How to Handle Tree Suckers

How to Handle Tree Suckers

Does it seem like your tree is spawning alien offshoots? You’re not alone! Those sprouts growing around the base or along the branches of your tree are known as tree suckers. They’re sneaky little growths that can sap your tree’s energy and make it look less appealing. This article will guide you on how to handle these invaders, ensuring your tree remains healthy and attractive.

What Do They Look Like?

Tree suckers usually have a different appearance from the rest of the tree. They grow rapidly and have a ‘whippy’ growth habit, with leaves often smaller than those on the rest of the tree. 

Tree suckers, often emerging from the tree base or roots, grow more rapidly and haphazardly than regular branches. They have distinct features like smaller, lighter-colored leaves and slender, flexible branches. They may lack buds or flowers, or have lesser-quality ones if present. Notably, unlike the rest of the tree, suckers can sprout anytime, not adhering to the standard seasonal growth pattern.

Tree sucker

NOTE: Suckers found higher up on the tree are called watersprouts. Watersprouts are shoots that spring up from the branches or trunk of the tree. Like suckers, they can grow rapidly and absorb a disproportionate amount of the tree’s nutrients, and usually sprout from the site of an injury, like a pruning wound, a crack or some other damage.

Causes of Tree Suckers

This article perfectly explains why trees can become stressed and sprout suckers. They refer to the “hell strip”, which is the strip of grass or garden between the street and the sidewalk. This strip is often a very stressful place for a tree to grow, with poor soil that is flanked by concrete.

The soil gets compacted from the pressure on the paved surfaces, and the concrete generates a lot of additional heat. Trees that have been growing in the hell strip will not thrive and produce as well as their counterparts in healthy soil with ample room for roots. These trees will often have more diseases and pests, and they send up suckers as a response to the stress they are under.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? 

Other causes of tree suckers

  1. Stress or Damage: As well as their environment we just mentioned, trees can experience stress due to factors such as drought, harsh weather conditions, soil compacting, or disease, and can react by producing tree suckers. 
  2. Improper Pruning: Pruning is an art and if done incorrectly or excessively, it can stimulate the growth of tree suckers. In other words, if you prune too much or at the wrong time, the tree might react by growing suckers.
  3. Grafting: In cases where a tree has been grafted, the rootstock (the part of the graft that provides the root system) can sometimes produce suckers. Grafted trees need special attention to prevent sucker growth.
  4. Poor Health: A tree in poor health is more likely to produce suckers. Lack of nutrients, inadequate sunlight, or the presence of pests and diseases can all lead to poor health and consequently, the emergence of tree suckers.
  5. Old Age: Older trees are more prone to stress, making them more likely to produce suckers.
  6. Certain Tree Species: Some tree species are just more prone to producing suckers than others. 
tree sucker

Reasons Not to Ignore Your Tree Suckers

Energy Drain from the Tree: Tree suckers can be compared to energy vampires. They drain the tree of its nutrients, leaving less for the growth and health of the main tree. Over time, this can lead to reduced growth, poor health, and even premature death of the tree.

Unwanted Growth and Appearance: A tree littered with suckers can lose its natural beauty and symmetry. The suckers often grow haphazardly, making the tree look unruly and unkempt. 

Increased Susceptibility to Diseases and Pests: Suckers, with their fast and often weak growth, can be more prone to diseases and pests. Once a disease or pest establishes itself on a sucker, it can spread to the rest of the tree.

Undermining Grafts: If your tree is grafted (one variety of tree joined with the root system of another), suckers can emerge from the rootstock and take over the tree, resulting in the loss of the desired variety. It’s like an unwelcome guest taking over your house!

SEE Related: What are the main advantages of pruning trees

Preventing the Growth of Tree Suckers

Remember, prevention is always better than cure. Taking these steps can go a long way in preventing the growth of tree suckers, helping to keep your trees healthy and beautiful.

  1. Proper Mulching: Mulching helps to regulate soil temperature and retain moisture, reducing the stress on the tree. Mulching should be done with organic material such as wood chips, and it should not be piled up against the trunk. Think of it as a blanket for the tree’s roots – it provides comfort and protection, reducing the tree’s likelihood of producing suckers.
  2. Avoid Over-Fertilizing: While fertilization is good, over-fertilization, especially with high-nitrogen fertilizers, can stimulate excessive and weak growth, leading to the development of suckers. Remember, it’s about balance. Too much of a good thing can sometimes be harmful!
  3. Regular Tree Inspection: Regularly inspect your trees for signs of stress or damage. If wounds are identified early, they can be treated before the tree responds by producing suckers. Think of it as a regular check-up, like the ones we have with our doctor to stay ahead of any health issues.
  4. Avoid Damaging Tree Roots: When landscaping or gardening around trees, avoid damaging the tree’s roots as this can stimulate sucker growth. If you’re digging a new flower bed, for example, be mindful of the tree’s roots. Treat them with the same care as you would the branches and leaves above ground.
  5. Proper Watering Techniques: Trees should be watered deeply but infrequently, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings. Overwatering can stress the tree and stimulate the growth of suckers. Imagine how you’d feel if you were constantly overfed – uncomfortable, right? It’s the same for trees.
  6. Use of Growth Regulators: If a tree is particularly prone to sucker growth, consider using a growth regulator. These products can help control and reduce sucker growth, but should be used judiciously and in accordance with their instructions to avoid any adverse effects.

Each tree is unique and what works best may vary, but these strategies can help in reducing the likelihood of tree sucker development.

The Verdict?

Handling tree suckers might seem like a Herculean task, but with the right knowledge and techniques, it’s definitely manageable. Remember, prevention is better than cure – and this holds true for tree suckers too. 

Once you’ve dealt with the suckers, it’s crucial to maintain your tree’s health to prevent future outbreaks. Regular inspections, correct watering, and fertilization practices can go a long way. Remember, a healthy tree is a happy tree.

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