How to grow Dwarf Chinkapin Oaks (DCOs) from seed


How to grow dwarf chinkapin oaks (DCO) from seed:

We have successfully grown (germination rate of over 95%) dwarf chinkapin oaks (Quercus prinoides; DCOs) in Southeast Nebraska over the past few years.

We post this thread for everyone who might be interested in growing this great oak for wildlife habitat or just to add an unusual shrub to their backyard.

More plant info on:

Where do I get DCO acorns?

DCO acorns are a little difficult to come by since this kind of a rare oak species. You can buy them at:

  • Nurseries


  • Bob Henrickson from the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum has sold them in the past (; seed source: southeast Nebraska (zone 5)

  • Troy Pabst ( ; seed source: southeast Nebraska (zone 5) sold them previously on the qdma forum and now on the “deer hunter forum”.His seed comes from a different location than Bob Henrickson's.

  • Our friend Pat Hayes from the Dubuque area in Eastern Iowa (“White Water Farm” on Facebook) has some for sale
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The growth rate of DCO's

- They are slow to establish in the first year (4-6 inch of top growth in the first year). In root control system you might get a 2nd flush, resulting in an 8-12 inch plant. By the end of the 2nd growing season, they really take off.

The first 2 years they grow slowly (compared to other tree forms of oaks). They more or less establish their root system. After that, the plant REALLY takes off. It is very realistic that the plant produces its first acorns in 3-4 years.

Just remember: The 1st year they sleep, the 2nd year they creep, the 3rd year they leap!

The plants in the wild (in Southeast Nebraska), where we collected acorns from on August 30, 2012, are about 12-15 ft. tall.

DCO's prefer full sun. They grow fine in partial shade, too. Some of the plants we collected acorns from in the wild last year are understory plants. However, DCO's planted in partial shade produce less acorns.
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I have my own plant: When are acorns ripe? - Acorn cap removal

Acorns are ripe when:

- the acorn can easily be rolled out of the cap
It is NOT the color that determines if the acorn is ripe, but can it be rolled out of the cap or not.

Prematurely peeling the cap off the acorn can result in:

- damaging the tip of the acorn
- a damaged tip may lead to desiccation of the acorn thus affecting germination
- a damaged tip may lead to pathogens entering the acorn thus affecting germination

Test Floating acorns to see if the nut is filled or weevils are present:

- Fill a bowl with water and dump the acorns in there. Acorns that swim on the top have to be discarded.
This is an interesting article to read: <

Moisture content in acorns:
- The acorns MUST retain a very high moisture content in the seed. They should be monitored for moisture periodically if grown in pot, in the field, or kept in the refrigerator over the winter.
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Watering your acorns over the winter

You HAVE to monitor your acorns' moisture over the winter (no matter if you have them outside in trays or if you field planted them).

If you have a DRY winter, you HAVE to water them occasionally even if they are frozen rock solid in your rootmaker propagation trays (or in the field). BUT don't water when it's 20 below, water when the temps are more moderate.

VERY IMPORTANT: Do NOT use water from a water softener system or distilled water. If you don't want to use your regular tap water, collect rain water.
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How to keep acorns in a tight zip lock bag in the refrigerator:
- Take the caps off, so mold won't grow
- Monitor them so they won't dry out (You can add SLIGHTLY moistened peat moss to the bag. If you don't like to use peat moss, then use a SLIGHTLY moistened paper towel and add it to the acorns in the bag. Once the paper towel has dried, renew it. This way you can EASILY monitor the moisture content in the bag. (Sorry, but I can't tell you the % moisture that should be maintained in the bag. Just check the towel.)
- Keep them in the coolest spot in your fridge (radicle = root will emerge no matter what, do NOT damage the radicle in any way). A 'beer fridge' set at a cooler temperature might be best for storage. The closer you can maintain the temp around 32 F, the better (use a thermometer).
It is VERY important that you monitor moisture over time. If they dry out, they are DONE. Don't think: "Oh they'll be fine in the fridge until spring" Monitor them!
This is an interesting article to read: <
We've never stored really big batches of acorns in a ziplock bag; we usually break them up. According to this website you shouldn't store more than 3 cups of acorns in a bag otherwise you might end up with too much moisture in your bag (might trigger mold).
NOTE: DCO acorns have a high rate of respiration.
Acorns from the white oak group send out a radicle (establishment root) in the fall, even if you store them in the coolest cooler.
Typically, this root does not branch out. It only branches out if you store the acorns in a warm spot. Again: Monitor your temperature!
Please note: Avoid the build-up of ethylene in the fridge. That means store no fruit in the fridge while you have acorns in the fridge. Ethylene affects the growth of the acorns.

