Managing Volunteer Trees


Volunteer trees can grow to be handsome shade trees if properly managed (GoodSeed Nursery photo)

Steve Boehme

Volunteer trees are saplings that come up from seed all by themselves in your yard and gardens. They can be a real nuisance, since they rarely come up where you would want that particular tree. All too often, volunteer trees are less than desirable species like box elder and silver maple. Dogwood and redbud often invade our gardens, almost always in spots where they would be a nuisance if they grew to maturity. Cedar, catalpa, and green ash would take over our fields and fencerows if we let them.

Ninety percent of volunteer trees should simply be removed while they’re still young and it’s easy to do. The longer you put it off the more trouble it will be when you finally get around to it. Most sapling trees won’t pull up by the roots, so you have to cut them off. Paint the cut-off stumps with brush killer concentrate, which will be absorbed down into the roots and kill them (if you do it during the growing season). We like Bonide BK-32 Brush killer (MCPA Dimethylamine Salt is the active ingredient).

If you’re lucky enough to have a volunteer tree growing just where you wanted one, congratulations! With a little effort, you can have a handsome tree that will get better and better with age. There are some easy management steps you can do to make sure it grows up healthy and strong. Young trees are like juvenile delinquent children; once they go wrong it’s hard to fix, but the remedy is easy if you spot the problem early. Here are the common problems and their simple remedies:

1. TOO MANY TRUNKS: Unless the tree grows naturally as a clump (like redbud or birch), you want only one trunk. Select the straightest, tallest, healthiest one and cut all the others off at the ground. They will sucker (sprout multiple new trunks) next year: cut the suckers off too.

2. MULTIPLE LEADERS: Trees should have one “leader”; the tip of the trunk pointing straight up. The other branches should be limbs pointing outward, not upward. The technical term for this defect is “co-dominant leaders”. Nip them back. More than one leader per tree is a problem; fix it before it’s too late.

3. WISHBONES: This happens when the bud at the end of the main trunk freezes or dies. The next year you have a “wishbone” (see multiple leaders above). Cut one off. Now you have a crooked tree, but the power struggle is over and the remaining leader will take over and grow straight up.

4. BARK-INCLUDED CROTCH: Another variation on multiple leaders, close crotches cause trees to eventually split, because there’s bark trapped inside the crotch. This causes a weak branch that can’t take wind or ice. Cut it off.

5. LOW BRANCHES: If your tree has a nice straight trunk, healthy branching, and nice proportions, all you have to do now is wait for the tree to get taller. Eventually you should cut off any branch lower than the top of your head, so that you can walk under the tree. This should be done gradually as the tree grows, starting with the fattest limbs first. Over the years I’ve learned to be patient and leave the lower limbs until they are an inch in diameter, because otherwise deer will scrape the bare trunk and ruin the tree.

This past weekend I had a “coming out party” for a half-dozen volunteer trees in the field along our frontage. I call these trees my “debutantes”, since this is when they got their final limb-up and became real shade trees. Ten years ago they were two-foot saplings I deliberately spared when I did my annual bush-hogging. Since then I’ve been managing them according to my step-by-step plan. Now I have six handsome shade trees, Someday I’ll fence this field and pasture cows there, and they’ll enjoy the shade of these trees on hot summer days.

Steve Boehme and his wife Marjorie own GoodSeed Nursery & Landscape, located at 9736 Tri-County Highway, near Winchester, Ohio. More information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call (937) 587-7021.

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