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Nurture Those Maple Suckers

Prairie folk recognize the value of trees, any trees. Established homestead sites are valued as much for their large stands of shelter-belt trees as for just about any other outdoor amenity. Before we purchased our present home site, some passing fellows had victimized the previous owner, offering to prune his lovely stand of mature maple trees shading his driveway. The price was right and the owner wasn’t home when these ambitious entrepreneurs arrived. Apparently they drove alongside the trees with their cherry picker extended and the fellow riding the bucket simply lopped off the tops about one third of the way up in one massive orgy of a chain saw massacre, a most brutal interpretation of the word “pruning.”

The owner was as devastated as his trees, but it was too late. Debris littered the stands and 10-foot near-naked stumps graced his driveways. Rot set in at these indiscriminately slashed cuts, and the old growth was doomed. Eventually branches suckered out from these beaten tops, but on an inferior base. Limbs soon routinely crashed to the ground in passing storms or dejectedly pointed their dead and dying spires toward the sky in mute testimony to someone’s opportunistic stupidity. These unfortunate trees slowly degenerated from internal decay and leaf sizes dropped precipitously as insects and woodpeckers invaded their hollow centres.

As new property owners, we recognized that at some stage these trees would all have to come down even though they were still a welcome yard feature. Anyone who has ever tried to successfully raise rows of trees on the Prairies is aware of the magnitude of this undertaking. There are options: Clear, cultivate and maintain soil to a fine texture and plant foot-high saplings. Water diligently, preserve a weed-free environment and hope deer and mice will somehow pass by without extirpating your efforts in a few quick nibbles. And wait for years — many years — for an undulating row of trees to finally reach shade delivery status.

Planting larger trees is an alternative, but the cost of deep-hole planting plus bracing ropes come into play as well as a significant increase in watering requirements for at least two or three years. Lower trunk sections need to be protected from winter field mice and higher branches from deer. As Kermit the frog tells us, “It’s not easy being green.”

Our tree replacement options seemed bleak. We would need to cut down the old gnarled trunks (which was fine, we heat with wood) but we would have to track hoe those huge stumps out, rework the soil and literally begin from scratch hoping some shade and beauty would manifest itself before we grew too old to care.

There had to be a better way and there was. About four years ago we began to leave a sucker or two growing at the base of each tree. They just grow. No cultivation, no weed control, no labor, no water and also significantly, no cost.

The key to reproductive success was to cut the old tree down before it died. This left its live root structure intact. After the old tree ceases to draw resources, its entire root system feeds one or two small saplings. As one friend kindly observed, “They grow like stink.” A healthy 10-foot tree after three or four years is not uncommon.


Some trees, including evergreens, won’t sucker but numbers of other species will and we have completely re-populated considerable swaths of poplar stands in this most efficient and inexpensive manner. They will almost explode with new seedlings as still viable roots shoot up new trees considerable distances from their old stumps. This is something they won’t do much if at all, in our experience, as long as the mother tree is alive and well.

It is difficult to lay the chain saw blade on a tree that still has a number of years left, but for our yard, it is for the greater good.

This is not to suggest what anyone should or should not do. I’m only reporting what works for us. (I would add as an addendum that we have very few problems in these new growths with deer and mice. The upper branches are too high for deer to reach successfully and as for mice, well, we just don’t really have many around the farm. We poison bait the inside of our buildings and outside we rely on skunks. We don’t own a dog and skunks are entirely compatible with cats, though as I write this article, we don’t have them either. We encourage one or two skunks to stay around the yard and once settled in they are actually quite fastidious, model tenants staying out of our way in daylight, going silently about their business at night.)

Stan Harder writes from Glendon, Alta.

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