How to Grow a Red Oak Tree

Red oak in autumn

mtreasure/ Getty Images

In This Article

Red Oaks, Quercus rubra are stately trees with some of the most fantastic shade and fall foliage you will ever see. These magnificent trees, native to the east coast of North America, grow to be large trees averaging 75 feet tall and wide and living anywhere from 150 to 500 years old.

Unless you have a huge yard that can accommodate a red oak, this tree should be left to landscapes that can accommodate the immense area needed to grow this tree. You may also want to consider future construction and site improvements when selecting a red oak. The species is going to outlive you and possibly your descendants. The question to ask yourself is, is this species the right tree? And will it be planted in the right place?

Red oaks are great trees to plant if you live in the Northeast of the United States. Besides being aesthetically pleasing and a superb shade tree, the red oak is invaluable ecologically. Juvenal's duskywing, banded hairstreak, Clymene moth, imperial moth, and the rosy maple moth are just a few of the dozens of pollinators that the red oak hosts.

Common Name  Red Oak
Botanical Name Quercus rubra
Family Fagaceae
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size 50-75 ft. tall, 50-75 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Fertile, Sandy, Dry, Well Draining
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time May
Flower Color Yellowish-Green
Hardiness Zone 4-8, USDA
Native Range Eastern North America

Red Oak Care

If you plan to plant a red oak, it won't require much care once it becomes established other than some light preventative maintenance and keeping an eye out for the rare insect or disease. All told, it is a carefree tree as long as it stays healthy and is given a good start.

The healthy part is a little luck, a little maintenance; the good start is all you, but we can help you get you in the right direction. Whether you decide to buy a sapling (which is the easy route) or propagate your own red oak, you should plan to give it plenty of room wherever you decide to plant it. That requires the typical planning, so think ahead about both the height and width of your mature tree.

Light

You will want to place your red oak in a place that will receive plenty of sunlight. Oaks need full sun to part sun to thrive, and giving anything less will cause some issues. Even if you plant near another tree, it will like some room to allow its canopy to get some sunlight.

Soil

Though not incredibly picky about its soil, if you want your oak at its happiest, you will want to give it sandy, well-draining soil that is somewhat rich and on the acidic side. Testing your soil's pH might be a good idea before planting if you need to adjust the pH a bit.

Never layer more than an inch of soil over its roots. All roots need room, but this is especially important for oaks.

Water

While your oak establishes its roots and matures for the first few years, you should water it weekly. It will take a good amount of water, especially during dry periods; 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter is a good standard to follow. Once your oak is established, Don't worry about watering it any further mother nature should take care of it just fine.

Temperature and Humidity

Red oaks are very frost-resistant and handle the cold, wet winters and hot, humid summers of the Northeast and Mid Atlantic. As the climate changes and warms, their zones are shifting northward. They are presently listed as USDA Zone 4-8.

Fertilizer

Your oak should not need any supplemental fertilizer. In the rare case that your oak seems to be lagging, you should test the soil and see to check test for soil deficiencies. To correct any nutrient deficiencies found, fertilize with the appropriate NPK formulation to compensate for the deficient nutrient with a slow-release fertilizer at the tree's dripline.

Growing a Red Oak From an Acorn

This method can be used for any tree in the genus Quercus, but be warned the genus is slow to germinate.

When you're ready to select your acorn, be sure only to collect the second batch of acorns that drop that season. Some years the acorns will be plentiful; this is called a mast year. Unfortunately, you may not get many at all in other years, and you may need to hunt for them. It would help if you collected enough to have extra in case some of the acorns don't germinate.

Next, gently remove the caps of the acorns; these are actually protective covers of the seed material. Unless you tear into the seed, you will not be damaging the seed by removing the cap. Once all the caps are removed you will want to perform a float test. Place your acorns in a large container of water and set them aside for five minutes or so. If any acorns are floating, these are not viable seed material.

The next step is important, and it is a process called stratification. You want to thoroughly dry your acorns and place them in a plastic bag filled with damp vermiculite, perlite, peat, or sawdust, and seal the bag. Place the sealed bag in your refrigerator for 45 to 60 days, and you will want to look for germination after 45 days or so.

What Is Stratification?

Stratification involves simulating natural conditions that the seeds must experience before germination can occur such as a period of cold or warm weather.

Your seedling is now ready to be transplanted into a small pot filled with good quality potting soil and allowed to grow until it is 12 to 18 inches tall. At that point, it is ready to be transplanted to its place in your yard.