Don’t Be Suckered with Suckers and Watersprouts

If you have ever owned a crabapple, and most Americans have, you are familiar with the mid-season annoyance of pesky and persistent sucker growth which can ruin a great looking tree. Root suckers and watersprouts are popping up around many trees and large shrubs this time of year, creating an unsightly mess.

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Root or crown suckers arise from, you guessed it, root tissue, as a natural part of the plant’s growth habit. They can also come about if the plant was planted too deeply, or in response to some type of root damage, over-pruning, or anything else causing large scale death of plant tissue. This type of growth can be weak and prone to winter or pest/disease damage, or, if left unchecked, grow up into the canopy and compete for resources, not to mention create an unsightly mess. Additionally, suckers of grafted plant material need to be removed, as they can grow more vigorously than the desirable producing tops. Many people treat root suckers of woody species such as crabapples, and others in the rose family, in several wrong ways. Many either treat the problem with a systemic herbicide like Roundup, clear cut with a weed whacker, or pull or dig them from the ground. Herbicide treatment damages roots, even if it does not kill the tree, and pulling or digging stimulates additional suckering. Cutting the suckering stem with pruners or weed whacker at ground level creates an ugly, gnarly mass of wood and cut stems over time. The proper way to remove root suckers is to dig into the soil a bit to find the point of origin and cut BELOW ground level. This creates a nice clean look while nipping a sucker in the bud.

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Watersprouts are fast, soft-tissued growth arising on woody stems from “latent” buds hidden in, or just under, the bark, waiting to spring to life.  They are easy to spot on a branch or trunk since they grow literally or virtually straight up. Watersprouts also can be weak wood prone to similar issues as root suckers. Sprouts on fruit trees can interfere with the established branch structure and on any tree compete for resources as well as create a congested winter profile. Sprouts can arise from an abundance of water and fertilizer, as a response to stress, over-pruning (cutting more than 20-30% of leaf surface at one time) or not cutting a major branch back to its main stem.

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Watersprouts are easily cut when young with a pair of hand pruners or loppers or removed by hand. Place the flat portion of the blade against the trunk and cut as shown.

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Hopefully, these tips will have your trees looking great all season long!

Josh Steffen
Horticulture Manager


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