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Fruit Tree Care: Removing Tree Suckers and Water Sprouts

by Stark Bro's on 08/15/2013
Apple Tree with Suckers & Water Sprouts

Sometimes, when we garden, it’s thrilling just watching things grow — but not all growth is beneficial. Suckers and water sprouts are some common examples of fast new growth that take away energy from plants and trees. In this article, we’re going to focus on what tree suckers and water sprouts are and why they should be removed from grafted fruit trees and nut trees.

Ideally, any growth from below the graft union or growth coming from the roots/below the ground on a fruit or nut tree should be removed as soon as it appears. This same thing applies to fast-growing vertical shoots coming from the trunk/branches that may appear later on in your tree’s life as it matures.

Allowing suckers and water sprouts to remain on your fruit tree or nut tree will only take away from the vegetative and fruiting wood you want to grow strong and healthy. If you’re wondering exactly what a sucker or a water sprout is, then let’s go over some definitions.

What are “Suckers” and “Water Sprouts”?

Suckers: Vegetative, adventitious, growth coming from the root system of a tree
Water sprouts: Vegetative, vigorous, vertical growth stemming from a tree’s trunk or branches

*While sometimes used interchangeably, “Suckers” differ from “Water Sprouts”. Suckers and Water Sprouts also differ from Stolons and Rhizomes.

Removing Tree Suckers

Suckers, which grow from the rootstock, steal nutrients from the grafted part of a tree — the top growth, with the characteristics of the selected variety. The rootstock may be connected to the top growth of the tree, but it is going to differ from the variety that was selected to plant. For example, a Granny Smith apple tree will not have a Granny Smith apple rootstock, so there would be no real benefit from allowing suckers to take over. Rootstocks are often selected for characteristics like size (dwarf) and disease resistance — not fruit-production or quality.

You may have to move some soil to find the base of a sucker. Be sure to remove as much of the sucker growth as possible. This process will need to be repeated if suckers emerge again, but it is a simple task. As long as they are not allowed to persist for several seasons, even several suckers can be removed within minutes.

Pruning to Remove Suckers from Tree Rootstock  Pruning to Remove Apple Tree Suckers

Removing Water Sprouts

Water sprouts can arise from weather or other damage. It is not a recommended practice for many reasons, but over-pruning — like when a tree that was unpruned for many years suddenly gets pruned heavily, all at once — can also cause water sprouts to form. Water sprouts are fast-growing and have a tendency to grow vertically, either from the trunk or from an existing branch, and they block light and air circulation within the tree. This growth habit means water sprouts are in the way and they reduce the overall quality of potential fruit. And, since water sprouts are usually weaker than other branches, they can be sites for breaks, tears, and disease.

Water-sprout removal should occur close to the trunk or branch they are growing from. Just like with regular, routine pruning, be sure not to leave much of a stub behind when you remove water sprouts. This will help your tree to properly heal itself. Watch this video for a short demonstration on how and why you should remove suckers and water sprouts:

The best time of year for removal is in the early spring when you’re doing other maintenance pruning; however, sometimes this unwanted growth can shoot up during the growing season, so, if you see any develop on your fruit and nut trees, grab your pruning sheers and remove those suckers (and water sprouts). You’ll be doing your trees a favor!

For chemical control of tree suckers, try Bonide® Sucker Punch »

29 comments on “Fruit Tree Care: Removing Tree Suckers and Water Sprouts

  1. Linda on said:

    Would you do an article about what to use to spray apple trees in middle and southern Georgia? Also, what the spraying schedule should be, as it seems that we have such problems keeping the apples disease and insect free. The varieties we have planted are suited to our area, and have begun to bear.

    • Sarah on said:

      That would be nice to be able to do, but there would be so many counties and states expecting this, and so many restrictions and variables, that it would be an impossibly overwhelming task! Fortunately, this kind of information is readily available through your local county Extension service.

