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The Big Oak Giveaway

Be part of adding mighty oak trees back on the land.

Indigenous peoples all over Turtle Island have maintained beautiful oak savannas for millennia. Brush was cleared through burning, and the oaks were kept around 30 feet apart so that they could develop into majestic trees. Oak savannas were highly productive landscapes for everyone, humans and animals alike. The diversity and numbers of animal species were higher than in non-managed landscapes. This park-like structure allowed grasses and flowering plants to flourish between the oaks. 


Oaks are recognized as incredibly giving trees:

Oaks support the most caterpillar species of any tree. Since even an only 3-gram black-capped chickadee required 9000 caterpillars within three weeks to bring up one single clutch of babies, the amount of caterpillars a tree feeds is directly linked to bird population health.

Acorns are one of the most sustaining foods for wildlife, from mice to bears.

To find out more about the value of an oak tree in your garden, watch Doug Tallamy's Youtube about oaks.


Oaks don't only benefit wildlife by providing food and shelter. One Bur Oak or Northern Red Oak sequesters over 3200 kg of CO2, mitigates about 513,000 litres of stormwater, and removes around 77 kg of air pollutants during its life. They provide privacy and increase property value by up to 20% for your property and neighbourhood. Best of all, they provide great shade in summer and, through transpiration, reduce the City's heat island effect by 5ºC. and allow you to enjoy the outdoors even on a hot summer day.  As a windbreak, oaks save heating costs in winter. Their green appearance, beauty, and magnificence reduce stress, even increase school performance, and contribute to our overall health and well-being.

The City of Toronto has the visionary goal of a 40% tree canopy cover by 2050 to become one of the most livable cities in the world. The City has made this event possible by generously providing all trees through a

Community Planting & Stewardship Grant.

Therefore the trees and shrubs are for Toronto residents only and can only be planted within City boundaries. 

Scarborough Food Security Initiative has graciously allowed us to hold this event in the parking lot of their Scarborough Junction Community Farm

located at 3595 St. Clair Avenue East,

on June, 3rd, 2023

10 am to 2 pm.

You can order two free native trees to plant on your private property within Toronto borders. Check out the offered species below and match them to your garden conditions and space. 

Good to know:

  • The oaks are native to Toronto and suited for our urban environment.

  • They come in 1 or 2-gallon pots and are small enough to be carried home easily.

  • For the long-term health of a tree, it is much better to plant younger trees than more developed trees since their root system is not damaged from growing in too small pots and becoming root-bound or regularly being cut and severed in the nursery beds. It is best to even plant a few months-old saplings if you can protect them. Find out how to grow your own tree from an acorn.

  • In nature, trees grow in communities. It would be best to plant groups of at least two to three trees together on a 6-foot center. The tree roots will interlock, giving them great stability, and they will support each other in producing a healthy, resilient environment. 

  • Spring is a good time to plant a tree because trees don't need to deal with the stresses of the summer heat, but since they need to produce leaves and flowers, they need a lot more water to perform these tasks. 

  • Late fall is the best time to plant. Trees can still develop their root system in warm soil and don't need to produce flowers and seeds. In the fall, the soil is usually moister as well.

  • It is imperative to protect young trees from damage. One small nick with the lawnmower will develop into a larger and larger wound as the tree grows. Trees can never heal their injuries, and they will always stay a weaker entrance point for disease.  

  • It is best to remove the lawn generously around the tree and replace it with some understory trees, shrubs, ground cover, and sedges. This enables a small ecosystem to get to work; insects will complete their lifecycle in the soil because they have a soft landing when they fall off the tree and, therefore, can fulfill their role as a protein-rich food source for other wildlife. Additionally, the soil around the root system doesn't get constantly compacted by mowing the lawn, so soil biology can create beneficial mutual relations with the trees and enhance their health. Check out the concept of a soft landing on Heather Holm's amazing website.

  • The soil around the tree must always be covered either with mulch, like wood chips or leaves or better with cover plants, like wild strawberry, wild ginger or native Solomon's seal or native sedges. Rainfall on bare soil compacts the soil and causes depletion of nutrients and all beneficial soil life.

  • A pollinator garden can alternatively be planted around the tree as long as it is still small and doesn't give much shade.

