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.
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
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.
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 cause water sprouts to form as well. 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. Also, because 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 from which they are growing. 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 shears and remove those suckers (and water sprouts). You’ll be doing your trees a favor!