      Here is an extremely useful and relevant PDF on “Home Orchard Pest Management”, including prevalent diseases, from UGA: http://www.ent.uga.edu/pmh/Hm_Home_Orchard.pdf‎ — if you’re having trouble viewing it, they even provide a link to a pdf reader here: http://www.ent.uga.edu/pmh/

  2. Betsy on said:

    What about suckers that grow from the roots, way out into the yard. We have a pear tree that sends suckers a LOT. Is there any way to keep it from doing so? I’m happy to dig away soil and get down to the larger root, from which the suckers are being sent out. But they keep coming back, so I have to do this several times each growing season. Here in sunny California, the growing season is VERY long.

    • Sarah on said:

      I know some people deal with shoots appearing around the yard just by mowing them over when they mow the lawn. Next to manually pruning or ripping the suckers out (as some people prefer), this is the easiest method, but it may need to be repeated as they appear and before they get very large.

      There are also chemicals that can be applied to root suckers during the growing season — usually requires pruning out the suckers and then applying the chemical (following the label instructions for the specific trees) to discourage their return. You should be able to find this type of treatment in your local garden center or hardware store. I know Bonide is one brand that makes it.

  3. Bob Huntley on said:

    What would be the best way to keep squirrels, from stealing all of my peaches? I wrapped the tree with netting, but somehow, they still got over the top. Would a hot pepper spray or a sprinkler with a electric eye work? Thanks for any answer, I’m very frustrated. They seem to steal the peaches, early in the morning, before I’m out of bed.

    • Sarah on said:

      There isn’t one best method for deterring squirrels, unfortunately. If you hear of a method that works for someone, give it a try. And don’t be afraid of trying several methods at once or changing things up! Some people like to hang heavily scented soaps for the tree, or shiny pie pans or windchimes, or they keep their dogs around where the trees grow. In addition to the use of netting, some people use scarecrows, or statues of owls in the tree, or predator urine around the trees to scare squirrels away. Pepper spray might be worth it, but squirrels tend to want what’s beneath the skin of the peach anyway (usually for the hydration of the fruit juice or the pit of the peach), and the pepper spray won’t have any effect there.

      I’ll be honest: I personally hadn’t heard of the electric eye sprinkler systems before now, and they sound like they might be effective if they work like they say they do! If you or anyone gives this method a try, I’d love to hear how well it works!

      • demetrious on said:

        active dogs in the orchard

      • Joan on said:

        I use the Contech sprinklers with the motion activation and love them. I am able to grow tulips in a yard with heavy deer pressure. The only draw back is when a human catches the blast, usually my husband…

    • fruitnut on said:

      This season I had scrub jays, robins and orioles peck away at my unripe Double Delight nectarines. Very annoying to say the least. In seasons past I tried the plastic netting but it just ripped off the new growth when I removed it at season’s end. What worked for me (don’t laugh) was buying a bag of brown paper lunch sacks and stapling each over 2 or 3 nectarines. Sure, it looked like a sack lunch tree, but I did get enough ripe fruit to make preserves!

      • Sarah on said:

        No one is going to laugh at you for finding a method that works! I found myself ill-prepared to deal with squirrels stealing my apples this year. I only had 3 apples on my tree and the squirrel took 2. In an act of desperation, I took an old sack that garlic came in from the grocery store and wrapped that around the remaining apple. I was able to harvest it!

    • J Dan on said:

      Buy a few plastic toy snakes and hang them on your tree. Squirrels usually will stay away, and it makes interesting conversation with guests.

  4. Ann Breedlove on said:

    My Dwf. Starks yellow delicious tree fell over during a windstorm this spring. We have it staked up on all 4 sides. I was wondering what is the best way to save the tree. This is the first year it had apples and don’t want to loose it if possible.

