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Past Articles Library | Trees | How to Grow and Care for Oak Trees

When I was a little girl, my great-grandfather and I used to sit under this huge oak tree.  While we sat and enjoyed the day, he would tell me stories.  Some of these had to do with how he met my great-grandmother while others dealt with his childhood and traveling across the prairie.  As the stories were spun, my great-grandmother would bring out one of her homemade treats and cold milk.  All three of us would simple enjoy the snack under that big, old oak tree.

But all good things do not last and both my great-grandparents passed away.  When my grandmother asked me what memento I would like to have, I stated a few acorns.  Yes, she was just as surprised as you are but I just wanted a few acorns to grow my own oak tree for my family.  While I could have just gone to the nursery and picked up one, this oak tree was special and I wanted to carry on the tradition of storytelling under the family oak tree.  

To begin this process, one needs to harvest acorns.  While this may sound simple, keep in mind that what you pick is what you are going to get.  What do I mean by this?  Well, if you pick quality acorns then you will get quality trees and vice versa.  What makes a good acorn?  Do not worry about this right now, it will be described after you harvested your nuts and do not skimp on this process.  Pick many buckets of nuts and once you feel you have enough, pick more.  Over picking will give you the resources by which you can be very selective on your seeds. 

As you pick your acorns, make sure to place the buckets in a shady location.  This will keep the acorns from overheating and becoming nonviable.  If it is hot, consider spraying them off.

Once you have your acorns picked, it is time to sort them out.  The first thing to do is to remove all the acorns that still have their caps on.  Next, remove any acorns that are damaged, moldy and/or have small holes.  The later is an indication that the acorn has a pest problem.    Once that is done, take your finger and push down on the cap scar with your finger.  If it feels firm and the cap scar is bright, this acorn is a keeper.  Anything else should be thrown out for the squirrels. 

Now drop your selected acorns into a bucket of water.  Skim off those acorns that float.  A floating acorn is an indication that the nut is hollow, which would not grow.  This soaking also hydrates nuts that may have dried out during the picking and selecting process. 

While you can grow both red and white oaks from acorns, there is a difference in their environmental requirements.  Both oaks go through a dormant period.  This is Mother Nature’s way of waiting until conditions are just right for germination.  For white oaks, that can happen any time and this can be seen if you look at the acorns produced by white oaks.  Some in the fall will actually have roots coming out the bottom of the seed compared to red oaks that never produce roots in the fall.  Why is that you may ask?  The reason is that red oaks require stratification, which is a process that prepares the seed coat for germination.  While there are many different types of stratification, in the case of the red oak the only thing required is cold weather.  

But what can you do if you are not ready to plant your acorns?  Well, the answer is simple and that is you can store them but before doing that you will need to know what kind of oak you are dealing with.  The easiest way to tell a white oak from a red one is through the leaves.  If the margins of the leaves’ ends in a point, you have a red oak.  If the leaves’ margin is curved then you have a white oak.  Once you have decided which kind of oak you have, the next step is to learn how to store your “seed.”

White oak acorns can geminate anytime and do not require any stratification.  In doing so, what you will need to do is to place your white oak acorns in moist sand and place in the refrigerator.  One word of caution though, white oak acorns will only remain viable for three to four months in this environment.  In doing so, they will need to be planted in that time frame.

Red oaks, on the other hand, will need to be stratified.  This is done by placing the red oak acorns in a plastic bag.  Once in the bag, mist slightly with water and then place in a refrigerator that is kept slightly below 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  Make sure the bag(s) are not sealed.  This will allow for air circulation and reduce the chances of rot.  Every two to three weeks, remove the bags and check the moisture and condition of acorns.  If there is not enough or too much moisture, the acorn will become unviable.  You can store your red oak acorns for four to eight weeks before planting all the way up to two and half years. 

When you are ready to plant, prepare a seedbed by first tilling it up and mixing in a good amount of compost and/or manure.  Once that is done, you will need to mark the area off in square foot increments.  Next, take four to seven acorns and plant them in one square foot at a depth of one inch.  While this is a general rule, if you want to be exact plant your acorns the depth of three times the width of the “seed.”  This may sound more trouble than it is worth but it is very valuable to know especially in years when acorns are unusually large.

After all the acorns have been planted, water in completely and wait.  In two to three weeks, you will begin to see a growth of your acorns, which will be white oaks if planted in the fall and both white and red if planted in the spring.  Continue to check soil moisture and water accordingly.

As the acorns germinate, remove the weak seedlings to make room for the stronger plants. 

Now that you have your seedlings, what is next?  With acorns, you cannot transplant right away instead you need to wait for several frosts.  Why is this?  Well, believe it or not the cold exposure creates stronger trees or in other words naturally hardens off the seedlings.  Once these seedlings have several frosts under their bark, they are ready to transplant.

Prior to digging up your seedling though, you will first need to prepare the hole.  This is done by digging a hole that is two to three times the size of the root mass.  If you have a large amount of seedlings and only a small space to plant, you may consider planting three seedlings together.  When using this later approach, you will have to go in at a later date and weed out the week seedlings so that only one plant is in each hole. 

After the hole has been dug, add a good amount of organic matter to the hole and plant as usual.  When doing this step, make sure not to plant any deeper than the root ball was in originally.  Once that is done, water in and add a three to four inch layer of mulch.

Next, slide a seedling sleeve over each seedling.  If you do not have these sleeves, place a fence around your seedlings to protect them from being grazed on by animals.

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