We don't recommend putting them in 2 zip loc bags. Two bags will interfere with gas exchange still needed by the acorns.
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General planting position of acorns:
- Plant them sideways, so the point is horizontal (=where the radicle will emerge from, and eventually the shoot). Planting depth: 1/2 - 1 inch deep (rule here= 2X the acorn width)
Plant spacing / Field Planting of DCOs :
DCOs grow about 12-15 ft. wide and tall. So if you don't want to overcrowd them, plant them at a spacing of 12-15 ft (acorns or transplanted plants). If you like to end up with a denser spacing, plant them a little closer.
DCOs are in the white oak group so they send an establishment root called a radicle in the fall
- Once this root is established it needs a cold treatment of at least 3 months (called vernalization, much like winter wheat) of 33-38 F (extreme cold should be avoided)
In nature (in the wild), acorns from the white oak group fall on the ground, germinate, undergo a cold treatment, and flush out in the spring.

So we have to MIMIC NATURE!!!

For BEST results
- Plant the acorns in the fall, either in the field or in propagation trays
- Put them in a cold spot. Avoid temperature swings!
- Make sure they don't dry out!

Spring planted:
- Plant them in the spring, position them sideways (tip on side, root will split and shoot will emerge from there)
- Planting depth (twice the acorn width, that is 1/2 - 1 inch deep)
We have grown plants this way, too (overwintered acorns in the fridge). However, we believe this kind of treatment sets them back. They don't grow as quickly. They seem to need extra time to get their roots established and to flush out.
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Planting mix for DCOs grown in pots - what pots to use

Our experience is growing DCOs in pots (outdoors) and later planting them out in the field.

Our tips for planting them in pots:

- Use root control pots (we don't want to promote a product, but they produce the BEST root system)
- Do NOT use native soil in pots (this makes adobe in the summer)
- You have to have good drainage in the pots
- Buy a professional potting mix. Check if your local nursery will sell you some. When it comes to potting mix, you get what you pay for. You HAVE to get a GOOD mix. Do NOT get the cheap dark potting mix available everywhere. Do NOT get the mix that contains moisture conserving crystals.
- Do NOT use straight peat moss to grow your DCO acorns or any other plant.

What is a good potting mix?

A good potting mix is:
- fluffy
- holds moisture
- gives plant roots the perfect balance of air, moisture, nutrition, and anchor
Roots need air, as well as water, to grow!

If a potting mix is too dense or too wet:

- plant roots will be stunted or even die
A good potting mix (also called media in the trade) contains high quality ingredients such as:
- sphagnum peat moss
- aged bark
- perlite
- vermiculite
- lime
- a wetting agent (helps soil stay uniformly moist. Do NOT buy mix with moisture retaining crystals.)

A good potting mix:

- drains water in 5-10 seconds
If the soil becomes soupy, or water drips out slowly, you've chosen the wrong soil.
WE like to use the Fafard 51 L mix which is commercially used for growing smaller nursery stock (<

Other mixes that can be used:

The Promix bx or the Fafard 51 will both work well. Personally, Promix bx would be my second choice. We totally understand your point of having a hard time finding professional mixes. So go for it, if this is what you can find.
FYI, Sept. 2013/ NH Mountains said in another thread: I paid anywhere from $29-32 locally per 3.8 cubic foot bale for the Promix BX. (from Virginia) replied: They want around $50 in my area.
Letemgrow has lots of experience growing plants, he has been very successful using Metro Mix 852 (great, well drained mix)
We realize that it's VERY difficult to get professional potting mixes in a retail store, so the following might be another option:
Another mix that might also work for DCOs is the FaFard 3 B.
Just keep an eye on watering. When you water it will be visual only, that means, when one of your planting containers is dry, the one next to it may or may not be dry. So you'll have to decide by looking at each pot if watering is necessary.

If you are using a potting media with a high sphagnum peat moss content and think about increasing its aeration and drainage, then we recommend you to amend it with aged pine bark (not pine bark mulch sold at home improvement stores). (IF you want to mimic Fafard 51, then the % of aged pine bark should be 65%).

Watering the professional potting mix Fafard 52

If Fafard 52 is the only professional potting mix you can get, then GET IT. It's a good mix.
However, this potting mix has to be watered a little less since it contains more peat and less bark than the Fafard 51 and therefore has less drainage. It will stay wet longer. When you water this potting mix, it will turn darker, so don't water it when it still has a dark color.

What is proper watering?

Properly watering plants in containers means adding enough water so the water runs out of the bottom of the pot. Following this method prevents a salt build up in the media which will eventually result in plant death (browning of leaves is a sign of salt build up). It is important to let the media dry out before watering again.
Do NOT use water from a water softener or distilled water!!!!! Collect rain water, if you don't want to use your regular tap water.
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Can I mix MULCH to the potting media?

