Growing Trees From Seed
Starting your own chestnut trees from seed can be fun and it may save you money. However, consider the following.
- Direct seeding in the field usually doesn't work; it's just an expensive way to feed wildlife.
- Growing seedlings in containers involves expense, time, and plant growing knowledge.
- Starting from seed puts you a year or two behind starting from trees.
- Some portion of seeds result in genetically inferior seedlings (runts) which you don't want in your planting; you will have to cull these at some point.
Instructions for Chestnut Seed
Chestnut seed requires special care that is different from many other types of seed. After harvesting, chestnut seed requires the following:
- KEEP THE SEED MOIST. Pack the chestnuts in moist peat or sawdust, or keep small quantities in plastic bags, or plant in moist soil. Never let the chestnuts dry out, even for a few days. If the chestnuts are stored in plastic bags, there should be a few pin holes in the bags to admit oxygen. If you have received chestnut seeds from us and you are storing them in the refrigerator, ADD MOIST PEAT, SAWDUST, OR WET PAPER TOWELS TO THE BAG(S).
- CHILL, BUT DO NOT FREEZE, THE SEED FOR TWO TO FOUR MONTHS. Before they will germinate, chestnuts must be chilled at 30-45 F. This can be in a refrigerator, in an unheated building, or underground. Chestnuts freeze and are killed at temperatures below 25 F. If they are fall planted, be sure to plant them about 1 to 3 inches deep and mulch to protect them from freezing. If they are kept in an unheated building, be sure they don't freeze. In late winter (usually Feb), chestnuts will start germinating in the refrigerator. The root emerges first, then the shoot. Ideally, they should be planted by this time. However, if they do start growing before planting, just plant them carefully to avoid breaking off the sprout: POINT THE ROOT DOWN. If the root is long and crooked, it is a good idea to cut off the end - just LEAVE 3/4 INCH OF THE SPROUT ATTACHED TO THE NUT.
- PLANT IN A WELL-DRAINED, ACIDIC (pH 5-6) SOIL OR POTTING MEDIUM. Chestnut roots are very susceptible to water-logged soil conditions. They need to be moist, but not too wet.
- PROTECT SEED FROM ANIMAL DEPREDATION. Mice, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, deer, and many other animals love chestnuts. They will make great efforts to find and eat your chestnut seeds. That's why direct seeding of chestnuts in the field doesn't work. We start chestnut seed in containers in a greenhouse to protect them.
- PLANT SEEDLINGS AT LEAST 6 INCHES APART. Chestnut seedlings should get at least 12 inches tall the first year at a spacing of 6 inches or more. Transplant seedlings when they are dormant, preferably in the spring. Seeds can be sown in their permanent location (i.e., not transplanted) if they are protected from animal depredation.
Instructions for Chinkapin Seed
Chinkapin seed requires special care that is different from many other types of seed and different from other chestnuts. The peculiar characteristic of chinkapin seed is that they are fall germinating; i.e., they germinate shortly after they ripen. Sometimes, in wet weather, they even germinate before they fall from the tree. Because of this characteristic, chinkapins are difficult to store for long periods of time. They can be stored for a few weeks in the refrigerator (kept moist). We have had some success in storing chinkapins until Feb or March in the refrigerator, in which case the chilling requirement described below is already met and the seedlings will grow through spring and summer. The following instructions are a guide for growing chinkapins by planting in the fall.
- KEEP THE SEED MOIST. KEEP THEM FROM EXCESSIVE HEAT, AND DON'T LET THEM FREEZE. Basically, treat them as if they were live, growing plants, which they are!
- PLANT IN A WELL-DRAINED, ACIDIC (pH 5-6) SOIL OR POTTING MEDIUM. Plant the seeds about ½ in. (1 cm) deep. If the root has started to emerge, take care not to break it off and plant the seed with the root pointing down. Chinkapin roots are very susceptible to water-logged soil conditions. They need to be moist, but not too wet.
- If they are started in containers, they can be kept in a sunny window or greenhouse until late November. At this point they will be an inch or two tall and have 3-5 leaves. Under this tiny shoot a fat, carrot-like root develops. From December until spring, the trees need to be chilled, but not exposed to temperatures below 25 F. Put them in a refrigerator, garage, or other protected place where the temperature ranges from 25-50 F (occasionally warmer is okay). Keep them moist during this chilling period. Move them outside in the spring when temperatures will no longer drop below 20 F, or move them to a greenhouse in March or April.
3a. If they are planted outside, make sure that they have 4-6 weeks' growing time before any hard freeze. They should be mulched to protect them from freezing. They might not develop any shoot in the fall, but they will grow a carrot-like root, which is how they will over-winter.
3b. We have had success by planting the seeds in containers in the fall and then immediately putting them in cold storage until spring. The roots grow, but the shoots don't come up until the pots warm up, which should be in a sunny location (like a greenhouse).
- PROTECT SEED FROM ANIMAL DEPREDATION. Mice, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, turkeys, grouse, deer, and many other animals love chinkapins. They will make great efforts to find and eat your chinkapins. We start our chinkapins in containers in a greenhouse to protect them.
- PLANT SEEDLINGS AT LEAST 4 INCHES APART. Chinkapin seedlings grow slowly for the first year or two. At the end of the first growing season they should be a few inches to perhaps 12 inches tall. Container trees can be planted in their permanent location any time, but it is usually best to do it in the spring or fall. Transplant field-grown seedlings when they are dormant, preferably in the spring.