Augusta Forestry Center manager Josh McLaughlin talks about tree seedlings. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)
As the fall season approaches, Mike Ortmeier is preparing to break out his broom, dustpan and new portable leaf blower to add to the nearly 8,000 pounds of acorns he’s collected for Virginia over the past 13 years.
The dedication shown by Ortmeier, an Arlington native and retiree, to the nuts has earned him notoriety within the Virginia Department of Forestry, which operates an annual acorn collection program.
His acorn hauls, along with nuts from other native tree species collected by volunteers throughout the state, will be planted at the department’s Augusta Nursery Center to grow into seedlings.
The seedlings are then typically sold to landowners for reforestation purposes, providing numerous environmental benefits like decreasing carbon in the atmosphere, improving water quality and reducing temperatures in heat-stressed areas.
Augusta Nursery Center Assistant Manager Joshua McLaughlin said the program would also not be possible without volunteers like Ortmeier. He estimates that one-third — or approximately 1 million — of the seeds planted at the nursery last year came from the public. Donations also go toward starting seedlings that are then sold.
“Without that public, I don’t know what we would do,” McLaughlin said.
If the nursery doesn’t get enough donations of a certain seed, the state sometimes has to turn to suppliers, which McLaughlin said can be expensive for an operation that isn’t allowed to take monetary donations.
Ortmeier said a simple acorn lying on the ground “is really valuable — it just takes somebody to go and pick it up.”
With the collection season looming, Ortmeier said collecting the seeds is a “simple and easy process” anyone can do. However, he said increasingly unpredictable acorn fall seasons, coupled with a limited amount of locations throughout Virginia to drop off the nuts and a lack of public awareness, are limiting the program’s potential.
McLaughlin said the department plans to announce when it will begin accepting acorn donations early in September. Although the collection season officially began Sept. 7 last year, he said increasingly unpredictable changes in weather and temperature mean it’s hard to determine an exact date when acorns will begin to drop from trees.
While historically acorns have started falling in early October, parts of Virginia have had such dry weather this year that McLaughlin said he wouldn’t be surprised if they began in the next week.
Furthermore, he said he isn’t currently seeing as many acorns on white oak trees as he usually does at this time of year. He attributes the abnormality to Virginia’s late frost and dry weather this year.
“You’ve had a lot of trees abort acorns early summer, which means they pretty much went through and dumped 60, 70% of acorns on the ground early before they even developed,” McLaughlin said. “That’s because the tree couldn’t take the developmental stage because it didn’t have enough water.”
Potomac Conservancy Senior Director of Community Conservation Alexsis Dickerson and McLaughlin pointed toward climate change as a main factor in the increasing unpredictability of the season. The timing of when a seed will drop and its quality depend on stressors endured by a tree in the previous season, Dickerson said, like droughts or excessive flooding.
“All of that is just going to contribute to the stress that the tree is under,” Dickerson said. “That can lead to it dropping acorns prematurely because the tree essentially just has to conserve its energy and use it in the best way possible.”
Expert acorn advice
For people looking to start collecting acorns, Dickerson recommends first making sure you have breathable bags to store the seeds in, such as brown paper bags or burlap sacks. Individuals should also prioritize collecting mature acorns, which are tan or brown, as opposed to green ones.
Techniques for collecting the fallen acorns, Ortmeier said, can range from simply picking the nuts up by hand to sweeping them up with a broom and dustpan.
Those looking to try more advanced methods of collecting the nuts can opt for Ortmeier’s leaf blower-broom-dustpan technique, which he said is helpful for easily separating sticks and leaves from the acorns.
“Use a leaf blower to blow all of these seeds off of your sidewalk and the street and put them in a nice pile,” Ortmeier said. “Scoop them up with your dustpan and broom.”
The acorns should then be put in separate bags and labeled with the species, source location and date. Ortmeier recommended putting a leaf of the tree from which the acorns were collected in the bag to allow the department to identify the species more easily.
Collected acorns and nuts should be stored in a cool area for no more than 10 days before being donated.
Details of what seeds the Department of Forestry is seeking and more information about the program will also be included in the press release McLaughlin will soon send announcing the start of the season.
The Augusta nursery typically starts to plant acorns after Oct. 15 as the soil temperature and amount of daylight start to decrease, two factors McLaughlin said help the nuts stay dormant underground longer. Seeds collected before then are typically held in cold storage containers for up to two to three weeks until they are ready to be planted.
If Virginia were to start the collection season sooner to align with earlier acorn drops, McLaughlin said seeds would end up spending maybe six to seven weeks in cold storage before being planted.
The acorns are “going to want to mold,” McLaughlin said. “They’re going to want to start breaking down, they’re going to want to start sprouting.”
However, Dickerson said some of her group’s volunteers are looking for ways to combat this acorn unpredictability through a new “drop watch campaign.”
The conservancy’s Tomorrow’s Trees initiative — which aims to expand acorn collection opportunities for people in the Potomac region— uses the campaign to get community members to document when seeds are falling.
“We can’t totally predict the timing of when different seed species are going to be dropping things,” Dickerson said. “The best way for us to do that is just to let the public tell us right what’s dropping in your neighborhood.”
The initiative also allows residents to take pictures and send them to the conservancy, which then creates a map of where and when acorns are dropping.
A need for seed stations
Virginians who participate in the acorn collection program can either drop off their seeds directly at one of the 44 Department of Forestry offices throughout the state or bring them to volunteer-led collection stations run by groups like the Potomac Conservancy’s Tomorrow’s Trees program. The Augusta nursery also directly accepts donations.
However, Ortmeier said not all Virginians have access to drop-off stations and therefore can’t participate in the program even if they want to.
Tomorrow’s Trees helps fill some of those gaps in the Potomac region, but Dickerson said she’s still unclear how many drop-off stations the conservancy is establishing this season. The organization, she said, is facing logistical challenges after the primary state forester they worked with recently retired.
While Ortmeier thinks it would be a good idea to encourage community members and groups to coordinate their own acorn drop-off stations, McLaughlin said he prefers people donate their acorns through the conservancy or at DOF offices.
“It reassures us that things will get back to us,” McLaughlin said.
Virginians can locate their nearest DOF office through the department’s website by filling out their information on its “Find my Forester” page.
For example, McLaughlin said if someone were to donate acorns to a department office in Bristol, a state employee would then transport the seeds to the Salem regional office and keep them in cold storage until McLaughlin could bring them back to the nursery.
While the Department of Forestry is still working on ways to spread public awareness of the collection season — an effort McLaughlin said could potentially involve master naturalist groups – he emphasized Virginia nurseries are not alone in their quest to collect enough seeds.
“That is a struggle that every tree nursery in the United States right now [faces], is making sure we have enough seed to continue to grow the seeds that we need to plant,” McLaughlin said. “I’m hoping we can get it wrapped around sometime in the near future, but that is the major variable that nurseries have is the seed.”
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