My Red Oak

My Red Oak

When I moved into my Sears Bungalow in the fall of 1997, my grandchildren, who, at that time, all lived in new sub-divisions with newly planted trees, referred to my neighborhood as the Neighborhood of Big Trees, which, indeed, it was.  Settled in the late 20’s, as houses went up, street trees were planted: mostly American Elm, White Ash, and Silver and Norway Maple.  The elms were devastated in the 50’s by Dutch Elm disease, to be replaced in the 60’s with Honey Locust cultivars that had lost their thorns and pods.

There was a huge White Ash on my west treebank–oops!– parkway.  It had been damaged severely in the recent sidewalk, curb and gutter replacement project, and unfortunately, it was downed by a lightning strike.   Then along came the Emerald Ash Borer and the rest of the neighborhood ash trees were lost.

The city instigated a tree planting program with choices of trees that supposedly would grow well on parkways, but many of the trees available to be chosen were inappropriate from a cultural standpoint.  A parkway is a difficult growing site–it’s generally narrow and confining, a hot, sunny, and dry situation with an alkaline  pH.   The purpose of a street tree is to shade both the street and the sidewalk; an ornamental flowering tree shades only the parkway.

I replaced my tree in 2009 with a Red Oak (Quercus rubra).  I particularly wanted a tree with red fall foliage.   Oaks are not chosen very often because they are thought to be slow growing.  Possibility Place Nursery says growth rates for oaks are moderate–18-24” a year.  In nature Red Oaks are found in mesic woods, not full sun.  My parkway, while sunny, has deep mesic soil and it does get afternoon shade from the Norway Maple across the street.  It is thriving.  See below:

new tree parkway 6:10:09

6/10/09  Newly planted Red Oak


6/16/09  Don’t mulch with wood chips–use a living mulch of sedges.  Sedges have a dense root system that holds moisture like a sponge.  1/3 of the sedge roots die each year, adding humus to the soil and opening channels to infiltrate rain. This is Penn Sedge-sometimes called Oak Sedge (Carex pensylvanica).  Prairie Alum Root (Heuchera richardsonii), a close cousin of Coral Bells, flowers in front of the planting, along the edge.

penn sedge in bloom

Fuzzy, pale yellow spikelets of Penn Sedge bloom in April and May.  Growing under 1’ tall, it forms light green patches in open woods throughout the midwest.

red Oak parkway 5:2010

5/10/10 A year later.

wild ger under red oak 5:11

5/25/11  The sedge has filled in and Wild Geranium is in bloom.

Red Oak 10:24:11

10/24/11  Bright red fall foliage.

Fall wild geranium under red oak 11:3:11

11/3/11         The brightly colored fall foliage of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) creates a tapestry in the garden.

red oak 11:8:13

11/8//2013  Two years later.

red oak fall foliage 10:14

10/23/14  Today.  Note how much the foliage has filled in.

In nature, all plants grow within a community–don’t just plant trees within the lawn.  Underplant them with sedges, grasses, and forbs, even small shrubs; then connect the beds for exquisite grace and beauty.



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5 Responses to My Red Oak

  1. chris October 30, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Thanks for the blog. I love red oaks, I just wish i had enough space for one. quick question, will planting sedges work planted under different trees as well(probably not pines)? I planted lavender under my trees. Will lavender have the same effect as sedges?

    • PatHill October 31, 2014 at 10:49 am #

      There are hundreds of sedges. Sedges that like shade should do well under most trees. They do need to be watered for 2-3 years until they are established.

      Lavender is native to the Mediterranean area and likes it sunny and dry. It would not do well under the shade of a tree. It is marginally hardy in our area.

  2. Mary Roth October 30, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    We will need to replace a dying blue spruce next year, the location we are considering has soil that is mostly sand and gravel and is full sun. I would like to plant a red oak because of the tap root and decent growth rate. What are your thoughts? It can be easily watered. And what size would be optimal for a good start, 1 1/2″ – 2″? I live in SE Wisconsin.

  3. PatHill October 31, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    That would not be a good place for a Red Oak. Red Oak likes mesic-medium-deep black rich soil. Red Oak does not have a tap root–that’s why it is easy to transplant.

    But there are 2 Oak trees that grow well in sand and gravel: Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria), and Black Oak (Quercus velutina) .

    • Mary Roth November 6, 2014 at 9:14 am #

      Thank you, I thought all oaks had a tap root, glad I asked. Black oak it will be. Thanks again for your reply.

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