Removing Suckers

By Sharon Naylor

February 12, 2014 5 min read

If you see tin branches or sprouts growing upward and outward from your trees' limbs, it's not necessarily a sign that your tree is doing so well that it's growing new branches. It's more likely that these are suckers -- quickly growing "shoots that grow from dormant buds on older wood" explains Steve Nix, the guide to forestry. They can be an indicator that the tree has an injury or dead wood above the sprouts. Or, when they're seen lower on the tree's trunk, they may be a sign that your tree's root system isn't performing optimally, so your tree is trying to compensate by sending out new shoots.

They're often seen on landscape and fruit trees, but they can appear on any tree, and may appear after the tree has experienced stress, such as enduring a drought or especially after you've over-done it with pruning or if the tree lost a limb during a storm.

It's important to remove suckers from fruit trees, especially since the tree will divert its energy to these shoots rather than to the growth of fruit. And you don't want suckers to block the sunlight your tree needs to produce its nutrients.

To protect the health of your tree and to keep it looking its best, it's essential to remove suckers. But you must do so the right way so you don't inadvertently cause more damage to your tree or remove the immediate problem but encourage even more suckers to sprout up next season.

If you were to let suckers grow for too long, they might grow roots too deep, which might mean your entire tree has to be removed.

It can be a wise idea, if you'd like to keep your favorite trees or trees you purchased within the past few years, to hire a tree servicing company to fulfill this job. Experienced tree technicians can immediately spot suckers that are safe to remove and ones that may have roots so entrenched that removing them would harm the tree. They also have the proper tool best to remove suckers by cutting, and they have the chemicals and materials that may need to be applied to the wounds left after the suckers are removed.

If you do wish to remove the suckers yourself, keep these tips in mind:

--Use a clean, sharp pair of pruning shears to cut the plant sucker as close to the tree limb as possible. A sharp cutting tool is essential, since a dull one can shred your tree's bark or the soft, healthy wood beneath it, leading to further tree injury and disease.

--Remove suckers as soon as you notice them to help speed wound recovery.

--If you need to access suckers high up in a tree, recruit a helper to hold your ladder so that you're safe while climbing up and down. Never climb up into a tree to remove suckers.

--Be sure to remove all sucker cuttings from the ground where they fall for a neater post-project appearance and so that suckers don't rot near your tree's base.

--Before undertaking this project, talk to an expert at your local garden center for advice on how to treat the bare wounds on your tree. You may be pointed to an organic treatment material or patch to help your tree recover well.

You can help prevent tree suckers from growing by doing the following:

--Water your trees according to the advice on the tag that came with the tree. Over-watering or under-watering can create stress for the tree, which encourages it to send out suckers.

--Don't overprune your trees. Again, your garden center expert can advise you on the best pruning methods and timing for your particular type of tree according to your region's weather conditions. Over-pruning also promotes sucker growth, while ideally timed and executed pruning can prevent sucker growth.

The Royal Horticultural Society says that suckering is part of the natural behavior of plants -- a way that they attempt to get their nutrition and water needs met. But don't make the common mistake of thinking that suckers fill out the appearance of a tree. Yes, your tree will look a bit thin and bare after all of the suckers have been removed safely and effectively, but the root and trunk systems can now work far better to nourish the fruit, flowers, leaves and limbs you'd like your tree to grow for its best appearance and tastiest harvest of fruit later on.

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