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Garden Experiences: Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns

Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2018-2019, 2022 by David E. Ross

graphic of an acorn

In the fall of 1976, I collected some acorns from valley white oaks (Quercus lobata) from a nearby shopping center parking lot. Since we have no significant winter frosts and winter is our rainy season, I started sprouting them immediately. (In other climates, sprouting might be delayed until spring with winter chill simulated in the refrigerator.)

I took two nursery pony packs (not the kind with individual plant spaces but the kind that are continuous pans) and filled each with very moist peat moss packed down firmly. (I kneaded the peat moss in a pail of water to make sure it was thoroughly moistened.) I placed the acorns on their sides on top of the peat moss in one pony pack and then made a sandwich by placing the other pony pack upside-down on top.

After about 6-8 weeks, roots began to grow out of the acorns. (Depending on the season and how warm the weather is, this might take less or much more time in other climates.) When the roots were about 1-1.5 inches long, I carefully moved the acorns to individual quart nursery pots, using a potting mix of half sand and half peat moss; I reused the peat moss from the pony packs for this. I added about a tablespoon of bone meal for each pot to the mix. I pressed the mix firmly into the pots and then used a twig to poke a hole for the root; the hole had to be deeper than the lengths of the roots. I set an acorn into each pot with the root into the hole; then I topped the pot with enough mix to barely cover the acorn. After about four leaves appeared, I fed each pot with just a pinch of ammonium sulfate.

When the seedlings were twice as tall as their pots, I moved them into gallon nursery cans. I used my favorite potting mix. Native (naturally growing) oaks in California have root systems based on a taproot; these root systems do not adapt well to such garden conditions as summer watering, fertilizers, or other plants growing under the oaks. Nursery-grown oaks, however, generally have their taproots pruned, which promotes spreading root systems that adapt well to garden conditions. Thus, I cut the taproot at the bottom of the soil ball from the quart pot before repotting each oak into a gallon can.

When the seedlings were about 1.5-2 feet tall, I moved them to 5 gallon nursery cans. I cut what was a replacement taproot. When one tree became 3-4 feet tall, I planted it into the front yard that fall. I kept it thoroughly watered until the winter rains became sufficient. The following year, I gave it occasional summer water.

I staked the tree. As it grew, I removed the lower twigs and branches to make it more tree-like and less shrubby. It quickly grew tall, but it was too limber. When it outgrew the stake, it decided to lie down rather than grow up. I was advised by a friend who managed the development of parks in my community to cut the tree down, leaving a stump about 2 feet tall. I really did not want to do this, but — with clenched teeth — I topped it as recommended. The stump resprouted.

Now — 46 years after I gathered acorns in a parking lot — the tree is slightly taller than my two-story house camera icon. The trunk is over 2 feet in diameter (almost 7 feet in circumfrence), and the branches spread about 70 feet. Valley white oaks do tend to spread much more horizontally than they grow vertically.

In recent years, my oak has dropped acorns of its own. I started two seedlings from this tree. When they became large saplings, I donated them to the Oak Park Community Center, where they are now growing. A later sapling waa planted at Oak Park High School.

3 July 1998
Updated 3 July 2022

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