Saturday, May 5, 2012

Planting Oak Trees

Last September, just before Labor Day, on the first day of school, my village suffered an extended power outage from a storm that blew up suddenly and a nearly horizontal path through the county. We are underpopulated, very rural, my village of 713 people includes in that total an assisted living care unit and what used to be referred to as a retirement home, but seems to have more of the nearly totally bedridden and those suffering from Alzheimer these days than anyone else. In other words, we are last in line for getting power restored when a large percentage of the Fox Valley is without power. Some were without power for a week. Although trees fell on power lines and limbs sliced through roofs in the village, our residents were unharmed. Hardest hit was our village-maintained cemetery, Oak Hill. We lost several limbs off large white pines on the perimeter and a couple oaks, one in particular nearly three feet in diameter. The debris from this large oak alone covered possibly a quarter of the older section of the cemetery. As our Village Maintenance Department Supervisor said during a board meeting, "We need to plant some more oak trees at the --- Hill Cemetery." So planting oaks he did, yesterday. With oak wilt running through central Wisconsin and whole groves of these trees being decimated, oaks are getting a bad rap in the minds of many as a planting tree. Most of the oaks around self-seeded. With the increase in deer browse from herd pressures, there are not a lot of oaks coming up to take the place of these majestic trees. Oak Hill Cemetery is an old cemetery dating from before the establishment of our village. The oak that was felled in last Labor Day weekend's storm may have been its naming tree. We felt we had no other choice in regards to replacements but more white oak. Through my horticulture connections, I was able to get five nice six foot tall oaks bare root. Oaks are sometimes a difficult tree to transplant. Oaks bought bare root need to be "sweated." These oaks are typically dug in the fall and held in cold storage. Cold storage induces dormancy. Sweating these bare root oaks breaks the dormancy. Sweating is done best by spraying the oaks with water and packing the roots in some sort of material (sawdust, mulch, compost, straw, marsh hay-- my favorite is compost) that will hold moisture so the roots do not dry out during the sweating period. Then the entire tree is wrapped tightly in plastic to provide a humid environment. These sweating oaks are kept in a building or under controlled condition at 50 to 70 degrees (F) and out of direct sunlight. I like to use the large corrugated cardboard box looking very much like an "oak coffin", in which they were dropped-shipped, but you may need to improvise. Once the sweating process begins, I feel very much like the caretaker for something out of Twilight, checking the coffin for sign of life in a thing that can only be thought of as undead. During this time, allowing the oaks to sit in a pond of collected water, freezing, or allowing the oaks to dry out will all ensure the oaks will not only be undead, but not break dormancy and be truly dead dead. Once the bud have begun to swell, they are ready to plant. When the buds swell they will increase in size and you may see some color from white to a light green line running along the edge of the scales on the buds. This sweating is necessary for all members of the rosa family, which includes fruiting trees, roses, and brambles, but also members of the genus quercus and acer (oaks and maples). It is fairly quick for the roses, pears, plums, and apples; but takes a bit longer for oaks and maples. It is best to plant during periods of high humidity after the chance of a hard frost is low. In central Wisconsin, this is mid-May and October. Before planting soak the roots in warm water for at least a half hour and no longer than 12 hours. Plant so soil level will be at the beginning of the root flare. At Oak Hill, they are planted with a bit of a depression around the tree and the drip line is free of grass, a good idea in an area where the predominate soil type is sand. Keep your oak well-watered through the growing season and after the fall hard freeze until the ground freezes and you will be well on your way to having your tree survive.


  1. I planted a flowering dogwood on April 1 and have been waiting for it to leaf out. Today I realized that all the leaf buds are dead. So sad. It was cold in April, but I didn't think we had any hard freezes.

    Anyhow, sorry to hear about all that storm damage. And good luck with those oaks.

  2. I checked my sources and while a flowering dogwood would probably not need sweating to break dormancy, it should be planted in times of high humidity. If the leaf buds did freeze, they may regrow if they were not leaved out to start. This process can take six weeks or so, so don't despair! You may want to wrap your dogwood in a plastic tenting of some sort.

  3. Maybe you're right, the stems look green; I don't think the wood is dead yet. But I figured if the buds are dead, the rest will follow.