3 Excellent Reasons to Remove Suckers…the Right Way

As the time for summer pruning of apricots and cherry trees comes to an end, we thought we’d share with you a tip about one of the most important jobs to do when pruning – regardless of the time of year you do it.

It’s really important to remove any suckers that are growing on your tree (that’s shoots coming up from below the graft union, or directly from the roots coming up through the soil).

Here’s the first reason why this is so important:

A young plum tree being dominated by 2 suckers
A young plum tree being dominated by 2 suckers

This is a little plum tree with two suckers coming up from the roots. Notice how they’re pretty much the same diameter as the original tree, and both are much taller?

Just imagine, for a minute, what this scenario would look like in another year, or two, if the suckers were left intact.

Within a very short space of time it would be increasingly difficult to tell which was the original grafted tree, and in fact there would be a good chance the original tree would be out-competed and die anyway. If you have a multi-trunked fruit tree in your garden, this is one of the common explanations for how it got there!

Here’s another example which shows just how much stronger suckers often are than the grafted tree:

That brings us to the second reason for getting this technique right.

When you’re removing suckers, make sure you take them off as close to the trunk or the ground as you possible can – if you leave a stub, you’re just asking for trouble because it’s likely to turn into a forest of suckers next year!

Remove suckers without leaving any stub at all
Remove suckers without leaving any stub at all

The third excellent reason to remove suckers is because they can be dangerous!

Many rootstocks are quite thorny, and because they grow so vigorously, the thorns can quickly become quite strong and vicious. Here’s a close-up to drive the point home…

The one we’ve photographed here had grown about 2m tall in just one season, right up through the middle of the tree, which not only takes much-needed vigour away from the tree, but provides a potentially painful hazard when you’re picking.

When you remove these thorny suckers, make sure you put them out of harm’s way, don’t leave them where they can be driven over because they can puncture even a tractor tyre (and yes, that’s the voice of experience!)

We’re all about making pruning as easy as possible, because we know it’s one of the topics that really befuddles a lot of fruit growers! Removing suckers is just one of the techniques we teach in our Pruning Mature Fruit Trees short course (as well as our other pruning courses), because it really can make a huge difference to your trees.

What to do with prunings?

We’ve been busily pruning apricot trees this week, making the most of this beautiful autumn weather and enjoying the glorious colours.

If your apricot tree is like ours, with a spot of gummosis, then it’s very important to pick the diseased prunings up and dispose of them properly to help prevent disease next year.

The best way is to return them to the soil somehow. Large animals (sheep, goats, horses) just love to eat prunings (especially if they still have green leaves on them), and will often break them down enough to put the remains straight into a compost pile.

Now that we have Tessa’s in-house micro-dairy here on the farm as part of the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op, the prunings go straight to a bunch of cows who think fruit tree prunings are a high treat!

Another great technique is to chip the prunings. You can either leave them in a pile to age and then put them back on the trees, or put them into a compost pile. Learning how to make your own compost is one of the “must-have” techniques for all gardeners that are serious about growing their own food. It’s really hard to find good quality compost to buy (not to mention quite expensive, as it’s something you need to apply regularly), plus it’s one of the best ways to capture the nutrients from your garden ‘waste’ and return them to the soil. If compost-making is still a mystery (or keeps going wrong), our Compost That Works online short course will get you on the right path.

Larger prunings also make good kindling or firewood, or can be turned into biochar using one of the techniques we’ve described in other blogs, so there’s really no need to waste anything!

Shaping and repairing fruit trees

With winter on the way and our minds turning towards tree pruning and maintenance, here’s two simple techniques to help look after the structure of your trees. 

Tree training with baling twine
Tree training with baling twine

The first one is a trick we use in the orchard to help trees shape up – literally!

We often use baling twine (some people call it hayband) to hold limbs in the right place, or to offer support to a young limb while it strengthens up. 

A peach tree being encouraged into the right shape
A peach tree being encouraged into the right shape

There are a couple of things to be aware of if you’re tying branches together: 

  • Never tie the twine tight around the branch, because it can quickly become too tight and strangle the branch. Instead, use one big loop of twine or rope that goes around two limbs that are opposite each other (the weak one that needs holding up, and a strong one on the other side of the tree) – think of it like a big rubber band.
  • Review it next year, and remove if the weak branch has become strong enough to hold itself upright.
  • Be careful when you’re working on branches that have been tied together, e.g. pruning, thinning or picking, because they won’t be as ‘stretchy’ as usual and it’s actually easier to break them if they’re tied together. 

A similar technique can also be used to help hold a broken branch in place after you’ve applied a ‘splint’ to help it heal, which is the second technique we want to show you today.

A broken branch can often be put back together, as long as there’s still enough wood and bark in place to have maintained the flow of water and nutrient from the roots to the broken piece, and if the two broken pieces will fit neatly back together.

In much the same way as wood heals when we do a graft, broken branches can be encouraged to heal by holding the two pieces together and binding firmly in place – you may need to prune away some jagged pieces first to get a neat fit. We’ve used grafting tape in the photo above to hold the split firmly in place.

If you don’t discover the break immediately, it may have already started to heal in the broken position, in which case it can be a bit harder to get a really tight seal (as you can see in the photo above). In this case it’s a good idea to bind them as close as you can get them to start with, then come back in a month or so, remove the bandage and see if you can get the two pieces to fit together more tightly, then bandage again. 

Here’s another example of the same technique, used to repair a trunk that has split in half.

Tree repair using cable ties
Tree repair using cable ties

Cable ties have been used in this case, to get a really tight seal between the two broken pieces.

As with grafting, it’s important to remove the bandage when the wound has healed so it doesn’t provide a strangulation point as the diameter of the branch naturally expands as it grows.

Now is also the right time to be getting ready for the regular winter maintenance pruning (if this topic is confusing take our Pruning Mature Fruit Trees online short course to get a handle on it), so this is the perfect time to do any shaping or repair any breaks you missed during the summer.