From Acorn To Mighty Oak Tree

Plant and grow trees that will provide generations of important nutrition for a wide range of wildlife.

Brandon Adams | November 1, 2021

Would you like to learn a cost-effective way to create a food plot that will last more than a year? Have you ever sat in the deer stand and wondered what made the deer eat acorns from one tree and not another? 

By collecting those preferred acorns, you can create a food source that will attract deer, turkeys and other wildlife for not just a year or two, but for decades to come. Making long-term changes to your land for not only yourself but for future generations is one of the greatest things a person can do. This article will hopefully plant a seed (pun intended) that will help you to grow your own oak trees to improve the habitat on your land.

The first step in the process is simply to make observations. While you are in the deer stand, is there a particular tree that the deer year after year prefer to feed under? Is there one white oak, chestnut oak or other oak that the deer feed on more than the others of the same species? Look for the trees that have deer tracks all over the place under them along with droppings and partially eaten acorns. The more of these trees you can locate on your land the better. The more variety you can find the better. 

Another place that I have found to increase the variety of species I am growing is often an overlooked location, which is parking lots. Often landscape architects like to use Shumard and Nuttall oaks. These are two oaks that are in the red oak family. Most hunters focus on oaks in the white oak family. While white oaks are often preferred by deer due to the lower tannic acid, the same causes them to have a lower shelf life. They will begin to root soon after falling from the tree. These two red oaks are very fast growers. I have several Nuttalls that produced acorns in 11 years. Now that said, it does embarrass my daughter when I am with her and begin picking up acorns in a parking lot. 

You can also make arrangements with friends to help in the collection of acorns that deer prefer from their properties to add even more genetic diversity to your property. You can also get permission from people to collect acorns from their yards, farms or land that is not hunted, so they will not mind someone walking around the oak trees. I often make deals with owners by offering them oak trees in return that I have grown. 

For collecting the acorns on land that I hunt, I try to minimize disturbance in my hunting areas. I will make sure to have on my rubber boots, which I always wear, and do my best to stay scent free. I also do my best to only collect them at the end of a hunt when it will be several days before I am going back to that stand.

The parking lots where I have found oaks that I wish to propagate, I collect every chance I get. I often will place a plastic bag in one of my pockets to collect them in. If I have multiple species, I will take as many bags as needed. I will make sure to label each bag with the species name of the acorns. Without being organized, it can become an overwhelming ordeal. 

I try to do the next step at the collection site, but if I can’t, then I do it as soon as I return home. I look for small holes in the acorns. There is an insect that will burrow into the acorn known as an acorn weevil. The adults will burrow a hole into the acorn and deposit its eggs. Once the eggs develop, the worms will feed on the acorn. First, you do not want to move acorns that have the weevils in it to a location that they are not present. Second, these acorns have a lot less likelihood of germinating.

The next step is to float the acorns. Acorns that have insect damage, are cracked, or have become dehydrated for a variety of reasons will have air inside of them. This will result in those acorns floating to the top while the others will sink to the bottom. Some that float might germinate, but they most likely will not. This step will help you to better determine if you collected enough acorns to meet your goal, and what space you will need to continue with the next step in the process. 

The author is growing a variety of oaks that started with acorns he collected. Included above are Southern red oaks, Shumard oaks and Nuttall oaks.

So, after collecting desirable acorns and checking to see if they are viable, what is that next step in the process of growing your own oak trees?

You will find a lot of differing opinions about the next step if you do your own research on the internet, or by talking to people who are familiar with collecting and germinating their own seed. Some people recommend placing the acorns in a refrigerator to mimic the acorn going through the winter before they would germinate naturally in the woods. I have not found this process to increase or decrease the number of acorns that germinated. It also could be hard to convince your spouse to let you take up space in the refrigerator with your stash of acorns. 

I like to keep things simple with as few steps as necessary. The method I have found that works best for me is to place the acorns spread out in plastic containers that you have likely thrown away in the past when you have bought plants from your local nursery. In the containers, I like to place whatever cheap potting soil I can get. 

At this step, this is not the soil you are going to grow your oak trees in. This soil is only for the acorns, once first germinated, to be able to start to grow roots in. I will place up to 30 acorns in a container at this point, placing them on the surface of the soil. Until they start to germinate, I will water them about once a week just to keep the acorn and soil like it would be in the woods.