  • Trees and shrubs should be planted as soon as possible, best within a week.

  • Call ontarioonecall at least 5 days before you dig. It's the law.

  • Species of the trees/shrubs are subject to availability and may change or be substituted.

  • A lot of the offered species are edible for humans. Please conduct your own thorough research on how to prepare the plant to be safe for human consumption. Also, remember that wild food is very potent, so you should always test with small quantities if you might be allergic to a particular compound. 

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 Check out the Profiles of the Bur and Northern Red Oak Trees 

Appearance. Ecological Value. Growing Conditions.


Northern Red Oak

The red oak is a large, hardy, long-lived shade tree and very tolerant of urban conditions. The attractive leaves often stay on the lower branches during winter. Researchers believe this was a helpful defence mechanism to protect the young twigs from browsing dinosaurs. Today oaks sustain a complex and fascinating web of wildlife and are the ecologically most productive tree. The leaves provide food for over 500 kinds of caterpillars. Caterpillars are crucial since they are the most important food source for birds raising their babies. To better understand how vital oaks are for our ecology, watch Doug Tallamey's presentation. 

The acorns are an essential food source for small mammals and birds like Blue Jays. Blue Jays hide over 100 viable acorns daily for a month, making them the number one planter of oaks. Older trees often have cavities that provide shelter and nesting sites for birds and mammals. Find out more about oaks under Swamp White Oak.


Height: 60+ ft

​Width: 60+ ft   

Requires full sun to partial shade

Adapts to moist and dry soil conditions

Prefers acidic soil but can grow in any soil

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Bur Oak

The swamp white oak is a hardy, magnificent shade tree with a broad rounded crown and uniquely bicoloured leaves that are shiny and dark green on the surface and lighter on the underside. This tree lives up to 350 years and is, like all oaks, the most beneficial plant you can add to your yard for wildlife, especially birds. The leaves are an abundant food source for over 500 different caterpillars, essential for a functioning food web. E.g. one pair of chickadees needs 9000 caterpillars within the six weeks of raising their young. And oaks will produce them. To better understand how vital oaks are for our ecology, especially for birds, watch Doug Tallamy's presentation and check out his newest book "The Nature of Oaks". Oaks are the host plant for the beautiful Hairstreak butterflies. 

In fall, the leaves turn a beautiful orange and red. Once fallen, oak leaves are better mulch than wood chips. They likewise don't decompose during one season. Still, they are loose enough to offer habitat to firefly larvae, bumblebee queens, and many other beneficial insects during winter, and they are said to repel slugs and grubs.  

Their acorns are the sweetest of all oaks and offer an abundant food source for small mammals, birds like ducks, turkeys, woodpeckers, blue jays, even beavers and black bears. Blue Jays hide over 100 viable acorns up to one mile away from the mother tree every day for a month, making them the number one planter of oaks. Older trees often have cavities that provide shelter and nesting sites for birds and mammals. Check out the great article by Brenna Anstett.

Natural companion plants are Sugar Maple, other Oak species, American Beech, River Birch, Pagoda Dogwood, Chokeberry, and Joe Pye Weed.


Height: 60+ ft

Width: 60+ ft   

Full sun to partial shade 

Requires neutral to slightly acidic soil

Tolerates seasonal flooding and dry soil

Photo credit: Dan Keck


Sugar Maple

The sugar maple is a large shade tree with light green leaves that turn an attractive yellow-orange or fiery red in the fall. It is slow-growing and can live for more than 200 years. Sugar Maple is of great value to our native wildlife. Maples are among the first trees to bloom in spring. Even though they are wind-pollinated, they offer nectar and pollen and are vital for pollinators coming out of dormancy. The leaves feed almost 300 caterpillar species that supply amble food for breeding birds. Orioles, wrens and warblers, and various mammals eat the seeds. The twigs, buds, and bark become a lifesaving winter food source for small mammals, birds, and deer. 

Sugar Maple trees draw water from lower soil layers. They exude that water into upper, drier soil layers, which benefits all the understory plants.

Great companion trees for sugar maple trees are ironwood, beech, basswood, white ash, black cherry, yellow birch, Eastern white pine, Northern red oak, and Eastern hemlock. Great understory trees are American elderberry, hazelnut, pagoda dogwood, and bush honeysuckle.

