“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every fall, squirrels busy themselves with burying oak acorns in preparation for the long winter. Unfortunately for the squirrels they sometimes forget where those morsels were buried. The result is a tender oak seedling that emerges in the spring. For me, it’s fun to see where these young oaks pop up. Whether it’s nestled in a secluded corner along a fence line, in the raised bed of my dormant tomato garden, or hidden beneath a hydrangea bush, the tiny seedlings offer a little glimpse into the mind of a squirrel.
I used to pluck out these sprouts and discard them until I had a conversation with a neighbor. This neighbor told me that he dug up the seedlings, potted them, and raised them into saplings that he gave away. It was such a great idea. I instantly began thinking of all the benefits this small act of conservation could provide.
The urban tree canopy in Cuyahoga County is in rapid decline. Cuyahoga County, the City of Cleveland, local governments along with other organizations have mobilized to grow the urban canopy. While their efforts will certainly turn the tide, individuals can also help by propagating those tiny oak and maple seedlings found throughout their property.
The rise of popular cultivars and propagation through grafting and cuttings has resulted in urban trees lacking genetic and species diversity. This deficit puts our urban forests at a greater risk for loss as compared to trees grown from seed. This lack of diversity is most evident in the widespread losses of trees as a result of the successional blights that have ravaged our forests and trees throughout the years. Chestnut blight, Dutch Elm disease, Emerald Ash borer, and the newly discovered Beech Leaf disease are but a few in a continuing line of disturbances. Existing pathogens will not magically go away nor will the onslaught of new diseases. Genetic diversity is a key tool to help combat the effects of these pressures on forest systems, urban forest included. Fortunately, park systems are researching the benefits of seed grown trees and nurseries are beginning to promote seed grown plants.
Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District is heavily involved in restoring the urban tree canopy. Our Native Urban Tree Starters program, NUTS for short, engages local area students in the process of collecting tree seed, preparing it, growing it, and then planting the trees. You could also do this yourself and submit your activity through our Individual Acts of Conservation program.
Together we can collect the bounty of forgotten squirrel leftovers and help to restore a genetic and species diverse urban forest that will provide benefits for generations to come. Below are some tips to consider as you begin your endeavor.
- Many native tree seeds require a cold stratification process or other preparation in order to germinate Read up on what needs to be done with the seed you collect.
- If you intend to harvest an already sprouted seedling be careful with its roots or simply over-excavate the area around it when transplanting.
- Protect your newly transplanted seedling from temperature extremes and animal browse. My daughter was crestfallen this past summer when a squirrel ate her freshly transplanted seedling.
- Water and fertilize as necessary...but not too much.
- Be prepared for winter. The roots of potted plants are susceptible to freezing. It is recommended to either dig a hole and plant the entire pot or sufficiently insulate the pot with compost.
- Check local regulations before planting. The last thing you want is for your hard work to be removed for being planted in an unauthorized location.
Blog Author: Brent Eysenbach, Senior Program Manager