Everything You Need to Know About Growing Trees From Seeds (Advice From A 12-Year-Old Expert)

By Bethany Ivie

January 9, 2019

Everything You Need to Know About Growing Trees From Seeds (Advice From A 12-Year-Old Expert)

If you need to know what to do to nurture a tree from seed to sapling, you’d do well to talk to 12-year-old Frederick Joseph on the subject. He’ll tell you what you need to know.

Frederick is a student at Jitegemee Primary School in Igunga, Tanzania, a town plagued by drought and vulnerable to climate change. Thanks to his school’s partnership with Heifer, he and his fellow students are learning something new: how to care for the environment. Thanks to these new classes, Frederick has become an expert in planting and nurturing trees in Igunga’s parched soil. I sat down with him for a tutoring session to learn his secrets and, with his permission, will now pass them on to you. 

Here's what you'll need: 

  • Tree seeds of your choice (Frederick suggests acacia and moringa for especially dry, hot climates like Igunga)
  • A Bucket
  • Water
  • Fertilizer
  • Soil
  • A Shovel
  • Mulch 
  • Used Plastic Water Bottles (or comparably-sized containers)
  • Scissors or a razor blade
This is the gardening setup at Jitegemee Primary School. Buckets for germinating seeds along with hundreds of seedlings that are basking in the Tanzanian sun.

Germinate The Seeds

Germination, the process where the seeds sprout and begin to grow, It's the first step in your trees' journey to adulthood.

  • Fill the bucket with water.
  • Soak the seeds until they begin to "protrude" or sprout. Your soaking times will vary according to the type of tree you're trying to grow, but it usually takes anywhere between 6 and 24 hours. 

: Do some research on the specific tree you're growing. Some species have to germinate for days or weeks before they are ready to plant.


Mr. Moyo and Frederick examine seedlings to make sure they are growing well. Irene looks on with some trepidation.

Prepare Individual Containers for the Seedlings and Make Potting Mix

While you wait for the seeds to sprout, prepare the containers and potting soil that you'll use to cultivate your individual seedlings (this is where your plastic bottles will come in handy).

  • Cut the tops off of the bottles so that you are left with a plastic jar. Leave the "feet" of the bottles intact to that the containers can easily stand upright. 
  • Make your potting mix by combining soil and fertilizer. Frederick's fertilizer of choice is manure from local livestock, but, if you can't find fresh cow manure, storebought fertilizer is...fine. 
  • Fill each bottle with potting soil, leaving 1-2 inches of space at the top. 

Freshly planted and mulched seedlings.

Plant the Sprouting Seeds in the Containers

Now, it's time to "re-pot" your germinating seeds into your prepared containers. 

  • Using your finger, make a hole in the center of your potting mix. 
  • Drop 1-2 sprouting seeds in the hole and cover with potting mix. 
  • Lightly water the seedling so that the soil is damp.
  • Repeat until all of your seeds are planted in containers.
  • Cover the tops of the containers with approx. 1 inch of mulch

Note: Your seeds should be visibly sprouting before you plant them. If they're not sprouting, they haven't germinated long enough. 

Frederick (M), his classmate Irene (R), and their environmental studies teacher Mr. Moyo (L) examine seedlings in the school's baby tree incubator.

Incubate Your Seedlings

At Jitegemee Primary School, seedlings are grown in a special nursery that Frederick and the other students call the "baby tree incubator." It is an open-roofed stone shed that provides seedlings with unlimited sunlight, shelter from winds, and the benefits of Igunga's year-round warm climate.  

If you live in colder areas or are cultivating your seeds in winter, consider making your baby tree incubator a room in your house that is consistently warm and gets lots of natural light. 

  • Place your potted seedlings in your nursery where they can access the sun. 
  • Water daily. 
  • Wait.
  • Wait some more. 

Note: Frederick couldn't remember exactly how long he usually left his seedlings in the baby tree incubator before they were ready to plant. He said that a good rule of thumb was to "water them daily until they are big," adding mulch as needed. Different trees grow at different speeds so don't rush your seedlings! Plan to keep your nursery running for at least a month. 
Frederick shows off a seedling that is almost ready to plant.

Plant Your Seedlings

Once your seedlings have reached a height of 3-4 inches (and your weather is nice and warm), it's time to take them outside to meet the world! 

  • Using a shovel or a hoe, make a hole in the ground where you want your tree to stand.
  • Using scissors or a razor blade, cut the plastic bottle away from the sapling carefully so that you do not damage the roots. 
  • Peel away the plastic bottle and remove the sapling.
  • Recycle the discarded plastic.
  • Place the roots of your sapling in the hole and cover with soil so that the sapling can stand on its own.
  • Add mulch - Frederick uses grasses, maize bran or rice bran.

Note: It's important that the hole isn't too deep or too shallow - the uppermost roots of your sapling should be at the surface so that they are just covered with dirt.  

Frederick watering one of the young trees on campus with water he brought from home. Each day, every student at Jitegemee Primary School brings 5- Liters of water from home so that the trees can thrive.

Water Daily

The last step? Water your plant every day as it grows and, soon, you'll be sitting under the shade of your very own tree! 

If it rains, of course, your tree doesn't need you to hydrate it. But, if you live in a dry climate like Igunga daily watering is essential. Don't be daunted by the thought of unwinding your garden hose in the heat of summer. 

Jitegemee Primary has no running water so, to keep the campus trees alive and thriving, each student carries brings a 5-L jug of water from home. Every day. 

When I asked Frederick why he worked so hard to cultivate trees in Igunga's arid landscape he replied, "I’m happy knowing the trees that are planted bring us fresh air and that is Oxygen."