By Luke Miller
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” -- Robert Louis Stevenson
Think about the millions of oaks planted each year by squirrels that never get around to unearthing their buried treasure. Or the migration of fruit trees and berry bushes made possible by hungry birds that later take wing. Our best foresters seem to be covered in fur or feathers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some skin in the game yourself.
You’ll find that starting trees from seed is a great family activity -- a chance for kids to experience the cycles of nature firsthand.
It offers a taste of immortality, too. You’re ushering into the world something that could survive for generations, even centuries. Better yet, it helps the environment rather than straining it.
See the collection of acorns, hickory nuts, and buckeyes? That’s a sampling of what I start with every spring after the nuts have been refrigerated for a few months to break dormancy. For novices, I recommend buckeyes. They’ll even sprout in leaf litter!
Protection is paramount, because even forgetful squirrels have no problem remembering how much they love nuts when they stumble across a few. You can grow seedlings through hardware cloth (see above), but frustrated squirrels and chipmunks will decapitate some seedlings trying to get to the seeds. I recommend making a cage with the hardware cloth instead.
Raising trees from seed is an opportunity to grow something with sentimental value. These two red oak trees were dug up from my hometown when the trees were only a few inches tall. For several years now, I’ve grown them in containers, protecting them with mulch in winter and occasionally pruning the roots so they don’t circle inside the pot.
This catalpa is another sentimental favorite. It self-seeded in an empty flowerbed on the campus of my dad’s alma mater. Knowing it would be deemed a weed and yanked by the caretaker, I carefully removed the tiny seedling and brought it back to Iowa with me. It was only a few inches tall then; now it’s 6 feet tall.
The common name for catalpa is cigar tree because of the slender seedpods. Last fall, my catalpa sprouted its first “cigars,” which contain the seeds of a new generation. It looks like I’m going to be a grandforester!
The best part about starting trees from seed is when you can liberate them. This is an English oak that I germinated and later donated to an arboretum. Years from now people will be walking the grounds enjoying the majesty and shade of a tree that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for me. That’s the immortality I was talking about.
I think this quote sums it up quite nicely. See if you agree.