How Much Sunlight Do Oak Trees Need? 4 Planting Tips

Autumn trees with sun

Oak trees are one of the most common species of deciduous tree, not to mention that they top the list of most well-known trees. Their signature fruit, the acorn, provides food for wildlife while their leaves spread to offer cover from the weather of any sort. 

Oak trees grow more efficiently in direct sunlight. Oak trees are intermediately tolerant to shade, meaning that they can still grow effectively in the shade and don’t always need direct sunlight. However, oak trees will grow best with 4-6 hours of direct sunlight per day.

So, do oak trees need a certain amount of sunlight to survive? Do they adapt to areas that are not very sunny on a day-to-day basis? Truthfully, like many other organisms, oak trees just need a healthy balance. A mixture of sunlight and shade will go a long way to this tree’s long life. 

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Do Oak Trees Need Direct Sunlight?

There’s no question about how oak trees do with lots of sunlight. With a canopy that can both protect from too much sun while also bouncing around the light into patterns at different times of day, oaks are a wonder.

Their signature lobed leaves, varying in shape and texture but always fanning out in a spectacular array, are just a single factor of many that characterize this marvel of nature. 

While most varieties of oak prefer as much sunlight as they can get, this is not a necessary condition to promote growth. 

You may be imagining a space with no other trees, just access to direct sunlight, good soil, and a healthy amount of water… and that’s great. However, most oak trees can thrive in locations that allow them to get only a little sun each day, even if the majority of the time, they don’t receive much direct access to the light. The forecast can still be cloudy with a chance of oak trees!

You are, most likely, reading this because you are worried that your oak tree will not thrive without constant sunlight.

Well, we have some answers to your questions, so keep on reading and let’s get into it!

Can Oak Trees Grow in Shade?

Can oak trees grow in shade is one of the most frequently asked questions that prospective owners of these trees ask, and for good reason. 

It is important to be knowledgeable about the plants that you are opting to take care of, especially when it’s new to you. Whether the species is a different one than you’ve looked after, or you’ve never planted a tree yourself, or even if you’ve just found some new curiosity about that which has been in your yard for years, seeking information is always a great step.

Thanks to the University of Tennessee Extension, we know that oaks tend to fall on the scale of intermediately tolerant to shade through intolerant to shade. 

What does this mean, exactly? 

Trees that have a high tolerance to shade can grow in areas where little light is available. Relatively, there is not a huge impact that occurs when light levels are lower. 

Shade intolerant trees, however, are a different story. These types of trees don’t grow well in low-light-level areas, but they thrive indirect and more consistent sunlight. 

Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is a tolerance known simply as ‘intermediate.’ 

If trees that are very shade tolerant are planted in full sunlight, this can cause stress on them as they are receiving much more light than they need. Inversely, those that are very intolerant to shade face a similar struggle when planted too close to other trees or areas that are shaded for whatever reason. 

This is why it is important to have a good understanding of the basic needs of your species of tree. 

Oak trees, falling on the range of shade-intolerant to intermediately tolerant, do well at the edge of forests, near peaks that provide a brief respite from the sun, or in any other area that allows for a combination of sun and shade. 

Since oak trees flower, they fall into the category of trees that simply needs enough sunlight to foster the bloom and eventual fruit-bearing of the tree itself. 

Flowering trees, like oaks, need anywhere from 4-6 hours of sunlight a day. 

Of course, if there is a little more or a little less shade in your area, it will not be the end of the world or your tree. 

Early morning autumnal landscape - yellow old tree against the sun, mountains range - beautiful fall season

What Else Do Oak Trees Need Besides Sunlight?

On the same page, there are other factors that go into growing an oak tree to maturity. Sunlight is great, and it is important to keep this major factor in mind, but things such as soil, water levels, and average temperatures also play a large part in successful oak tree development. 

Oak trees are adaptable in the sense that they can thrive in differing soil conditions. Almost opposite from the way that they thrive best in certain light levels, they are more readily flexible when it comes to their soil. 

