree, depending on size and species. I have purchased some from both the Idaho and Colorado state nursery programs. The Bur/Gambel oaks from Idaho impressed me, as they had very good root systems with good top growth. I’m still trying to improve my soil enough to get some pawpaw trees from Kansas.
If you sign up for an Arbor Day Foundation membership you get 10 “free” trees with your $10 membership. Not too shabby!
Also, around Earth Day and Arbor Day, there are free tree giveaways, just search around.
If you have land, you can also be part of a conservation program and get free trees! Check out the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs page. Strangely, it’s a part of the USDA but they’re actually really helpful. Best step is to call your local office and set up a meeting.
Free trees Tip #4: Seed swaps & scionwood
Local seed swaps are a great way to get gardening tips, great seeds, and meet your neighbors. Just search in your favorite web browser “<my town or area> seed swap“, and you should find something during the growing season. You could also try Facebook for a local gardening club or community events calendar.
There are also organizations like California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc, and there’s also the Arizona Rare Fruit Growers group. They have really helpful advice and are sure to help out new members with seeds and cuttings.
Free trees Tip #5: Friends & neighbors
You know, those people you raised you? Or whom you were raised with, or whom you raised?
Or those people you live next door to whose name you don’t know?
Yeah, those people!
In older suburbs, many backyards have a fruit tree or two. If you ask nicely, most people will let you have some scionwood for free. After all, the tree probably needs to be pruned anyway. Sometimes you can get fruit just for cleaning up their yard. It solves a problem for them, and you get free fruit.
You know of course, that’s where they keep the seeds! They grow on trees!
It would be nice to supply them with some homemade preserves or a pie in thanks. This also works with friends I hear!
Also think about seasoned family with unused fruit trees, like Grandma Nelly’s huge old apple tree. My great-aunt had a giant pecan tree planted by her husband back in the ’70s, and it drops lots of pecans. I love pecan pie. Yummy!
If you’re not shy, you could also try this tactic. Many yards have unused or cared for fruit trees in their yards. The previous owners may have planted it, and it came with the house. The new owners don’t want fruit all over the ground, but they also don’t want to mess with it. Again, you can solve this problem for them.
Permaculture is really good at problem-solving!
Often times you get fruit just for the asking, because people don’t want to bother. It’s a good idea to offer them a portion of what you harvest in payment. If they decline, try the next house with a fruit tree. There’s many more just waiting for you to ask.
OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about fruit trees, propagation, or planting? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.
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Jed & The Crew at TPL