I keep them in my garage at this point. I learned quickly that unless you have a greenhouse, squirrels will find a way to get into the various places I have tried to store the acorns over the winter. 

You might ask, how do you get the containers? I do everything I can to save money, and I will go to home improvement stores and ask if they have any plastic plant containers they are going to throw away. They will often have an area where they put containers for a few days prior to throwing them in the trash. They might have plants that died for a variety of reasons. I also will contact local landscapers and offer to pick containers up, which helps them to avoid having to throw them in the trash. Having friends in the business also helps with this. I will bring the containers home and spray them with a mix of water and Clorox to kill anything that might kill my young trees. I also use vegetable containers, but with the numbers that I collect, and the time that I have, I tend to prefer the 3-gallon containers to simplify the process.

Above are some Southern red oaks that are two weeks old. Below is a Southern red oak removed from the original container before transplanting into the final grow container where it will remain until planting in the ground one to three years later.

For the next few months until usually March, this is all that I do. Water the acorns from time to time, and wait. 

Once the acorns start to germinate, things pick up. If I plan to only grow the trees at home for a year, I will take them as soon as I can tell they have germinated, and place two or three in a 3-gallon container to continue to grow until I am ready to transplant them to their permanent home. Growing two to three per container means I need fewer containers and less space to grow my trees. I have found that the trees will not become tangled if they are only left in the containers for a year. If I plan to keep them longer, I will place one per 3-gallon container. 

I have kept them as long as three years at the house. I have found that if I grow them for more than a year prior to transplanting, they tend to grow more once transplanted for the first few years, but the others will catch up. This has to do with the root mass that the trees have when transplanted. The more roots, the more water and nutrients the trees will be able to take in resulting in more growth. I also try to look at long-range forecasts to see what the forecast says for rainfall. If it looks like a below-normal rainfall for the fall or spring when I plan to plant, I will hold off for another year. I can always water the trees at home, but filling 50-gallon containers to take to your land and getting to the trees can sometimes be a challenge, unless you have a side-by-side or 4-wheeler. 

I like to get a high-quality potting soil for my germinated acorns that are going into a container. I like potting soil that is sold for trees or vegetable gardens. It tends to have fertilizer and one of the various water-absorbing materials to help with moisture retention. I also like to mix soil from the planting site. Since I live fairly close to our hunting land and the soil test are similar from my home, I use good soil from around the house. I feel growing the trees in the soil they’ll eventually be planted in helps get the tree prepared and reduces root shock, especially with the clay soil found in many areas of the Southeast. I tend to mix about 50% potting soil and 50% local soil. I never go beyond 70% potting soil and 30% local soil.

After a few weeks when the trees are 3 to 5 inches tall, I have found it does not hurt to cut the acorn off from the tree with scissors. The reason I have started to do this, and I know some will disagree with this step, is that the tree now can get the nutrients it needs from the container. To me it is like weaning a calf, but the main reason is that I like to move my containers outside to get used to the daily weather along with more sunlight as soon as possible. I have found that if I leave the acorns attached, my local squirrels will not only eat the acorn, but cut the young sapling from the roots. I have nursed them back from the roots, but those trees tend to never catch up to the others. The squirrels leave the trees alone if the acorn is removed. Squirrels tend to be my biggest problem with growing trees from acorns, even more of a problem than weather.  

Finding free plant containers from landscapers, home improvement stores and friends helps with the process of turning acorns into sprouting oak trees.

When it’s time to get my new trees in the ground where hopefully they’ll become part of the landscape for generations, I tend to plant in the late winter before the trees start to bud. This is usually in February or early March at the latest. This allows them to get established with the spring rains and have time to get a good root mass prior to the summer, which usually means periods of drought. Fall is a great time to plant as well, but if you are like me you likely do not have the time to plant trees while hunting season is ongoing. I personally have not noticed a major difference between planting at one time versus the other. 

Growing my own oak trees started as an idea to save money, but quickly it became another way for me to connect with the land. It extends the time I spend improving the habitat on our land. I have found this to be a very rewarding experience. So if you want to create cost-effective food sources that will attract and hold deer on your property, think beyond tractors and seed that is planted every year, and add a variety of oaks to your land. It will not only provide acorns the deer and turkeys prefer, but by planting different species you can extend the time period that the acorns are falling and hedge against years when stand oaks don’t produce well. 

Hopefully, I planted a seed you can use to improve the habitat on your land.       

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