Who wouldn’t love a great shade tree about now?
My old rule of green thumb has always been that wherever you live on the face of this earth, if there are oak trees growing there natively, they’re going to be your best shade tree choices of all. So with that in mind, let’s figure a way to put an oak in your future, starting as soon as this coming fall.
When you start to evaluate shade trees and compare one type to the others, you consider factors like appearance, adaptability, longevity and ease of maintenance. Oaks rise to the top in every one of those categories.
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This is critical to a tree’s contribution to your landscape design. Whether it’s the gracefully spreading limbs of a mature live oak reaching out across a large expanse of lawngrass or the rounded habits of red oaks, chinquapin or bur oaks, they’re all magnificent specimen trees.
They’re quite large, however, so be sure you have ample room for them to achieve their mature forms.
You need to be 30 to 40 feet away from structures and roadways and 50 feet away from utility lines. Otherwise your oaks will be destined to be flat-topped or V-grooved.
Those four oak species are all native to Tarrant and surrounding counties, so they’ve proven their adaptability to our soils and our climate many times over the years.
Live oaks grow from western Tarrant County down through the Hill Country. Shumard red oaks are native all across the Metroplex. They’re capable of hanging on in shallow, rocky soils as well as deep blackland prairies.
Bur oaks and chinquapin oaks are equally widespread, although they’re most commonly found in river bottoms and along creeks.
No group of trees lives any longer than oaks.
The Goose Island live oak near Rockport is the oldest tree in Texas, dating back an estimated 1,000 years. It’s nothing uncommon to see live oaks clocking in at 250 to 400 years.
Of course, your neighborhood might change a bit in that time, but the live oak will still be going strong. Red oaks, bur oaks and chinquapin oaks may not live that long, but they’re good bets to hit 100 years or more.
Few other species will equal or better that.
Ease of maintenance
As for trouble in keeping them, there aren’t a lot of insects and diseases that will attack oaks in your landscape.
Insect galls may cause odd growths on leaves and twigs, but they’re basically harmless. Oak wilt is a fungal disease that does cause concern in the Hill Country and in isolated areas of outbreaks, but there are work-arounds in place.
Lace bugs will take the color out of the leaf blades of bur oak and chinquapin oak foliage from mid-summer on, but their damage is mainly cosmetic.
Beyond that, few other problems are likely to appear.
If you’re buying a Shumard red oak, know your nursery stock dealer. Buy from a local independent nursery and talk to the owner or manager.
There are several species of oaks (notably pin oaks) that look a great deal like Shumard red oak but that aren’t well adapted to our alkaline soil. Let your nurseryman work with you to select the best tree.
Young red oaks, and to a slightly lesser degree, chinquapin oaks, have very thin bark. If they’re bought from a nursery where they were grown side-by-side and then planted into full sun, it’s very common for them to suffer cracked trunks due to sunscald.
It will always show up on the southwest or west sides of the trunks, usually after three or four years. The bark splits vertically and starts to peel away. Bare internal wood is exposed and subsequently dries and cracks. Borers move in and start their tunneling damage.
After a year or two the canopy begins to thin and die on that same side of the tree and the entire tree may be lost. All of this can be avoided by wrapping the trunk with paper tree wrap from the day it is planted and for the first couple of years.
This is pretty much a nonnegotiable part of planting new oaks.
Live oaks are known for their massive root systems. A good portion of those roots form just beneath the surface of the soil. As time passes, they push up and out of the soil until they form large buttressing roots that almost mirror the low-hanging branches.
Certainly you could remove one or two of those roots if you did so in October (after the hottest weather has passed), but at some point you need to allow them to develop. Live oaks cast very heavy shade, and eventually the grass beneath them will play out.
At that point you’ll want to plant a groundcover anyway, and you can use it to conceal the exposed roots.
Now you have a few more facts on choosing the best shade trees for North Texas. Yes, there will be other species of oaks on the market, but these four are the best.
I grew Monterrey oak (also known as Mexican white oak) for a couple of years, but one of our colder winters killed it. Water oaks, willow oaks and sawtooth oaks aren’t suited to our alkaline soils and water.
Even my beloved little Lacey oak from the Texas Hill Country has one major flaw. It loves our soils and climate, but it holds its leaves so late into early winter that if we have an early ice or snow storm, its leaves get coated and branches break from the weight.