Native Solomon's seal, Canada wild ginger, wild geranium, foamflower and even wood asters, New England asters, grey goldenrod, blue stem goldenrod and zigzag goldenrod are perfect ground covers and pollinator plants underneath sugar maples.

Height: 60+ ft

Width: 40+ ft

Requires full sun to part shade

Prefers moist soil of any type

Cannot tolerate swampy conditions, salt, heavy air pollution or foot traffic


Common Hackberry

The hackberry tree is a large-sized tree that, in Canada, is only found across southern Ontario. It is very hardy and tolerant of urban conditions and can get 150-200 years old. Hackberry will grow as wide as tall, so ample space is needed. It is a great shade tree. It produces single, dark purple fruits that hang below the leaves and persist into winter. Many birds will eat the fruit, including waxwings and robins.

The leaves are a food source for different species of butterflies, including Morning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) and Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis). The caterpillars of the Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton), Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis), and American Snout Butterfly (Libytheana carinenta) can only eat leaves from Hackberry trees. They rely entirely on Hackberry trees for their existence.


Height: 40 ft

Width 25 ft   

Requires full sun to partial shade

Very adaptable to wet and dry and all types of soil conditions

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Eastern White Pine

The Eastern White Pine is Ontario's iconic provincial tree. The tall trees are captured windswept in the paintings of the Group of Seven. It is a big shade tree that helps reduce energy consumption and cost as a windbreaker and shade tree.
Not noticeable at first glance, the tree provides an extremely high wildlife value since every part is edible- even for humans. Nuthatches, chickadees, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, and many other birds love the seeds. The buds, needles, bark, twigs and young cones help many animals to get the nutrition they need during different seasons and to survive the winter. 
We can use ground pine needles in many recipes, raw or baked. The needles contain high amounts of Vitamine C and A. Indigenous peoples have used Eastern white pine as an effective medicinal plant to soothe the respiratory system. Its needles and resin have "anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, stimulating and relaxing, aromatic, pungent and stabilizing qualities, with particular benefits for the upper respiratory system, stomach, liver and kidneys. " Quote
Dense horizontal branching attracts small birds like warblers and purple finches, bigger birds like mourning doves, crows and blue jays, as well as great horned owls and red-tailed hawks to build their nests. Many birds collect young pine needles to cushion their nests.

Height: 40 ft
Width 30 ft   
Requires full sun to partial shade
Very adaptable to wet and dry and all types of soil conditions
Sensitive to atmospheric pollution

Bigger Shrubs with extremely high wildlife value



Serviceberry is an adaptable large shrub or small tree, depending if it is pruned to a single-stem tree or left to form a multi-stemmed shrub. Serviceberry trees put on a show of white flowers in spring and provide an excellent early season source of pollen and nectar. The open form of the flowers allows many different kinds of bees access to its nectar. The leaves support 100 different caterpillar species, including the caterpillars of the white admiral and the Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly. The small, round, sweet berries ripen in summer. Over 40 species of birds, including orioles, bluebirds, cedar waxwings, scarlet tanagers, Northern flickers, and robins, feed on them. If the tree gets at least 4 hours of sun, it will produce a lot of berries that are edible raw and cooked, bursting in the mouth with a sweet and tart berry flavour. In fall, the leaves turn into an array of stunning colours, from orange to purple and red. Serviceberry trees provide very high ecological value for wildlife and are beautiful year-round.

Height:15-25 ft 

Width 15-25 ft    

Very adaptable to full sun and partial shade

Moist to dry soil of various types


Grey Dogwood

Grey dogwood is an adaptable, hardy shrub with creamy white flowers in early summer, white berries on pink stems, and purple-red leaves in the fall.

It is slow-growing and thicket-forming through suckers in moister soil.

The grey dogwood is a host plant for the caterpillars of the beautiful Polyphemus Moth. The Spring Azure butterfly lays her eggs on the flower buds and her caterpillars feed on the plant.

Berries attract Northern Cardinals, Goldfinches, Yellow Warblers, and many other birds. The multi-stemmed, thicket-forming growth provides a safe nesting place for many birds.

Large Shrub

Height: 15 ft

Width: 15 ft    

Able to grow in full sun to full shade,

in wet to dry soil conditions of various types

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