Plant an Oak

Nearly all trees are good. They purify our air, provide shade, look good, increase property values, and calm our lives. They absorb heavy amounts of rain water and carbon.

But oaks are unique. Our nine types of native oaks allow a high number of other indigenous species to live here. Today they are disappearing. This is a serious problem for our declining songbirds, frogs, and butterflies. It’s also critical for the other trees, shrubs, and plants that need oaks.

Only a handful of isolated groves and woodlands remain here, and young oaks have become rare. Without your help, the future of oaks to support our ecosystems is in jeopardy.

See below for how to plant an oak.

For more good trees to consider: Native Tree and Shrub Guide (pdf)

For greater detail: Oak Ecosystem Recovery Project


Step 1: Select your oak

If you have oaks

If a tiny oak sprouted on your property in a spot that’s shady or close to a building, driveway, or power lines, transplant it in spring to a better, sunnier spot. (If buckthorn is casting the shade, please instead remove the buckthorn.) Deeply water your seedling. Go prepare its new hole. Then dig up the little fellow, protecting its roots as much as possible. If it’s already a foot or two tall, dig as deep and wide as you can reasonably handle and wrap this ‘root ball’ in a tarp to protect it while you move it to the new hole. Immediately re-plant with the instructions below.       

If you buy oaks

To select an oak that will thrive, first pick the spot where you’ll plant it. It should be quite sunny. It should be well away from buildings, power lines, driveways, and other things a grown tree could eventually interfere with. Then think about how dry or wet this spot can get, especially in spring and summer. And take note if the soil is has a lot of clay, gravel, sand, or “fill.”

Most nurseries do not offer native oaks. In spring and fall, look for native plant sales from Openlands and other conservation groups, or make an appointment to shop at Possibility Place Nursery in Monee.

While shopping, consider additional native trees and shrubs (pdf)and groupings that create privacy and shade, soak up rain water, and beautify your landscape. Landscape designers who specialize in natives include:

Meet the oaks

White oak (Quercus alba)

  • Needs 3-4 hours of sun each day
  • Thrives in moist soil, tolerates dry (not good for wet spots)
  • Grows in sand and clay (not good in compacted soil)
  • Tall – can reach 80 feet
  • Can live hundreds of years
  • Many leaves stay on tree through winter
  • Fall color is reddish-purple

Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor)

  • Prefers full sun
  • Thrives in areas that range from moist to flooded
  • Tolerates road salt, compacted soils and heat
  • Tall – can reach 80 feet
  • Grows fast
  • Fall color is yellow, orange, or brown

Scarlet oak  (Quercus coccinea)

  • Needs full sun
  • Grows on sandy and clay soils ranging from medium to dry
  • Good for privacy screening when lower branches are not pruned off
  • Short – rarely taller than 65 feet
  • Grows fast
  • Sometimes labelled Hill’s oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis)
  • Fall color is beautiful scarlet-red

Shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria)

  • Great for privacy screening because leaves stay on through winter
  • Prefers full sun
  • Soil moisture can range from medium to dry
  • Handles many soil types including clay, gravel, sand
  • Short – can reach 50 feet
  • Fall color is usually brown, sometimes red-orange

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

  • Requires full sun
  • Adapts to many conditions – even clay – and wet to dry spots
  • Tolerates road salt, lightly compacted soils, and road sides
  • Grows fast
  • Tall – can reach 80 feet
  • Fall color is yellow

Chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii)

  • Needs full sun
  • Grows in soils that are dry to medium  
  • Grows fast
  • Good along streets – tolerates some road salt, drought, some compaction
  • Tall – can reach 70 feet
  • Fall color is orange yellow

Pin oak (Quercus palustris)

  • Needs full sun
  • Needs wet soil – good for areas that flood
  • Medium height – can reach 65 feet
  • Fall color ranges from red to yellow to orange

Red oak (Quercus rubra)

  • Tolerates light shade
  • Grows in soils that are moist to medium
  • Grows fast
  • Tall – can reach 80 feet
  • Fall color an outstanding scarlet 

Black oak (Quercus velutina)

  • Needs full sun
  • Prefers sandy, gravelly, or other well-drained soils
  • Tolerates road salt
  • Medium height – can reach 70 feet
  • Fall color is usually brown, sometimes red

Step 2: Plant your oak

Many landscaping companies fail to properly train their crews in how to properly plant trees.  Use our instructions as you oversee them or hire a certified arborist to help: www.isa-arbor.com.

WATER, WATER, WATER the first season. Even our most drought-tolerant trees need a season or two of watering to get their roots established before they can withstand dryness and heat.

  • DIG a hole two or three times wider than the pot or ‘root ball’ and no deeper than the plant is in its pot or root ball.
  • EXPOSE the root flare if it’s not visible at the soil surface. That’s the slightly swollen spot where the trunk meets the roots. If it’s not showing, gently scrape the soil away.
  • REMOVE all packaging including burlap or twine. Be gentle with roots.
  • PLACE the tree in the hole. Fill with soil and tamp down to eliminate air pockets.
  • MULCH evenly in a circle two-three inches deep (no volcano- or donut-shaped mounds), extending as far out from the trunk as the tips of the branches go. Leave a gap between the mulch and the trunk – mulch should not touch the trunk or it might lead to disease. Fresh woodchips are not recommended because as they decompose, nutrients are pulled away from your plant.
  • WATER one inch per week throughout summer and fall the first year, unless we get a good soaking rain that week.
  • ENCIRCLE the tree with a wire cage for its first few years if deer or rabbits are an issue.

Step 3: Care for your oak  

Many landscaping companies fail to properly train their crews in how to properly mulch, water, and prune trees, and how to identify and treat diseases. Find a certified arborist here: www.isa-arbor.com.

  • WATER one inch per week the first year and whenever there is a drought.
  • MULCH annually as instructed above. Expand the mulch circle as the tree grows to protect it from the mowers and weed-whackers that frequently damage trees. 
  • LEARN how to prune young trees. Or hire a certified arborist to provide this important service for you. Fixing problems when trees are small is far easier than when they’re large. 
  • WATCH for disease. These are tricky so, when in doubt, bring in a certified arborist.