Similarly, some species do very well with excess water, like the kind that occurs during a flood, while some are more able to adapt when there is an impending drought. Of course, a happy medium is always the goal, but these trees do not easily give up when conditions are less than perfect. 

These statements are also all dependent on which species of oak is in question when it comes down to it. 

For example, a Water Oak is well-adapted to a swampy, wet area but can tolerate a climate that is a bit more well-drained. The Blue Japanese oak, on the other hand, prefers a space that is well-drained and has better access to direct sunlight. 

Both of these oaks could do well enough to swap environments, but they just might not thrive in the same way they could in their favorable conditions.

How Long Does an Oak Tree Take to Grow?

If we are talking about from seed all the way through to maturity, it takes an oak tree an average of 30-40 years to grow.

Of course, this is not the end of an oak’s life span. Once the tree is mature, it depends on biology, external forces, and even a little luck to determine how old the tree can actually get.

Remember, plant your oak tree in a spot where it can get proper sunlight.

If you’re interested in learning more about the lifespan of oak trees, check out our oak tree lifespan guide here.

What is The Best Fertilizer for Oak Trees?

If an oak tree is located in an optimal environment, healthy, and faces other good external conditions, it should not need any supplemental fertilization. 

The best fertilizer for an oak tree is natural matter containing nitrogen. This can come in the form of fallen leaves, animal excrement, or other composted materials.

However, this is the ideal situation- not the most common one. A little extra nutrition never hurt anyone, right? 

In areas where organic matter is not present (like when leaves are raked away from a tree in the fall), an oak might require extra fertilization.

While there’s a little more to it, you can read more about using the best oak tree fertilizers here.

What we’ll describe below works well; you should check out the article above for the best fertilizer ratio.

Using Natural Compost for Oak Trees

This can still be done naturally, using composted materials from your daily life. 

If you have the space on your property, create a compost pile that you designate for your leftover produce. This is a quick way to up-cycle food scraps, save money, and avoid quickly overfilling your trash bins.

In areas that are a bit more urban, invest in a compost bin. This helps you to avoid the necessity of space, where you can pile lots of scraps in the back corner of your yard. 

Compost bins also keep bugs out, the smell in, and as a bonus, they look neat and tidy!

The VIVOSUN Tumbling Composter Dual Rotating Batch Compost Bin offers everything you need to start composting safely, correctly, and beneficially. 

You can add this composted matter, which turns into soil, around the base of your tree for a natural, easy method.

Autumn park with yellow oaks and maples around the hiking trail

When Should You Plant An Oak Tree?

Oak trees should be planted any time that the ground is not frozen. The latest they should be planted is in the late summer or early fall period. This allows the ground to still be rich from the summer months without being frozen by the winter temperatures. 

Spring is a prime time for planting because the ground has just thawed, and the roots will have a couple of seasons to fully establish themselves before the ground freezes again.

You can read our guide on the best times to plant an oak tree here.

4 Tips for Planting an Oak Tree (& Getting Proper Sunlight)

Oak trees are wonderful, with so many beautiful species to choose from. If you want to continue to see oaks all around and benefit from their air cleaning and wildlife supporting qualities, you can plant an oak of your own!

If you already have oak trees on your property and don’t necessarily want more, that’s okay! However, planting an oak from a seed or a sapling is easier than you might think. 

Lucky for you, we have 4 simple tips that you can refer back to when it comes time to plant your very own oak tree. There are a few considerations that will might your life easier, allow your tree to flourish, and help maintain the balance of your particular regional ecosystem. 

Curious yet? Keep reading!

1. Choose a Location Filled With Sunlight

Location, location, location. 

It always comes back to location. Whether we are considering the balance of direct sunlight to partial and total shade, the soil quality and type, the average temperature of a region, or even the wildlife around, where you decide to plant your tree is a big decision.

