In horticultural situations, oaks can be established successfully from
either transplants or acorns planted directly at the site. Especially
for restoration plantings transplants have several disadvantages relative
to direct-seeded acorns:
To fully understand the advantages of planting acorns directly into the planting site, it is necessary to understand how acorns become seedlings. Both the shoot and root emerge from the pointed end of the acorn. Roots usually begin to emerge by December. The root grows down into the soil during the winter. In species such as valley and blue oak, roots may have grown three feet deep into the soil before the shoot emerges the following spring (shoot emergence typically occurs between the end of March and early June). In most non-irrigated sites, young seedlings rely on their deep root system for survival over the dry summer months. The long taproot is able to extract moisture from deep in the soil profile, and this helps the young seedling to continue to extract moisture from the soil even when the upper levels of the soil have been dried out by competing annual grasses.
Acorns can be picked directly from trees or collected off the ground. Acorns collected from the ground usually have more insect damage than those picked directly from the tree. Also, acorns collected from the ground are more likely to have been damaged by heat or drying. Acorns are ready to pick from trees when the acorn cap can be easily separated from the acorn without tearing the seed coat. A bamboo pole or length of PVC pipe can be used to tap acorns out of a tree and onto a tarp if the acorns are out of reach. Acorns will generally be at least somewhat green when picked from trees, but they normally turn brown in storage.
Acorns lose viability when they dry out, so if they are not planted immediately, they must be stored under moist conditions. Since moisture causes oak acorns to germinate, refrigerate the acorns to slow germination. Place acorns in plastic bags (e.g., heavy duty zip-closure bags) and store them in the refrigerator until planting. Do not allow the acorns to freeze, as this will kill them. Even when stored in plastic bag in the refrigerator, most acorns will eventually germinate, and the emerging roots are easily damaged or may decay during storage. Therefore, it's a good idea to plant your acorns as soon as you can.
The weevil larvae are about 0.5 inch long, legless, and tend to curl into a "C" shape when disturbed. The larvae of the filbertworm have legs, are pinkish to grayish, and are typically quite active. Only the filbertworm larvae spins strands of silk. Not only can these larvae bore their way out of acorns, they can also chew their way out of a plastic bag. If you have some wormy acorns in cold storage for a while, a few larvae may find their way out and end up on the bottom of your refrigerator. You can keep your acorn bags in sealed plastic crisper or other container to keep these escapees confined.
Some external mold growth on stored acorns can occur, but is generally not a cause for concern. However, if acorns are oddly dicolored and feel soft when squeezed, they may be decayed. You can check a few acorns by cutting them open. The inside (the "meat") of a healthy acorn is whitish or yellowish. Decayed acorns will be dark brown or sometimes nearly black internally.
It's a good idea to sort acorns before you store them and again at planting time. As you are planting, do a visual inspection for exit holes and the "feel" test for light, shriveled, and soft acorns. If you have a large number of acorns of questionable quality, you can do the float test: place the acorns in a bucket of water, discard the floaters, and keep the sinkers for planting. Insect damaged and dehydrated acorns typically have some air space inside the shell and tend to float. This test isn't completely accurate, but is an effective way to screen a large batch of acorns.
If your acorns have germinated during storage, you can plant them if the roots are still firm and light-colored. Discard acorns with discolored, soft, or mushy roots.
You can plant earlier if you can pre-irrigate the planting site: water the planting site so that the soil is wetted to a depth of at least 1 foot. Let the soil dry for a few days after irrigation so that it isn't too wet to work.
Prepare the planting site by turning over the soil with a shovel to a depth of at least 10 inches. Break up any large clods to prepare a good seedbed. Select sound acorns for planting as discussed above. At each site, plant 3 to 4 acorns spaced about 6 to 8 inches apart. This will increase the chances of at least one successful seedling being present at the site, and will keep the seedlings from being overly crowded if more than one emerge. Plant acorns on their sides at a depth of about 2 inches. Deeper planting can decrease seedling emergence rates (especially in heavy soils), and shallower planting can increase the chances that the acorns may dry out or be eaten by mice or ground squirrels.
If possible, mulch each planting site after planting with an organic mulch to cover the planting site and an area extending out 3 to 4 feet to a depth of about 2-3 inches. Mulch will help to suppress weed growth around the young seedling and helps conserve soil moisture. As the mulch decays, it also provides a slow-release source of plant nutrients for the seedling. Waste wood chips from tree pruning are an ideal mulching material as long as the chips are not contaminated with soil or roots from diseased trees. You can often get a large load of waste wood chips free or for little cost from tree pruning services.
If you are planting the acorn for your yard, be sure that you have selected
a site that will be large enough to accomodate the tree's mature size without
crowding structures or being excessively crowded or shaded by other trees.
Avoid planting under power lines or over sewer and water lines that may need
to be dug up at some point. If you want to gain the maximum cooling effect
from shading, the tree should be placed to the west or southwest of the structure
you want to shade and at an appropriate distance to permit midsummer shading
while minimizing winter shading. Also remember that in general, our native
oaks should not be planted where the area near the trunk of the tree will be
irrigated in the summer.
See also Choosing a planting site for other factors to consider.