Bang for Your Buck(eye): Sprouting Tree Seeds

Reader Contribution by Corinne Gompf and Heritage Harvest Farm
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Last Sunday, the family went down to my father-in-law’s house for a visit. He has a couple Ohio buckeye trees by the driveway, and my six-year-old made a beeline for the grass to search for fallen nuts. After filling her hands with, oh, I don’t know, like, four buckeyes, Emery insisted that she needed a bag so she could pick up more from the yard.

My father-in-law told her where the bags were in the drawer, and said, “I ain’t gonna pick ‘em up. I hit them with the mower, so the hulls are off.”

Needless to say, we came home with a gallon zipper bag full of buckeyes. And they really are quite beautiful. Named for resembling a deer’s eye, the buckeye is a glossy, deep brown nut that is perfect for fall displays and jewelry (can I get an O-H?). However, I don’t know about you, but I don’t really know what to do with a gallon bag of buckeyes, since they are poisonous and I’m not really a crafter.

But after thinking about it, I decided that every good Ohioan ought to have a buckeye tree and looked up tips on how to sprout buckeyes. Most of the instructions seem straight-forward and not too laborious that I would get tired of the whole ordeal.

The first tip I read was that buckeyes need to be planted relatively quickly after falling because they can lose viability and may not germinate, so I got right to work. I was advised to try to sprout more buckeyes than I needed. So I put eight buckeyes in an old plastic superhero cup that my kids no longer used and soaked them in water for 24 hours. I read that any floating buckeyes would not sprout, and to chuck them into the trash. I had one rise to the top, and pitched it.

After 24 hours, I drained the buckeyes while I went to the greenhouse to find a few medium pots to fill with garden soil. I found six, so I headed up to the garden to dig up some soil, filling the pots about halfway. Next, I selected the best-looking buckeyes for planting (I doubt this makes any difference if there are no insect holes. You know…in the eye of the beholder and whatnot). I covered the buckeyes, pressing them slightly to firm the soil. Water and voila! The pots were seeded.

Then I selected a protected southern spot in a flowerbed to plant the pots. Now, you might be wondering why I just didn’t direct sow the buckeyes into the garden. Well, Ohio buckeye trees have very long taproots that can make transplanting difficult. When (and if) they sprout and grow into seedlings, I want to be able to remove the whole root to minimize damage to the tree. Plus, Matt can be a bit reckless with the mower, and on numerous occasions, little trees (and toys or kids’ shoes) have gotten whacked in half.

I did read that you can put buckeyes in the fridge if you don’t want to go to the trouble now. Just place your buckeyes in a plastic bag along with some soil for moisture and pop it into the crisper drawer (to impress your friends, the fancy-pantsy term here is cold stratification). Then when you’re ready to sow them in the spring, simply remove your buckeyes from the fridge and seed in pots or directly into the soil and wait for germination. After about three weeks, you should know if your buckeyes have sprouted. Keep an eye on the pots to insure they have not become rootbound, which can stunt your trees.

Now, remember that buckeyes are poisonous to most mammals. According to the USDA, buckeye trees are toxic to humans if any part is ingested, including leaves, bark, and seeds. And, if you’re worried about handling buckeyes, you can wear gloves to protect your skin. But, a good, thorough hand-washing should be good enough to remove any toxins.

Once my seedlings have a set of true leaves, I plan to relocate them to their permanent, partially shaded spot on the property. I’d like to have two trees, and need to place them at least 20 feet apart. Considered slow-growing trees, buckeyes will grow about a foot or two a year, depending on the variety. If you’re unsure about which variety you have, look at the hull. I’m fairly confident that I have Ohio buckeyes because the hulls are spiked and not smooth. There are six species of buckeye trees, growing in zones 4 – 7, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

So, if all goes well, I hope to have a few free buckeye trees to plant next summer. I always love to experiment with sprouting seeds that I collect along the way in order to maintain a sense of frugality in the garden. If you have any tips that I should know about with regard to sprouting buckeyes, leave me a comment below.

Corinne Gompf is a writer and hobby farmer in Morrow County, Ohio. She is a graduate from the University of Toledo, with a BA in English, creative writing concentration. Along with her husband, Matt, and two children, Fletcher and Emery, Corinne raises poultry, Boer goats, rabbits, and chemical-free produce. Connect with Corinne on her Heritage Harvest Farm Facebook page.

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