Insurgent Oaks: the insurrection grows

[This is an update on a blogpost I first posted on the Writer’s Carnival website last August, and posted here last December.]

I followed my basic battle plan.  As acorns began dropping last September, I collected them in dishpan-sized bins and stored them in the garage, out of the heat. It was a mast year for acorn drop, so I ended up with five bins, heaped.  The acorns came from three trees that dropped different sizes of acorns:  small, medium, and serious head-thumpers.

As an experiment, I immediately planted a dozen or so of the plumpest  by using the point of old pruning shears to drill four or five inches into the sun-baked ground, then put temporary shade structures over them to prevent roasting.

When the first rains were forecast, I started raking up fallen leaves, carting them out front to blanket my flat expanse of dry lawn stubble.  (If lack of water hadn’t killed off all the grass, maybe lack of sunshine would.) Eventually the blanket, four and five inches deep, covered the yard’s prime grow-zone (the middle third of the yard, not too close to the house or power lines.)

I brought in leaves from several different kinds of trees, and quickly learned my first lesson — small leaves work better than large ones.

Small leaves from oak and ash trees were better at staying in place during windy weather. Large leaves from maple, cottonwood, and sycamore kept ending up drifted against the house.  I’d rake them up and put them back on the blanket, hoping rain and sun would break them into smaller, tamer pieces.

As cool weather and spells of rain settled in, I removed the shade structures so the planted acorns would get watered, and I brought out the bins of acorns to scatter.


Every binned acorn had at least one hole where a grub had drilled its way out.  Grubs wriggled in the bottom of the bins, and black mold covered the lower layers of acorns.  I was certain I’d lost a year’s harvest, and the insurrection would have to start again the next September, because not one of those acorns would sprout.

In a way, I was right. Not ONE of those acorns sprouted — THEY ALL DID.

By mid spring, my yard had become the nursery for a thousand infant oak trees.

At first, I did nothing but cheer them on.  I knew I’d have to make choices later about which ones could be left to grow, but at this stage I wanted natural selection, not my interference, to show me which seedlings were the healthiest, most vigorous and resilient. The life of a baby oak isn’t all rains and roses, you know.  They need inborn stamina.

This year’s El Nino rains helped.  The long rainy season meant I didn’t need to interfere until mid-May, when I gave the rapidly drying grow-zone one deep overall soak.

End-of-May hot weather sent me out to fashion shade structures to protect the infants from leaf-crisping heat.  Other than pulling some weeds, that’s all I did until a couple of weeks ago (mid-June).  The shade meant for the seedlings created favorable growing conditions for encroaching Bermuda grass, and it was getting tall.  So, starting at the back of the grow-zone and working my way forward, I began a comprehensive forest maintenance job:

  • pulling Bermuda to reduce its mass and use of water meant for seedlings
  • mounding leaf  mulch around the most vigorous and well-placed seedlings
  • reorganizing shed structures to protect those seedlings, adjusting for summer’s shadow pattern
  • carrying containers full of water to trickle on the selected seedlings, giving them a deep soak without watering the surrounding ground.

Seedlings and Bermuda in untended, sun-baked areas are crisping out. Infants under shade structures are thriving, most now between three and seven-inches tall.

A ten-inch tall seedling has leaves five inches long, two-and-a-half inches wide.  (I know which tree that acorn came from.)

But the true forest phenomenon is one Baby Champion Oak.  Currently growing about one-half inch per day, it is now twenty-nine inches tall.  All it needed was some shade and a little water.

That’s right folks.

An acorn I planted last October is now a tree over two feet tall.









Last September, my front lawn was a flat area of hay-dry grass stubble.  As noted in an earlier post, I decided the best way to re-landscape that patch of land would be to transform it back into a fragment of the native oak woodland it was until the first half of the last century, when it became a plum orchard that eventually turned into a dry, treeless slope covered completely  in star thistle, and transformed again into a residence with lawns and growing trees of several landscape varieties.

First, I collected acorns from under the oaks out back .  It was a mast year, so I had five plastic bins full.  I stored them in the garage, out of the heat. When cooler weather brought Fall rain, I used oak leaves to blanket the front lawn four to five inches deep, hoping it would smother out dormant grass by depriving it of sunshine, and break down into mulch.

When I finally thought it was time o scatter the acorns, I discovered most of them had worm holes, and those at the bottom of the bins were covered in black mold. “Dang!” I thought, “A year’s harvest wasted.”  I scattered them anyway, kicking leaves over them for cover, sure that not one would sprout.

And I was right, not one acorn sprouted — all of them did.  By mid-spring my lawn was a nursery for several hundred infant oak trees.  For the first month, I did nothing to assist or interfere with the growing.

For several days I watched a flock of seven flickers hunt assiduously for the toyon berries I had scattered with the acorns.  They found about all of them.  Just as well, for later I decided having a bunch of toyon mixed in with the oaks would make too dense of a shrubby wilderness.  I’m hoping the flickers managed to plant some of those seeds in good spots elsewhere.  So many kinds of birds love the berries, and toyon is native to California.

As the summer heat moved in, I put up an ugly hodgepodge of boards and rigid-foam insulation sheets leaning on plant pots and patio chairs to create shade over seedlings that had sprouted in the prime growing zone: not too close to the house. or sidewalk, or power lines.

Last month I gave the growing zone one deep soak to help the fragile sprouts along. Yesterday, I got selective, giving a second deep watering only to the  healthiest-looking seedlings that are placed well in the landscape. I am amazed at the vigor of some of these baby trees. I now have one baby champion oak that is 18 inches tall. After I watered it, I think it grew another inch before sundown.

Now I’m cleaning up the nursery a bit. Poorly placed oak seedlings are snipped out, and scattered weeds pulled (the mulch makes that easy.)    I’m rearranging and reducing the shade structures to protect just the selected seedlings, and mulling over ways to make structures that look nicer.  They need to be something the Delta breeze won’t blow over.

Since the deep soak, Bermuda grass has come roaring back in, so I’m hand-pulling to reduce its mass, but I’m not trying to get rid of it completely.  It acts well as a net to keep the leaf mulch in place as it decomposes.  I’ll probably fashion some kind of trunk guards when the trees are bigger, so I can use a line trimmer to keep the Bermuda in check. Eventually, the trees will overwhelm the Bermuda with their shade and little need for water during the summer.

With those trees shading the front lawn, the house will be cooler all summer.







About Deanne E. Gwinn

Writer: screenplays, fiction, poetry
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