    • Sarah on said:

      Good instincts, Ann! That’s what I would have done, and that’s what we have done with some of the apple trees in our orchards that happened to lean over from a heavy crop or be blown over by strong winds. Now that it’s staked, your tree should focus its energy on recovering. As a warning: it may not be eager to set a fruit crop next year as a result of this year’s shock, but it should pick up where it left off after that. :)

    • G.T. Alligood on said:

      Had a couple of apple trees blow over in a storm a few years ago. No breakage just uprooted. Using my farm tractor as an anchor I used a come-a-long to pull them upright. While the ground was very wet pulled them part way upright by using large diameter rope so would not cut into bark. Over several days was able to get them over 80-90 percent upright. Would pull until until knew tension on tree and roots was approaching breaking point, then wait a day or two and apply more tension. It took several pulls to get them upright over about a week to 10 days. Make sure the soil is very wet while doing this. They survived and are still producing fruit. Yes, I braced them once they were upright.

  5. Ann Sowards on said:

    A peach tree I got from Stark last year never developed buds like its sister tree, but has a lot of growth at the base. If these are suckers, should I prune them even I’d they’re the only growth?

    • Sarah on said:

      This is a common thought among fruit tree growers. Unfortunately, rootstock growth isn’t the same as grafted variety growth. If the top graft of your peach tree isn’t budding or showing signs of life*, then the tree should be replaced — unless you’re just using the tree to feed wildlife. Deer don’t care about fruit quality! ;)

      *You can find out if the variety/graft portion of your tree is still living if you do a scratch test. Go out to where the tree is planted, take your thumb nail or a butter knife and, midway up the trunk, scratch a layer of bark away. Do not do this on a branch instead: branches can die and not affect the life or vigor of the tree itself. Do this in a small spot halfway up the trunk, and don’t scratch incredibly deep. You want to remove the outer layer of bark to see the wood beneath: green, wet, wood is living tissue and your graft is still living. In this case, remove the suckers sooner than later so that energy can go to improve the health of the grafted part of your tree rather than the sucker growth.

      If the wood beneath the scratch is dry, brown, hard, and brittle like a dead stick, then the graft has died. If you are eligible for a replacement tree under Stark Bro’s 1-year warranty, give our customer support team a call (800.325.4180) so that you can give growing a sister for your other peach tree another shot. :)

  6. Alan on said:

    Would suckers kill a tree that we bought from you? We have one on your apple trees that has been in the yard for two summers now and suckers started shooting up and the leaves have all fallen off. It was growing fairly well then the suckers started shooting up and eventually the leaves started changing. We have trimmed the suckers back however fruitless.

    • Sarah on said:

      Suckers wouldn’t kill a tree just on their own. Something environmental would have to be weakening the top graft in the first place and then the suckers would be stealing nutrients that would normally go to supporting the top growth. Keeping the suckers removed will ultimately benefit your tree, even if you don’t notice an immediate improvement. If you noticed any other signs (pest damage, leaf spots, too much/not enough water, spraying when it’s too hot out, etc.) that could help determine why the apple tree has lost its leaves.

  7. Ed on said:

    I planted my trees in the fall. We had a late frost and about three trees gave up. These trees now have suckers coming. Is it better than nothing?

    • Sarah on said:

      By “gave up” do you mean your trees died, or did they just became weakened by the late frost? If the trees were grafted and they were simply weakened, the suckers are going to steal energy needed for them to bounce back. If they were grafted fruit trees or nut trees, and the grafted parts died, I would suggest taking the trees out. As mentioned in the article, the rootstock won’t become the trees that you selected to plant.

      It really depends on what trees you planted, and why you planted them. If they’re for wildlife, away from structures, and you don’t care about size/quality/production of what grows, then I can see how suckers might be considered better than nothing. If these trees were intended to increase the appeal of your home landscape, or provide fruit, then the suckers aren’t going to be any benefit there.

  8. Allen on said:

    I bought/planted a dwarf Stark early white giant peach last spring. I did not think that was a grafted tree and I don’t remember seeing any graft. Was I mistaken?

