Planting Trees From Seed – It’s Catching On!

The last couple of years I have been (very pleasantly!) surprised by the number of folks ordering tree tubes to protect trees they started themselves from seed.  Yesterday it was a customer from Wisconsin who is planting some hickory seedlings he started in pots from nuts he gathered on his property last fall.

There are several advantages to growing trees directly from seeds you collect yourself.   First of all you can choose which trees to collect seeds from, so you can select the best “mother” trees.  Of course you don’t know which tree provided the pollen for each seed, and you don’t know how the genetic traits of the parent trees will manifest themselves in each seed, but in general terms by selecting seeds produced by superior trees you know that at least half of their genetic code is excellent.

Secondly, you know that the trees produced by your seeds will be well suited to your site in terms of climate, soil type, moisture, etc.

Finally, planting seeds takes my maxim that “the smaller the tree you plant the better the tree you will produce” to its logical limit:  When planting seeds you’ll never have to disturb or deform the root system.  It’s almost like planting trees from seed is the way that Nature intended it to be done!

There are drawbacks.  First you have to gather the seeds, and that can been a race against time between when the seeds are ready and when the local wildlife gobble them up.  Second you have to store them over the winter; generally speaking tree seeds like acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts, etc. need a cold treatment in order to break dormancy, and that means spending time in a bag in the fridge (which can lead to a spouse who is not thrilled with the reduction in food storage space!).  Lastly there are some risks; if you plant seeds directly in the field there is a period of time before they germinate when they are vulnerable to squirrels and other rodents (of course tree tubes help a lot).

I often get asked how to grow trees from acorns, chestnuts, walnuts and hickory nets.  There are 4 ways to do it, each with their pro’s and con’s, but each capable of product excellent results.

In all cases it’s best to float the nuts in a tub of water for a couple of days after collecting them.  After a couple of days the good, viable nuts will sink.  The nuts whose insides were eaten by insect larvae – and are therefore not viable – will float.  Disgard the floaters and keep the sinkers.  From this point there are 4 ways to do things:

1) Plant the nuts directly in the field in fall, protecting with tree tubes.  Cover the nuts with 1/2 to 1″ of soil.  Advantage:  The nuts get their cold treatment the old fashioned way, and you don’t have to store them in the fridge over the winter.  Disadvantage:  The window between planting and germinating is several months, during which time the nuts can be discovered and eaten by rodents.  Again using tree tubes goes a long way toward preventing this, and of course protects the newly sprouted seedlings from deer.  I use this method a lot.  When I do I often sow two nuts per planting hole to increase the odds of success.

2) Store the nuts in a plastic bag in the fridge, and then plant directly in the field in spring, covering with tree tubes.  The disadvantage is the aforementioned unhappy spouse and use of fridge space.  The advantage is that it shrinks the window of time between planting and germinating during which the nuts are at risk from rodents.  Here again I generally plant two nuts per spot.

3) Store the nuts in a plastic bag in the fridge, remove them in spring, place the bag in a warm, sunny window sill so that they start to germinate (sending out a white-ish “radicle”), and then planting directly into the field.  The great advantage of this method is know you have a viable nut and you can therefore safely plant just one per planting spot.  Be very careful when planting not to damage the root radicle.

4) Follow either #2 or #3 above but plant in small pots with potting soil, grow them in the pots for a month or two, and then plant in the field.  The advantage here is that you are planting a more mature root system better able to cope with the stresses of the field.  The disadvantage is that the longer you leave the seedlings growing in the pots the more you risk creating the root deformations (circling roots, J roots, etc.) that can cause problems down the road and which growing trees from seed is meant to avoid.  This is a great way to go if you have seed ready to plant in spring but your planting site isn’t quite ready, and can be really successful as long as you don’t leave the seedlings to grow in the pots too long.

I have been a huge advocate of planting by direct seeding for more than 20 years.  It’s great to see the idea catching on so much!

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