Notes from Windward: #67
Getting Chestnuts Started
As I have mentioned in previous articles, silviculture and agroforestry play an integral role in sustainable land management on a community level. However, the process of establishing an intentional, healthy and productive tree landscape takes several years, since trees take their time to grow. But it is well worth the wait and the effort, for trees will long outlast the summer garden, producing edibles for 25-100 years, depending on the species. We have to start somewhere in this transition to a more tree based food production system, so I have begun the process of growing chestnuts from seed.
Much of the process for germinating chestnut seeds stems from a mimicry of nature. When chestnuts and other nut seeds fall to the ground in the fall, squirrels and other critters gather them up and bury them beneath the soil. Those seeds that make it through the winter uneaten have enjoyed a long dormant period and probably have already started germinating when the spring thaw arrives. So in the absence of hoarding critters, we must replicate this dormancy period in order for the chestnuts to germinate.
Most on-line sources recommend placing the chestnuts gathered in the Fall in a plastic bag or container filled with moist peat or sphagnum peat moss and putting them in the fridge for 3-4 months, keeping the seeds between 32-45?F. The seeds can tolerate temperatures below freezing, but not for extended periods of time and can be damaged with temperatures below 20?F. By March, the dormant period is over and the chestnuts will have begun germinating. The chestnuts can then be transplanted into a container or into the ground.
Storing the seeds in the fridge seems to be an easy method of 1) keeping the seeds at a cool and constant temperature and 2) preventing animals from disturbing the seeds. However, planting the seeds in containers and storing them in Vermadise over the winter I think will achieve these two goals as well, while being a single step process.
So, in an attempt to determine if it makes a difference, I did both—I stored half in moist peat moss in a plastic bag in the fridge, to be transplanted come March, and the other half I planted in individual containers with potting mix. If both methods work, we will have 15 chestnut seedlings in the Spring.
The online sources are rather particular about the potting mix used for planting the seedlings. The ratio I used was:
1 peat moss: 1 perlite: 1 clay-rich soil (instead of vermiculite which I did not have on hand) + a little bit of Mg for good measure.
I found two websites helpful in this process:
Growing American Chestnuts, and Starting Chestnuts from Seed
Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 67