NO, you can't add mulch to your potting media (only composted pine bark can be mixed in there. IF you want to mimic Fafard 51, then the % of aged pine bark should be 65%).
Mulch is a substance that is not broken down yet. If you add it, microbes will rob nitrogen, that you want to be available for your seedling or newly planted plant, and use it to degrade the mulch.
Can I add Osmocote to the seed media?
Do NOT add Osmocote to the seed media, add the Osmocote once you have transplanted the plants into one gallon pots.
What pot size(s) should I choose if I want to grow DCOs in pots for 2 years?

If you want to grow DCO's in pots, this is what you might want to consider:

You can't just grow them in one pot size. You HAVE to use at least 2 sizes if you want to grow them in a pot for 2 yrs.

- Try and get RootMaker (trademark) propagation trays RMII, 18-cell trays
- Start them out in there and grow them until they double flush, i.e., the plants have a height of about 1 ft.
- Then transfer them to 1 gallon Root Maker pots in which you can grow them until you plant them out

Please note: We do NOT want to promote RootMaker products, we just believe they are the best for proper root establishment


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When do I start fertilizing DCOs grown in propagation trays?

Start fertilizing with a liquid Miracle Gro (20-20-20) when you see top growth (the shoot is coming out). Once you transplant the seedlings to a 1 gallon pot, add Osmocote to the potting mix.

When do I start fertilizing DCO seedlings?
Start fertilizing after the 1st year. At this time you want to promote root growth, so use a fertilizer higher in phosphorus (= promotes roots growth).
Do NOT fertilize too late in the season. Examples: In Michigan no later than the 1st part of June, in SC no later than mid to late July.
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Can I grow DCOs in the basement?
It's best to mimic natural growing conditions by giving them a cold treatment. They will grow without a cold treatment but will perform BEST if they do have one.

DCO acorns need to be exposed to a cold treatment of 33-38 F for at least 3 months.
- So storing them in your basement won't work. Even if you think it's cool, it probably is still way too warm.
- You can START you acorns in a warm spot indoors and after no more than 3 weeks indoors take them to a colder area.
Acorn Root Establishment - if started indoors

We said earlier that you could start your acorns indoors and then move them outdoors.
Please note: You only want to start them indoors to get the ROOT established (2-3 inches). You can CAREFULLY move the media aside, SLIGHTLY move the acorn a little sideways to feel if the root has been established, and then cover the acorn up again.
You do NOT want a shoot to emerge before you move them outdoors. Frost will kill it.

It should take about 10 days until radicals develop in your RM trays. Be aware that you REALLY have to watch watering. If you are using trays with 32 cells (instead of 18), the cells are pretty small and easily dry out.
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How do I acclimatize plants to outdoor conditions if grown indoors?
Plants grown indoors need to be gradually exposed to outdoor light conditions/planting sites:

- First 5-6 days: keep them in heavy shade
- Next 5 days: partial shade, IMPORTANT: Protect them from the west sun which is the hottest
- After day 11: full sun
Can I amend the soil in the planting hole for seedlings when I transplant them outside?

No, we do NOT advise you to amend the soil in the hole where you'll eventually plant your seedlings started in the rootmaker system (otherwise you might end up with a perched water table; see more info below). Just add a top layer of mulch (max. 2 inches).
Can I keep DCOs in rootmaker trays in the refrigerator over the winter?

This should work, too. However, do NOT use cellophane to cover the trays. Use a STANDARD garbage bag (not the coated one, like Steelflex) to put the rootmaker tray in. Put the trays in the coldest spot of your refrigerator AND monitor their moisture during the time they are in the fridge. You should get the root to grow but not the shoot (root establishment = THAT'S what you want in the winter).
Maybe you have a fridge in your garage, one that doesn't get that much traffic (to keep the temp kind of even) and where NO fruit is stored (release of ethylene otherwise).
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Can I overwinter RootMaker trays outdoors?

YES, you can bury the tray(s) (filled with professional potting media) in your garden. Dig the hole slightly larger than the tray(s), put a layer of hardware cloth on top of the tray(s), if you plant more than one tray, put the trays close together, backfill the surrounding area with mulch as well as on top (no more than 2 inches on top) of the trays. The mulch will not only protect them from extreme temps but will also make it easier to lift the trays in the spring.

Make sure to monitor their moisture over the winter. = VERY important
Where do I bury my propagation trays in the garden?

When it comes to burying your trays outside, you have to choose a location in your garden that does NOT have HUGE temperature swings. Mulching the trays in will help in maintaining a steady temp.

Please note: You do NOT want to get top growth, which means no shoot should emerge in the winter (winter kill otherwise). You are only OVERWINTERING your acorns there, you do NOT grow them there over the winter. So a sunny spot is NOT necessary. You want a spot where the soil stays frozen once it is frozen.

Put the trays on the north side of your garden, in a shaded area if you have it.

In the spring you move them to a warmer spot and progress using your rootmaker tray system