There are great commercial sources for purchasing established oak trees. However, growing trees from acorns you collect is inexpensive and enhances the land-management experience. Admittedly, it takes an extra year to start your own trees. However, locally sourced seed comes from trees that are already adapted to the area’s weather, rainfall, soil conditions and pest and disease outbreaks.
Oaks are abundant with around 400 species of trees and shrubs found in the northern hemisphere. Oaks belong to the beech tree family within two categories: white oak and red oak. Leaves of trees in the white oak group have rounded lobes and no spines at the lobe tips. Members of the red oak group exhibit more angular lobes generally, and small points or spines at the tips. Use a tree identification field guide (“Trees of North America, A Guide to Field Identification”) or a digital tree identification app such as Leaf Snap. Scout in late summer taking note of trees heavily laden with acorns such as white oaks like this buck is browsing on.
Ripening dates can vary from year to year, state to state and species type by as much as a month or more. Generally, collection is done from August to December with prime time from late September through early November. What’s the best time in your area? When they start falling. Typically, archery season coincides with the acorn drop. Keep a few Ziploc bags and a marker pen in your pack for times when the opportunity presents to collect acorns from your hunting area. Choose plump, dark acorns for planting that are free of holes and splits. The caps should separate easily. If you’re in hunting camp, bag and store them in a cooler until they can be processed.
Collecting acorns is a fun, healthy and educational family outdoor activity. Children of all ages naturally enjoy hunting for acorns. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to teach about conservation of renewable resources, the tree’s life cycle, and the importance of oak trees to deer and deer hunters. Place in containers labeled according the tree type. Keep them in the shade as you collect them. Heat and drying will cause the acorns to quickly lose their ability to germinate.
Place the acorns in a bowl or bucket of water. Kids love this step so put them in charge. Discard the floaters. They won’t germinate. The sinkers are the ones to keep. Place the acorns in a refrigerator as soon as possible.
Polyethylene plastic bags of 4- to 10-mil thickness are recommended for storing refrigerated acorns. They are permeable to oxygen and carbon dioxide, but impermeable to moisture. Another alternative is Ziploc bags with pinholes punched for ventilation. Use dampened sawdust, peat mix or paper towel in each bag. Label bags with the species name and parent tree location.
Refrigerate the loosely closed bag(s) at 40℉. Keep the acorns barely damp throughout the winter. Red-oak-group acorns require two seasons to mature on the tree. To germinate, they require about 1000 hours of cold or about 42 days. This process is called stratification, or exposing seed to cold temperatures to prime it for sprouting. Red oak acorns can be planted anytime after stratification. White oak acorns mature in one growing season. Plant them anytime after collection or refrigerate for later planting. White oak acorns can sprout between 36 and 39℉.
Propagate seedlings in pots with drainage holes that are a minimum of 1 foot deep to allow roots to develop. Use a mix of potting soil and soil from your yard or garden. Plant several acorns on their side in each pot at least twice the depth of the acorn. Keep the soil moist .Don’t over water or it will cause rot.
After seedlings emerge, remove inferior seedlings leaving the largest one in each pot. Add a slow-release fertilizer or organic fertilizer at half the rate every six weeks. Indoor pots may be placed outdoors in early spring. Do not allow the pots to freeze. Locate in a partially shaded location for a month or so to acclimate them to a sunny location for maximum growth. Monitor water requirements.
Generally, transplant potted seedlings any time after the first leaves open and become firm and/or prior to extensive root development, usually after one growing season. Don’t allow an oak seedling’s taproot to grow out of the container bottom into the soil below or breakage will occur.
Another option when planting a large number of acorns is to select an outside seedbed that is well-drained and receives full sun. Nature will provide the right conditions most of the time. Water during dry spells. Young seedlings are tasty to deer, rabbits, moles, voles and other mammals. Choose areas such as a flowerbed or vegetable garden that are not subject to animal browsing. Dig a hole twice as wide and deep as the pot or root ball. Add organic matter if needed. Set the root ball gently in the hole with the root crown at the level of the soil surface. Fill the hole with soil, tamp firmly and soak with water. When transplanting to the field, install a protective tree tube as shown here to discourage animal damage.
Oaks grow best in a sunny location and adapt well in natural forest settings. Think future hunting areas. They require plenty of growing space since most oaks are large at maturity. Consider planting two or three, or a larger grouping per location and later remove all but the most vigorous ones. Wire rings or tree tubes protect the young trees from browsing and antler rubbing. Attach a marker with tree type if desired.
Hunting the acorn drop during spectacular fall color is a special time. It typically coincides with archery and some muzzleloader seasons. Mature bucks are somewhat predictable as they fatten on acorns before testosterone levels jump and feeding patterns become erratic. Tagging a mature buck while hunting the nuts is reason enough to pocket a few on the way out of the woods this fall. Oak trees for the most part are slow to mature and produce mast. However, some varieties such as chinquapin and sawtooth oaks produce mast in just a few years. The author’s family collects and plants acorns each year from commercially grown sawtooth oak stock planted 25 years ago. Within 10 years the first hand-raised trees produced mast. Native water, white, Shumard and cherry bark oak acorns are collected in the field too. Our goal is to plant trees each year, involve the grandkids and ensure our next generation of deer hunters will have special trees to hunt that evoke warm memories of “putting down roots.”