Success growing oak in your woods

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Photo by William Klase

Like many other woodland owners, we want more oak on our property.  But also like many others, we struggle to get it to grow in the large numbers that we would prefer.

You see, we are all fighting some significant factors that are holding oak back.  These include the wide array of wildlife that eat oak acorns and young seedlings, and the competition from other plants for sunlight, water and soil nutrients. We can do something about both of these.

Oak will regrow in two ways.  From seed, or as sprouts from established trees.  Sprouts have an advantage over seedlings in that they already have an established root system to grow from.  Their disadvantage is that they only grow from the stump of established trees.

Oak seeds can grow a fair distance from their parent tree due to distribution by gravity and wildlife.  In fact, squirrels burying acorns for a future meal is one of the best ways for oak to be distributed around the landscape. I’ve even heard of landowners collecting buckets of acorns, and leaving them randomly around their woods for the squirrels to hide.

Oak sprouts and seedlings can be quite large and therefore have a bit of an advantage over other trees.  This doesn’t really matter though if these new oaks are browsed at a higher rate than other trees, and are not growing in their optimal conditions. Let’s talk a bit more about the best growing conditions.

Oak can grow in a wide array of conditions from full sunlight to fairly complete shade, and sandy soils to richer soils.  However, in full sunlight it can’t grow as fast as other trees, and in the deepest shade it tends to really struggle. Some argue that the best way to get oak seedlings and sprouts to flourish naturally, is to create partial shade conditions.  This means throughout the day and at nearly any given point in the stand, there is both shade and full sunlight.  Trees that need full sunlight struggle under these conditions, and oak grows faster than those trees that prefer full shade. 

A forester would call this a shelterwood.  A shelterwood is pretty easy to create with the help of a forester.  Once your oak seedlings are well established under a shelterwood, you remove the remaining mature trees.  Now your oak have a good chance of competing with the faster growing trees.

Before you get started on your shelterwood, you need to make sure that there are enough acorns or oak seedlings present.  This can be a problem if there aren’t oak anywhere nearby.  Some landowners will plant oak seedlings in areas where they are going to establish a shelterwood.  Others will gather acorns from elsewhere and stick them in the ground or just throw them around where they want oaks.

You will most likely need to take steps to protect your seedlings if you have a lot of deer in your area.  Putting up fencing is really the best solution for deer.  I have erected welded wire and poly fencing to protect several acres of seedlings and for a single seedling. Check out our article on fencing to learn more on this.

One thing I am experimenting with is using fishing line as a barrier for deer.  The recommendation is for 20 pound fishing line in three to five rows about a foot between rows.  Deer can’t see the line and so when the encounter it, they get frightened and move away.

I am using this method to protect single trees, but others have used this protect larger planted trees.  Give it a try and let me know how it works.

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