I want to grow acorns from a fine oak tree nearby and have tried for years, what do I have to do?
- Acorns: In nature, squirrels gather acorns to eat and some will be buried or cached for later. If the squirrel forgets where it buried all of the acorns, some acorns may grow into trees that could live for up to 300 years. Perhaps the squirrel is instinctively planting some trees for future generations of squirrels. The acorns of white oak were eaten by early peoples as a food staple. Perhaps native peoples also planted acorns in centuries past. During heavy crop years, acorns can be found on the ground from mid-September to early October. During light crop years, the squirrels will consume the crop by mid-September. You can pick some up for growing at home or plant some at the edge of the woods but first break a few open to look inside. They should be bright white throughout. Also, look for the tiny embryo at the pointed end. Sometimes weevils (an insect) eat the insides of the acorns and produce a partly or entirely brown, powdery interior. Acorns that are still on the tree when others are on the ground tend to be weevil-free seeds. Healthy seeds will sink after soaking for 12 hours in water while dead, weeviled seeds tend to float. Do not let acorns dry out for more than a week.
- Growing Oak Trees: Most oaks produce seed only on alternate years. Pick acorns from low branches or from the ground in September when they are starting to change colour from green to reddish-brown and some of them are starting to drop. Locate a lightly shaded part of the garden and plant healthy seeds within a few days of gathering them. Plant them on their side at a depth of twice the thickness of the seed (a guide for virtually all seeds). Make a fully screened, 30 cm high enclosure with half inch mesh chicken wire so that the mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and human feet can't get to them (ensure that the mice and chipmunks can't dig under the enclosure by burying a 2x4 frame that the screened enclosure fits on). After the acorn germinates, it is still very tasty so leave the enclosure over the seedlings for the entire first growing season. Oak seeds germinate in May. They will grow to about 15 cm high the first season. After two to three years the trees will be large enough (30 to 50 cm) to plant in a permanent place. A few seeds can be planted right where you want a tree to grow, just make sure the animals can't get at them. Oak seedlings have a deep root and must be dug with care to keep at least 30 cm length of root intact.
- Planting an Oak: Different oak species are particular as to soil and drainage. Ideally, the oak that you choose occurs naturally in your area. Record the soil and drainage characteristics where you gathered the seeds to help you determine the right conditions to plant the new trees into. You might also take note of the other kinds of plants that grow with the oak.
Natural soil is organized in layers, with the rich humus at the surface. Remove the turf from the planting site and shake the soil from the roots. Excavate a hole by layers, keeping the layers in separate piles. Set the sapling into the hole and replace the soil so that the layers go back in the same order. Soak the soil when you are finished. Mulch the planting site with wood chips or oak leaves (humus is at the surface of the soil). Keep a tree guard around the trunk, for a few years, so that rabbits, groundhogs and mice will be less likely to eat it. Keep in mind that these animals have a role in maintaining meadows as a site for much of the food web. Try not to fill all meadows full of trees.
Remember that not every seed or tree will survive - that is nature's way. By planting more seeds than are necessary, establishment can be assured and still allow you to give some young oaks away. If you wish to learn more about growing native plants from seeds, The Arboretum offers a comprehensive, full day workshop every September. Visit our Workshops page for more information about upcoming workshops, pricing and how to register.