Take the time to do your research about the best growing conditions for anything you are deciding to plant, but especially for a tree that will grow so large and last so long.

MAKE SURE your oak will get adequate sunlight where you put it.

To learn more, check out our guide that will help you decide on the best places to plant an oak tree.

Of course, it’s VERY important to plant your oak tree in the right location. Take a look at our guide on the best places to plant an oak tree here.

Autumn landscape oak tree park

2. Protect Your Young Oak From Wildlife

If you are concerned that wildlife may cause a detrimental impact to your sapling or even a tree that has been growing for some time but is nowhere near mature, this section is for you.

Using fencing around your trees, at least around the base, is a good way to protect them not only from animals but also from things like overzealous lawn mowing. 

Something like this Voglund Nursery Mesh Tree Bark Protector offers a good amount of protection while managing to not do too much in the way of obscuring your tree itself. 

The mesh tree bark protector is also great for trees of different sizes with different needs, thanks to the offering of mesh from 12 inches tall up to 48 inches tall. 

3. Select The Right Soil

Remember how we talked a little bit about different oak species thriving in different types of soil? 

Well, this is where some personal research comes in. You’ll want to check which species of oak it is that you are planting and then decide if you are in an area with the right soil. 

Hold on a minute… does that seem backward?

Unless you have a very specific preference for oak trees for whatever reason, learning more about your natural environment should be your ultimate first step. 

If you have soil that is moist but well-drained, you might opt for white oak. You want to give this species a little extra space to really develop, but it is most commonly used in lawns or as a shade tree. 

Additionally, the white oak is particularly versatile, meaning that it can also manage to hang with the best of ’em during a drought or an unusually rainy season. 

A pin oak, on the other hand, does best in soil that is acidic yet rich and moist but well-drained. This would be an important thing to know before buying and planting this species and then going on down the road to wonder why it isn’t thriving in a semi-arid climate. 

4. Properly Size The Oak Tree Planting Hole

Roots are meant to grow, expand, and provide an increasing amount of nutrients to a maturing tree. So, digging a hole that seems a bit small off the bat is not going to be a good way to start your relationship with your oak tree.

Instead, try to create enough space that you can easily sit your sapling in and then fill it back in with soil from there.

Breaking up the soil and then filling it back in is going to be a much more sustainable and fruitful method than trying to squeeze the base of your tree into a space that is too small. 

Think about house plants, for example. As a plant grows (whether it be morning lily, basil, tomato, other herbs, or any other sort of domestically-based potted plant), it often requires repotting at regular intervals. 

Have you ever considered why this is? Well, the roots grow in a way that each little piece gets larger, but the root system as a whole also expands outward, downward, even upward. If the plant was left in a pot far too small to facilitate this growth, it would be stifled and stop having opportunities to thrive. 

It is for the same reason that a sapling, or even a seed itself, needs some space to breathe as it grows and develops. If the soil is not maintained or a hole is not quite large enough, or any other number of factors combine in the right way, your oak tree will begin to struggle and likely miss important benchmarks for growth.

If you’re interested, you can read more about the best oak trees to plant here.

That’s a Wrap!

To tell you about how much light oak trees need, some best practices for growing and planting, and getting into some of the details about oaks that aren’t always as commonly known. 

Now that we have learned more about growing an oak tree from the planting stage in the soil to the growing stage in the sun, it’s clear that these trees are a good kind to keep around.

Oaks tend to be adaptable, strong, steadfast, and beautiful trees that can thrive in so many different environments. 

Keep those few tips in mind, and you’ll be able to watch your oak mature before your eyes!

References

Ke, G., & Werger, M. J. (1999). Different responses to shade of evergreen and deciduous oak seedlings and the effect of acorn size. Acta Oecologica20(6), 579-586.

McGee, C. E. (1968). Northern red oak seedling growth varies by light intensity and seed source (Vol. 90). Southeastern Forest Experiment Station, US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

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