Understanding The ‘Trees from Seed’ Philosophy

Sow hundreds of native trees in place simply, easily and for free using the trees from seed philosophy, which bypasses saplings for wild tree seeds.

by Susan Brackney
PHOTO: Susan Brackney

I didn’t used to get too excited about acorns. And I positively hated the myriad “helicopters” my maple tree sends down year after year. But that was before I found Ray Major’s “Trees from Seed” Facebook page.

As a direct result, I’m always on the lookout for mature, native trees—particularly when they’re releasing their seeds.

And when I came across a squirrel’s hidden-but-viable acorn in one of my perennial flower beds early in the spring? I popped it in the ground and added a little protection. A respectable-looking oak sapling has since shot right up.

Major hasn’t worked as a professional forester, but he’s sold timber, grown Christmas trees, and provided plenty of tree-related consulting. Now retired, he spends his time helping others learn how to grow trees without money or heavy lifting.

“If one knows where the trees are going to be planted, planting them directly costs almost nothing and involves almost no work,” the Indiana man says. “You never dig holes, you don’t move big, heavy root balls around, and you don’t spend any money. That is the very essence of what I am about—and it’s directly the opposite of how most folks think of growing trees.”

Read more: When you rethink “weeds,” you often find you have some saplings on your hands.

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Re-thinking Transplants

More often than not, we think in terms of saplings to be transplanted. We might head to the local nursery or big box store, choose a lone tree from their limited options, and shell out $150 or more. And that’s just the beginning.

There’s lugging it home, digging the perfect hole, staking it as needed, watering it in—and keeping it watered during hot, dry spells.

But, when it comes to planting the sheer number of trees necessary to adequately restock the “urban forest” in our cities, suburbs and backyards, this model falls short. “To stock the urban forest to its ideal conditions, in order to maximize shade, change local microclimates, absorb floodwater, and do all of the different things you read about trees doing—it can’t be done,” Major says. “It’s far too expensive with nursery stock.”

In fact, those who could benefit most from trees may be among the least likely to be able to plant them. The poor, the elderly, children, and the physically challenged often lack the wherewithal to plant a single nursery tree—let alone scores of them.

But, he maintains, “If they knew how to put an acorn in the ground and protect it a little bit, they could grow groves of such trees for almost nothing.”

He continues, “You can start hundreds and hundreds of trees from seed, and you can multiply the number of trees planted by orders of magnitude.”

Seed Savvy

If direct-sowing “hundreds and hundreds” of trees sounds over-the-top, consider this: Wild-collected seeds have lower germination rates than domestic seeds. And those that do germinate may take a long time to do so. Besides, you’re simply following Mother Nature’s example.

“That’s all that nature does,” Major says. “If a tree drops 10,000 acorns, and two or three of them grow to become a substantial tree, that’s a giant success.”

Fortunately, those acorns and other wild-gathered seeds don’t cost a thing. And for those that do germinate?

“The annual growth rates of directly sown trees is always greater than that of transplants for the first 15 to 20 years,” Major says.

Since he began “Trees From Seed” in 2019, Major has posted over 250 how-to videos on locating, gathering, and planting specific tree seed types like Virginia pine, red elm and black oak, among others.

Read more: Here are some tips for planting an orchard full of trees.

Sow Time

Just keep in mind the wild tree seeds you gather won’t store like peas, corn or other domestic crops.

“Our customary thinking is to treat all seeds like seed corn,” he notes. “But so many wild forest plants—and especially trees—exhibit recalcitrance…. They’re not really truly dormant in the sense that grass seed and seed corn are.”

In other words? If you try to dry acorns for long-term storage and later planting, they won’t remain viable. The same goes for most of the other nut trees, persimmons, pawpaws, viburnum and spicebush to name a few.

That’s why it’s important to scope out native trees ahead of time. Then you can keep tabs on their seed production, gather seeds when they’re ready and direct-sow them post-haste.

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