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Thursday - March 05, 2015

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Diseases and Disorders, Pruning, Problem Plants, Trees
Title: Dealing with live oak suckers in Central Texas
Answered by: Guy Thompson

QUESTION:

Hi, I have a couple huge Live Oak trees in my back yard. Trunks are 4' in diameter. These Live Oaks produce a lot of root sprouts/suckers. I had always head that a tree's roots feed on water/oxygen towards the dripline of the plant, so I mulched a circle around the trucnks of the tress, making sure not to mulch close to the tree bark because I know that is bad. The mulch suppressed some of the root suckers, but they kept coming back. So my next plan of action was to put some patio rocks around the trees in a circle. I started this 6 months ago and still have not finished the project, but a huge branch fell off the tree the other day and now I'm worried that something I did could have caused this. The leaves on the branch were all healthy, but where the branch connected to the tree was all rotted out. Looked like it had been rotting for years and years, so I doubt I caused this. I can send pics if interested. I guess my real question is "are the patio rocks around the base of the tree (not touching) going to hurt this tree? The flat patio rocks are in a circle with about a 3' radius around the tree. I was thinking the roots would be further out than that, so it wouldn't matter. Please help! Thank you!

ANSWER:

This is one of the problems most frequently submitted to Mr. Smarty Plants.  Unfortunately, it is a difficult one to overcome.  It isn't clear why some live oaks produce lots of suckers while others have few or none.  I suspect that the suckers are an indication that the tree is under stress, either by drought, disease or old age.  The rot in the fallen limb of your tree might have been triggered by stress in earlier times that continues to plague the tree.

I insert below one of the most comprehensive answers that we have provided in the past.

"Hello, my neighbor cleared away their St. Augustine grass for mulch and plantings. Under a huge, beautiful Live Oak tree they placed a wide bed of medium gravel, almost out to the drip line. It looked wonderful for a few weeks, until the little oak suckers started reaching for the sky. They are now almost as dense as a lawn, and my neighbors don't know quite what to do about it. Do you have any suggestions?  

ANSWER:

Aha! Your neighbor has just created the perfect environment for those little oak suckers to emerge.  This is a favorite question asked by Central Texas homeowners.  I like the answer that the A&M Horticulture website had about this. 

  I quote in part:  “LEARN TO LOVE THEM because the more you cut the more they multiply. Some homeowners keep them trimmed at a certain height and interplant ground cover -- the ground cover conceals the oak sprout since the foliage is similar. We DO NOT recommend a herbicide application to sprouts since the sprouts are connected directly to the Mother tree and could cause damage. Roundup herbicide will do little more than defoliate the sprouts and could damage the tree to which they are attached. Learn to co-exist; they can become one of the most drought-tolerant ground covers available.”

Multiple previous answers by Mr Smarty Plants tend to pretty much agree with this; I will reference those answers in the summary that follows. 

 They lean towards cutting the suckers regularly, and even recommend sharpshooters and garden loppers as the tools of choice.   Be careful though, as this exposes the tree to Oak Wilt, so trimming these between February and June is highly discouraged.

  From my own experience, I can echo the advice given above and add to it a little bit.  We have two lovely Live Oaks in our front yard.  We opened the area under them when we converted the yard to a native garden.  Those suckers immediately started coming up and we had a large area where they were pretty thick.   I would mow and weed-whack them for normal control, then once or twice a year I’d dig as much as possible and cut some of the larger roots with loppers or shears.   Later I graduated to using a hedge trimmer under the soil [REPEAT:  Do not cut the Oak from February to June]

  Lately, we have converted from this to a covered situation similar to that recommended in this comment.  We laid down multiple layers of newspaper, covered by heavy cardboard, covered by 4-6” of mulch.  Using cardboard and paper allows some water to seep through, unlike the pond cover suggestion.  You should cover everything up to maybe 6” from the tree trunk.  We are now about 6 months into this and none have made it up yet.  I’m very hopeful, keep your fingers crossed for us.  Still, as they said in Jurassic Park:  “Life will find a way”."

So you see that the sucker problem is not easily solved.  If you want to spend the time to periodically remove the suckers it would be better to  have deep mulch near the trunk.  This would make it easier to pull each sucker up enough to reveal its underground connection to the tree and cut that off.  Rocks make that more difficult.  A less time-consuming solution would be to simply accept their presence and keep them pruned to a few inches high as a ground cover.  Doing this each Winter should suffice for the rest of the year.  Assuring that damaged limbs are removed and that the tree is well watered in drought times may reduce the number of suckers it forms.

 

 

 

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