How to grow and care for a red oak tree

Red oak tree. Getty Images

The red oak tree (Quercus rubra) is a majestic oak native to North America, with reddish-brown wood. It’s commonly grown in the UK for its spectacular autumn colour, and makes a fine specimen tree in a medium to large garden.

Red oak wood is known for its durability, strength, and beautiful grain patterns and is commonly used in furniture making, flooring, cabinetry, and veneer production. However, there are a few disadvantages to using red oak wood when cut: it can be prone to splitting and may contain tannins that can react with certain metals, causing staining (for example if used as a table). Additionally, red oak wood is susceptible to insect damage if not properly treated or maintained.

Oaks are among the most widespread tree species worldwide, with over 600 recognised species. They hold significant cultural and ecological importance, often appearing in myths, legends, and folklore. Oaks are highly valued for their utility to humans and their crucial role in supporting wildlife.

The red oak tree is native to North America but can also be grown in other parts of the world with suitable climates, including the UK.

Identifying a red oak tree

Red oak leaves in autumn. Getty Images
Red oak leaves in autumn. Getty Images

Red oak trees are known for their impressive size and can grow up to 22m tall with a spread of 15m. They typically develop a broad, rounded crown and have a moderate to fast growth rate. The leaves of red oaks are alternate, simple, and have pointed lobes. They turn vibrant shades of red in autumn.

Value to wildlife

Oak trees are renowned for the number of wildlife species they support. However, as it’s not native to the British Isles, red oak doesn’t support as much wildlife as our native oaks, but is still popular with nesting birds and pollinators.

How to grow a red oak tree

Grow red oak in moist but well-drained, acidic to neutral soil, in full sun to partial shade.


Where to grow a red oak tree

Grow red oak as a standalone feature in a large garden. Make sure you select a suitable location that allows for its ultimate size and spread, but where you can make the most of its impressive autumn colour. Ensure the area has enough space for the tree to grow without being obstructed by buildings or other structures.


How to plant a red oak tree

Red oaks are available as bare-root (without soil around the roots) or pot-grown trees. Dig a hole that’s wide and deep enough to accommodate the root ball or roots of the tree. If planting a pot-grown tree, gently remove it from its container and place it in the hole, making sure it is planted at the same depth as it was previously. If planting bare-root, use the soil ‘tide mark’ towards the base of the stem to assess how deep it was previously planted, and ensure it remains at this depth in its new hole. Once you’re happy with the depth, backfill with soil, firming around the roots gently, to eliminate air pockets. Water the tree thoroughly after planting.

Can you grow a red oak tree from an acorn?

Red oak acorns. Getty Images
Red oak acorns. Getty Images

To grow red oak trees from acorns, start by collecting mature acorns from a healthy red oak tree in autumn. Choose acorns that are plump and free from any visible damage or pests. Plant them in a prepared bed or container with well-draining soil, burying them about 3cm deep. It’s a good idea to plant a few acorns to increase the chances of successful germination.

It is highly advisable to protect your pots from squirrels by covering them with chicken wire or another suitable lid.
Keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged during the germination process. Red oak acorns usually take several weeks to germinate, and once they sprout, they can be moved to a larger pot once they have grown to about 15cm tall.


How to care for a red oak

To care for a red oak tree, provide regular watering during dry periods, especially in the first few years of establishment. Apply a layer of organic mulch around the base of the tree to conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature.

How to prune a red oak tree

Like all oak trees, it’s recommended that red oaks are pruned regularly to remove dead wood and thin out the canopy. Pruning a red oak tree is best done during the dormant season, typically in late winter or early spring before new growth begins.

  • Start by assessing the tree’s structure and identifying any dead, diseased, or damaged branches. These should be removed first to prevent further spread of diseases or potential hazards.
  • Next, look for any branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other. Select one branch to keep and remove the other to maintain proper spacing and prevent damage
  • Remove any branches that are growing towards the centre of the tree or are causing overcrowding. This will help improve air circulation and sunlight penetration throughout the tree
  • Maintain a central leader or main trunk by removing any competing leaders or branches that are growing upright and could potentially create structural problems in the future
  • When making pruning cuts, use clean, sharp tools to make clean cuts just outside the branch collar, which is the swollen area where the branch attaches to the trunk. Avoid leaving stubs or cutting too close to the trunk
  • Avoid heavy pruning or removing a large percentage of the tree’s canopy at once, as this can stress the tree and negatively impact its health

Remember, it’s important to follow proper pruning techniques to avoid damaging the tree. If you are unsure or have concerns about pruning, it is best to consult with a certified arborist or professional tree care service.


Pests and diseases

As red oak tree is not native it will support fewer insects than our English and sessile oaks. However, any insects that you do find on the leaves will be using it to complete their lifecycle and should be left alone unless present in huge numbers. Birds and other predators will control them naturally, using them to feed their young.


Advice on buying red oak

  • Always buy trees from reputable nurseries or suppliers that offer healthy, well-established specimens
  • Check for any signs of pests, diseases, or root issues before making a purchase
  • Determine the size and age of the tree you want to purchase, considering your available space and planting preferences. Younger trees may establish more quickly, while larger trees provide instant impact
  • Consider whether you prefer a tree that comes in a container or as a bare root. Container-grown trees are generally easier to transplant, while bare root trees often establish faster, are cheaper to buy and have a more extensive root system

Where to buy red oak trees

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