This is a tale of free trees. Our friend, Marilynn Keller, learned how to plant the best tree species in her yard at no cost and with little work.
She simply didn’t mow a tiny area of lawn where she wanted a tree to grow. As if by magic, a White Oak, Sugar Maple, and Shagbark Hickory sprouted there this spring. Although the spot is too small for three trees Marilynn can simply decide which one she wants and mow the others off.
Likely a squirrel buried a nut that has sprouted.
Last fall an industrious squirrel gathered acorns and hickory nuts and buried them in her yard. The squirrel might have forgotten his hidden cache or perhaps died. Either way the unrecovered nuts sprouted.
Although squirrels often eat maple seeds, it’s most likely that Marilynn’s baby maple sprouted because a gust of wind pulled the ripe seed off a nearby tree and it helicoptered to her yard.
While Maples are usually easy to transplant, and are widely sold by nurseries, not so Hickories. Although any of the many Hickory species make outstanding shade trees, as soon as a nut sprouts it sends an enormous taproot deep into the ground. Moving a hickory is difficult and often unsuccessful. Commercial nurseries avoid them.
The same goes for white oaks, one of our favorite trees. It’s difficult to buy one to plant in the yard. Because they are slow growing and challenging to transplant, few nurseries bother with them. Fortunately, they readily sprout on their own.
In autumn Maples glow with color.
Anyone living where there are mature Hickory, Oak, or Maple trees nearby can use Marilynn’s tree planting method. Simply don’t mow a patch of lawn where a tree is desired. Odds are one will appear on its own next spring. If more sprout than the spot can support just mow the others off and put wire screening around the new tree to protect it from hungry cottontails and deer.
If a tree sprouts in the wrong place it can be easily transplanted with just one shovel of dirt. Move it before the tiny tree has grown a long taproot.
We never spray our lawn at Winding Pathways. Occasionally, that yields an exciting discovery like what happened in early May.
Rich shows the tiny oak seeding.
We wanted to plant a tree, preferably an oak, on the south side of our garage. But, we got busy and never found time to buy or plant one. One morning Rich, while walking across the lawn to fetch the morning newspaper, spotted a baby white oak tree that sprouted exactly where we wanted to plant one. It was serendipity.
Plant ecologists talk about the “seed bank.” In land that hasn’t been greatly disturbed by plowing, spraying or compacting of soil, seeds of desirable native plants often remain dormant in the soil for years or decades. Then, when conditions are right they’ll sprout like magic. Other desirable plants spread their seed through the wind or enlist the help of a hungry squirrel to carry and bury a nut or acorn. That’s probably how our new oak got planted.
Before mowing walk across your unsprayed lawn. You may discover a plant you want that is starting to grow. Just mow around it to let it thrive. Mark it with a stake or fence it off from rabbits and deer. If the plant is not quite in the right place, remember that tiny plants are usually easy to move with just a shovel full of dirt.
We protect volunteer trees that grow where we want them.
About seven years ago we found another baby oak in our lawn. We protected it from mowing and ran a screen around it to keep hungry deer away. It’s now about seven feet tall and growing rapidly.
That black oak didn’t cost a penny and will grace our yard long after we’re gone.
Another way to go about natural or plant and wildlife friendly yards is to deliberately plant certain forbs and grasses to attract a variety of beneficial insects and interesting birds and other wildlife.
We are lucky to have four species of oak trees on our property. Huge white oaks hug the north end with a few red oaks scattered between them. Two medium sized black oaks live close to the house and a young bur oak is just beginning to cast shade south of the house.
Millions of other homeowners are also fortunate to have oaks shading their property. They are one of the most widespread trees, and are beautiful, sturdy, valued by wildlife and long lived. A white oak could shade the ground and feed squirrels for up to 400 years. Some species, like red oaks, grow relatively quickly and tolerate moderate shade while most other oaks, like our bur, need full sun and grow slowly.
About 600 oak species are found naturally across the northern hemisphere. Approximately 90 species live in the United States. China boasts around 100 species, and Mexico is probably the world leader in oak diversity with at least 160 species. They have been widely planted in temperate regions including many places where they don’t occur naturally.
Oaks are members of the beech family with the genus name Quercus. It’s rather easy to distinguish an oak tree, but determining just what oak species a tree belongs to can be tricky. Many oaks hybridize with similar oak species and a tree may have characteristics of each parent. Sometimes the shape of an oak leaf near the top of a tree may be shaped differently from a counterpart lower down.
Non-showy oaks flower in mid spring about the time leaves appear. Male blooms are slim, drooping and green or tan in color. Each female flower is a solitary spike. People allergic to the wind borne pollen generally suffer in the spring.
Throughout history oak wood has been readily used by people. Even wine corks are made from the bark of Portuguese oaks. Oak was widely used in the construction of sailing ships. It’s said that the oak sides of the USS Constitution were so tough that British cannonballs bounced back. That’s where the nickname Old Ironsides came from! Oak is the traditional wood for liquor aging barrels but today it is most commonly used for hardwood flooring and furniture. Few woods produce more fireplace heat than oak.
Squirrels are just one of the wildlife species that love acorns. Among the host of other wild animals that relish acorns are deer, bears, woodchucks, wild turkeys and blue jays. However, oak leaves or acorns can be toxic to cows that eat too many. Tannin is the bitter element in oaks and acorns and long ago humans learned how to remove it to create delicious food. Each fall we look forward to harvesting acorns. Few foods are as delicious as maple syrup on warm acorn muffins.
Subscribe to Winding Pathways to learn how to process acorns into food.
For further Information
One of the most fascinating tree books ever written was published back in 1948. It is a two volume set by David Culross Perry. One volume covers trees of eastern North America while its counterpart describes western species. If you spot it for sale at a garage or used book sale snap it up.
Websites, apps and books abound that help identify and learn about trees. Our favorite websites are from the National Arbor Day Foundation at and the US Forest Service. Our favorite tree identification book is the Sibley Guide to Trees.