In September 1999, my 13-year-old daughter came to me for help after being assigned an eighth-grade science project: “creating an experiment with plants.” Being an avid amateur gardener my whole life, I rose to the challenge. “Our” science project was to gather acorns from a very tall, mature bur oak tree near our home (the "Mother Tree") and then grow them in varying soil types. We chose to use commercial potting soil, bagged manure, and soil from our yard.
We set up three identical flowerpots. In each we planted four acorns. The pots were placed in a warm, sunny window. They were watered as the soil dried out. After two months, it came time to record the results of the experiment.
Results: None of the acorns germinated.
My daughter began to cry. Then she informed me that she would have to leave school because her experiment had failed. With my assurance, she submitted the results, writing that no conclusion could be drawn from the experiment since the acorns did not germinate. Fortunately part of science is experiencing failure. She received a passing grade, and did not have to leave school, as she had feared.
While my daughter’s involvement in the project was officially finished, mine was just beginning. I sensed a long-term undertaking, and I was up for the challenge. During the next 18 months, I continued to nurse the acorns. None grew in the bagged manure, one grew in the potting soil, and two grew in my own garden soil.
It was spring 2001, and time to move the plants outside for the season. Over the next several months, all the plants grew to about four inches in height. The following summer, each plant grew three small leaves at the top of the stem. If no other growth occurred, I would now consider this experiment a success.
The acorn in the potting soil died that winter. In the spring of 2003, I transplanted the remaining plant outside on my east facing front lawn. I figured the warm morning sun would be good for the sprout, and it was. That growing season, the fragile green stem grew about one foot and became woody in character. Four or five more leaves developed at the crown of the plant. I was in heaven.
What I did not realize was that my neighbors would develop interest in my project. I spent hours tending to my little tree, clearing away fallen leaves, grass and debris. I built a little protective fence around the base of the plant so it would not be accidentally stepped upon. My neighbors would came by and ask me if they could use their magnifying lenses to better view my “miniature tree.” One friend commented that he didn’t know you could grow bonsai oak trees. (You can, by the way.)
My hours spend nurturing this new sapling were just an opportunity for them to laugh to my perseverance. When fall came and I covered my oak with a Styrofoam rose cone, the snickering just got louder. Like all good people of science, I knew that I would have to endure a little ridicule on my way to fame.
By the end of the 2004 growing season, the tree was about two feet tall and had 15 leaves. A double-stacked rose cone was needed for protection that winter.
At the end of September 2005, the tree was about 55 inches tall, and had developed three separate branches at the crown. There was no way to provide an enclosure for the winter. My tree was going to experience its first winter as a plant in nature, with no artificial structure to protect it. As any parent will tell you, it is hard to cut your children loose and allow them to go out into the world on their own.
My tree was growing taller and taller. The trunk was over one inch in diameter. By the standards of the village where I live, it was now protected by the official Tree Preservation Administrative Manual. My baby was an adolescent. I knew our relationship would never be the same.
The spring of 2007 brought 17-year cicadas. Having vivid memories of the damage caused by them in 1973 and 1990, I knew that I had to protect my tree. I read an online article about using cheesecloth to wrap the tree and prevent the cicadas from ovipositing in the branches. Using PVC tubing as a support structure, I soon had the entire tree, which was now close to 10 feet tall, enveloped in a hermetically sealed enclosure.
While I found great relief in this, my neighbors once again found great humor in how it looked. I should have been embarrassed when the tour buses starting coming by each day, but in my heart, I knew I was protecting the ecosystem.
To show my level of confidence, I submitted a photo of my gauze-covered tree to the local newspaper. It was published one Thursday in the center of Page 3. When my daughter, who was now going to be a senior in college, got home that evening, she took a look at the paper, which I had laid out on the kitchen counter for all to see.
My wife and I heard a blood-chilling scream after she had been in the kitchen a few moments. She came into the family room, shaking the paper at my face. “Dad, don’t you think it is painful enough for me to live in a house with a tree in a tent dress? I can’t bring my friends over because I am so embarrassed. The tour buses come by every day. And now, you get this picture in the paper so more people will know about it. I really will have to move out of this crazy home.”
That lucky, my wife and I were not. My daughter was to remain under our roof for another two years.
I became an “oak tree grandfather” with my first crop of acorns in 2015. I wanted to harvest some to grow, but the squirrels beat me to it. From the second crop in 2016, I was able to germinate one slow-growing plant, which I now have under a grow light in my basement. Last year, I germinated eight more plants.
My tree is close to 30 feet tall right now. It is going to be 19 years old this fall. It has never been pruned or cut into in any way. The arborist who cares for my other trees warns me to “never let anyone touch that tree.” Except for a little leaf gall and occasional infections with anthracnose, the tree has been a healthy companion to all my other yard plants.
Friends and neighbors constantly compliment me now on the size and health of my tree. I still get a few jokes about the cheesecloth summer, but only in the context of me protecting “my baby.” The “Mother Tree” is doing well down the block, and at 90 feet in height, is always watching over my tree.
My daughter has moved out of our home. She is married and has a beautiful and spirited daughter, whose strong personality is very similar to that of her mother. My daughter and her husband have bought a home in the community next to ours. When she comes to visit, she checks on the progress of my latest acorns growing in the basement.
Recently, she said what every father wants to hear from his daughter. “Dad, can you plant some of those acorns in my yard, so my daughter can watch the trees grow up like I did?” That brought a tear to my eyes. Truly.