    The peach did well at first then died back to nothing after the warm. I responded to this by cutting the top off experimentally in the fall/winter season. This year I got one bud from the trunk. We thought it might develop into a new branch however it seemed to die suddenly and I now have three purple-leaved “branches” growing from near the soil line – what I would have thought are water sprouts. Are these really suckers on a grafted peach tree?

    I guess I will cut those back tomorrow during the daylight since they are apparently doing no good for the root system of this tree. I’ll also do the scratch test you suggest to see if the trunk appears dead.

    I figured there might be life in the tree roots yet even if part of the trunk seems dead and that I may need to give a pear tree time to establish itself underground here in SC zone 8. I guess I was mistaken about that too eh?

    • Sarah on said:

      Yeah your Stark® Early White Giant™ Peach is definitely a grafted tree. There are several reasons grafted trees are preferable to seed-grown trees. You can read about them in our article: The Science of Grafting.

      One of the reasons we like to use the Redleaf Seedling rootstock on trees like your peach tree is so that it is easy to tell when there is sucker-growth coming from below the graft. The rootstock’s leaves are the purplish color you’re seeing now instead of the bluish-green color a healthy white peach tree’s leaves ought to be.

      If you find that there is still life in the grafted portion of your tree’s trunk, then it is still helpful to give your tree more time to come out of whatever is stressing it out — your instincts are good, Allen! :)

  9. Allen on said:

    Excuse me…that should be “peach” not “pear” in the last sentence above. The two pears and the three apple trees I planted at the same time as and near the peach are all doing well this season! The almond not so much and you’ve heard about the peach… :-)

  10. Lillian on said:

    We have had trouble with Fire Bilght on our 30 yr old dwarfpear tree for it’s entire life.Several years ago we had to cut out the whole top of the tree which has now regrown. Some years we get 500-600 pears from it. We spray with agristrep in the spring 3 times at blossom time. Anyway, when I got done pruning out the affected growth after harvest, I sprayed a gallon of agristrep on the tree. I was wondering if this would do any good. There are a few black leafs but it is too early to tell if last weeks spraying did anything. What do you think?Lilli

    • Sarah on said:

      Many growers will say that the only time strep spray is effective against the bacteria that causes fire blight is during bloom time. It is very effective then, but the strep spray still works through the foliage, so your effort wasn’t wasted. :) Just be sure to sanitize your clippers between pruning cuts and cut below the signs of infection while you continue to remove any sites of fire blight to stay on top of controlling it in your productive pear tree.

  11. john haithcox on said:

    I have had pecan trees from Starks for 12 years never got a pecan due to a blight that gets on the nut and dries it up was told to spray 8 to 12 times a year to control blight instead I cut them down is there a pecan tree not susceptible to this blight

    • Sarah on said:

      I’m sorry to hear about your trees, John! :( Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult to advise a variety that isn’t susceptible without knowing what type of blight was affecting your pecan trees.

      There are disease-resistant pecan varieties like Kanza and Lakota but, if a type of blight is really problematic there, you will be better off contacting your local county Extension to find out which varieties of pecan tree they recommend for your growing success.

      You can find your county extension office’s contact information here (based on your state/county): http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/

  12. Patricia Jones on said:

    Please tell me what the wrapping on the tree trunk is and its purpose. Thanks.

    • Sarah on said:

      That’s an excellent question, Patricia! The trunk has one of our Tree Guards wrapped around it. These are easily removed for cleaning and checking the trunks for borers or other pests or signs of disease.

      Tree guards, tree wraps, and other trunk protectors help to prevent critters from nibbling the bark around the trunks of your young trees. If critters, like rabbits, frequent your planting site, they pose a risk of girdling several trees over night, especially in the fall/winter/early spring when other food sources are scarce.

      Tree guards also help protect against the sun in winter, which warms the trunk and then, when temperatures drop again at night, the warmth cools quickly, causing splits and cracks in the bark. The white color of the tree guards helps to reflect the light (the same way that painting the trunks with 50/50 white latex paint/water solution works), minimizing the chance of the fluctuating temperatures in the winter injuring the bark.

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