How to Plant and Grow a Chestnut Tree
Planting and growing a Chestnut tree is a satisfying experience requiring a bit of planning and patience. The extra effort is amply rewarded by the lasting legacy of a mature tree. Once the American Chestnut was one of every four trees found in the hardwood forests of the eastern United States. They were a vital source of food and timber. The blight that decimated the forest is still a threat. The efforts of dedicated conservationists are helping to bring these trees back. The trees available today are often Chinese, Japanese or hybrids carefully cultivated to preserve the species.
Step 1 - Preparing the Seed
Starting Chestnut trees from seeds is often the easiest way to ensure the growth of a healthy plant. Purchase chestnuts from a reputable nursery or grower, not the grocery store. The nuts at the grocery have been exposed to rough handling, drying conditions and heat that will have stressed and probably killed the seed. The living seeds purchased need gentle treatment and immediate attention.
Chestnuts require stratification in order to germinate. This period of cold storage lasts for 2 to 4 months. During this time, the chestnuts should be kept largely undisturbed at temperatures between 32 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit. A large zip-lock bag, with holes in it to allow the nuts to breathe, stored in the refrigerator will suffice. If stored elsewhere, the container should be resistant to the efforts of rodents, birds, and insects attracted to the potential food source.
Vermiculite, sand, or the moss used to line hanging baskets can be moistened and used to cushion and cover the seeds. The seeds need moisture, but with too much, they will spoil. Once each month, check the contents re-wetting as needed. Use care in handling the dormant nuts and their emerging roots. Keep their container oriented with the same side facing upwards.
Step 2 - Selecting the Site
Choose the planting site with care. Chestnuts thrive in moist, loamy or sandy soil. They prefer an acidic environment with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5. Locations protected from harsh, drying winds or damaging frost pockets are best. Clay or alkaline soils will kill Chestnuts. Dormant trees can withstand water-saturated soils. When the tree is actively growing, over-watering or poor drainage are also killers.
Step 3 - Planting and Transplanting
Plant as soon as the danger of hard frost has passed. Place seeds on their sides at a depth of one-half inch. If the root is visible, carefully plant the seed with the root pointed downward. The best planting option will vary by location and the Chestnut cultivator selected. Indoor container planting allows the seeds an early start in February. A deep container is required. Planting in a garden bed, particularly under row covers will likewise afford some protection from the weather.
The risk of predation for the seed and growing plants is greater in the garden. Deer, rabbits, rodents and birds will find the chestnuts irresistible. Encircling the plantings with hardware cloth, flashing, or even a tin can will help. Transplanting from the garden or indoor container should be done when the seedling is 6 to 8 inches in height. Given the effort required to keep young trees safe, some growers simply plant their seeds at the final grow site. This eliminates the need to duplicate protection efforts after transplantation, but at the risk of potentially greater exposure to the weather.