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Molly Hackett

Molly Hackett

Q: There were some seeds sprouting inside Gala and Pink Lady apples I bought at the store. I put eight seeds in containers of potting soil, and all started to grow. Now four seedlings have died before they were an inch tall. What am I doing wrong that kills the seeds? I have kept the soil damp and used a slow-release fertilizer.

A: Since your description of your care sounds perfect, you should blame the seeds, not yourself. Apple trees are grown from seed only when a government experiment station is trying to develop a new variety from a deliberate cross-pollination. They are very difficult to grow from seed.

All commercial varieties of apples are complicated hybrids. That means that their seeds will grow a different kind of apple tree, if they grow anything at all. A great many apple seeds die. In addition to the mixed inheritance of an apple tree, all its apples are the result of cross-pollination, usually by bees.

Apples from a seedling tree often taste terrible. The pollinator trees tend to be crabapples, so the fruit from those crosses is small and sour. In addition, an apple tree which was grown from a seed may even produce a variety of apples. Although it sounds strange, wild apple trees do just that.

Botanists all agree that the Tien Shan—the mountains where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China come together—are where all the world’s apples originated. There are still wild apple trees on the mountain slopes, and the apples on any one tree may range from huge to small, from delicious to tough.

Sometimes a new apple variety appears by accident, a mutation in a tree which is being tested. Occasionally it is a lucky find. For instance, Honeycrisp, a fairly new and popular apple, was a deliberate cross between two known trees. Except that it was not. Genetic testing proved that the seedling parents were two different trees in the experimental orchard.

All of this is to say that you may be able to grow your remaining seeds to become trees. For this first winter, keep them cool but above freezing. Move them to outdoor pots next spring, and plant them in the ground when their root systems are large enough to survive.

Expect a seedling tree to be at least seven years old before it makes its first apple. That will be the occasion for a surprise party. Whatever the apple turns out to be, it will be neither Gala nor Pink Lady.

Q: Is it better to water my house plants in the morning or the evening?

A: It makes no difference at all to the plants. Nor, in this dry climate, does it matter to a garden plant, either. Since most indoor and outdoor gardeners live where the humidity is high, most watering instructions are written for them. One of the enemies of plants in humid climates is fungal disease. Fungi are present wherever plants grow, and they like to grow where it is cool and damp. Those are not conditions to be found in Montana houses or gardens. Plant leaves watered late in the day will dry out overnight. They will not remain damp bedding grounds for malevolent fungi which happen by.

The only time when morning watering is preferable is for trays of seedlings in early spring, when they are cool and damp. Encouraging their soil surfaces to dry out every evening will help to keep root rot fungi at bay.

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Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email mhackett@centric.net. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.

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