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Stopping Volunteer Trees – Managing Unwanted Tree Seedlings

What is a weed tree? If you buy the idea that a weed is simply a plant growing where it isn’t wanted, you can guess what a weed tree is. Weed trees are volunteer trees the gardener doesn’t want – unwelcome houseguests who arrive without invitations. What should you do when you find young trees you didn’t plant springing up in your backyard? Read on to find out your options including tips on how to get rid of volunteer trees.

What is a Weed Tree?

Weed trees are not a special kind of tree. They are unwanted tree seedlings that grow in your yard, young trees that you didn’t plant and don’t want.

The status of “weed tree” is determined by the gardener. If you are thrilled to find the seedlings, they are not weed trees at all but volunteer trees. If you are not thrilled and want to get rid of volunteer trees, they qualify as weed trees.

About Unwanted Tree Seedlings

While a weed tree is not a species of tree, many unwanted tree seedlings fall into a handful of species. These are types of trees with high seed germination rates, fast growing trees that colonize quickly and choke out the slower-growing species. They are usually not native trees in the area.

Trees that tend to fit this description include:

  • Norway maple – throw off many winged seeds
  • Black locust – self-seed easily and are invasive
  • Tree of heaven – a Chinese native that multiplies by root suckers (not heavenly at all)
  • White mulberry – also from China, with edible berries that birds spread around the neighborhood

Some other “weed trees” may get planted by squirrels, such as with oak trees. Squirrels will often stow away acorns from the tree in various parts of the landscape for later. And occasionally fallen acorns that are missed by birds or squirrels will germinate.

How to Get Rid of Unwanted Trees

Once you determine that a volunteer tree is a weed tree, act quickly to pluck it out of the ground. The earlier you try to remove the seedling and its roots, the easier it will be, especially if you water down the area first. The key is to remove all of the root system of the unwanted seedlings so that the plant will not regenerate.

If that moment has passed and the unwanted seedling is already well-rooted, you’ll need to try other techniques. You can cut down the tree and paint the stump with full strength weed killer or regular paint to kill it. Keep in mind, though, that the toxicity from the use of chemicals may spread to other areas of your garden, killing other plants or making the ground infertile.

Some suggest girdling the weed tree, since this effectively cuts off the canopy from water and nutrition from the roots. But this may take a long time and is probably not your best option. To girdle a weed tree, cut a one inch (2.5 cm.) or more strip of bark off from around the trunk. Make sure to cut deep enough to penetrate the hard center of the trunk. Doing this will slowly kill the tree over a period of a year or two and reduces the chances of the tree producing suckers.

Weed trees are volunteer trees the gardener doesn’t want. What should you do when you find young trees you didn’t plant springing up in your backyard? Click on this article to find out your options including tips on how to get rid of volunteer trees.

Weed Trees: Identification & How To Kill [Complete Guide]

“Oh great, another weed tree!”

Said nobody ever.

At least, not without a heavy dose of sarcasm.

Many species are aggressive invaders if left unchecked.

They can colonize an area quickly: choking out nearby trees and plants, preventing their growth.

And threaten the foundations of buildings.

So something has to be done. And the sooner you do it the easier it is.

In this article, I’ll show you how to identify them when they’re young so that removing them is a quick job by hand. As well as methods to use if they’re already well established.

Let’s dive straight in.

What Are Weed Trees?

Weeds are plants growing in places you don’t want them to be.

Likewise, weed trees are unwanted trees you didn’t plant that are growing in your garden uninvited.

If you find a new tree seedling but you’re happy with it and want to keep it, then it’s not a weed tree. Simple as that. Instead, in gardening terminology, it’s known as a volunteer tree.

But if you suddenly find one growing in a flower bed, the middle of your lawn, or anywhere it’s a nuisance, then go ahead and call it a weed tree.

They’re often species with a high seed germination rate. Which means they grow fast and can colonize an area rapidly.

Which is bad enough if you weren’t planning on a garden full of trees. But that’s not all.

Because they also choke slower growing species nearby if you don’t identify them and act.

This aggressive invasion usually starts from seeds carried into your garden by the wind, deposited by birds, or accidentally mixed into your compost.

And depending on where you live, they can be a common occurrence. So keep your eyes open for any small saplings that are starting to grow. It’s a lot easier to get rid of them when they’re very young.

Many weed trees are non-native species planted as ornamental trees somewhere nearby. But it’s a fine line between ornamental tree and weed. Sometimes just the width of a fence.

They’re usually chosen because they’re strong and hard to kill. But this makes them more of a problem for you.

Because it means they’re a lot tougher to remove.

How To Identify A Weed Tree

Is that new plant growing in your garden a tree sapling?

Follow these steps to find out:

  • First, check the stem of the plant. If it’s woody, then there’s a good chance that it’s a tree. If it has a thick green stem, then you can rule it out.
  • Next, take a look at its leaves. The leaves of young trees are the same shape as leaves on the fully mature tree. You’ll see them on the end of small branches, instead of growing out from the stem like they do on many other plants.
  • Take a look at the surrounding area. Most trees grow fairly close to the mother tree. Can you see one nearby that looks similar? Does it have the same type of leaves? If so, then you’ve probably found your culprit.

Examples Of Unwanted Trees To Look Out For

These are common types of weed trees. They are all non-native and fast growing species that quickly take over an area:

White Mulberry Tree

Widely regarded as a nuisance tree, White Mulberry is an original native of China.

The tree takes its name from its small white buds. You can identify it by its orange-brown bark, and the edible mulberries it produces. The berries are usually white when immature. But ripen into shades of purple and pink, often seen coating sidewalks in the summer.

They are well-known as fast growers in almost any soil type, and can adapt to a range of conditions.

Black Locust

The name doesn’t sound very pleasant does it?

And indeed it’s not if you let it establish itself in your back yard.

A native of the Appalachian and Ozark mountains, it self-seeds with ease and is considered an invasive species pretty much everywhere. Including its native area.

It’s a medium sized tree that can grow to about 50 feet and has a narrow canopy. You’ll see clusters of white flowers in the spring, and clusters of feathery leaves in the summer.

This is a problem you need to get on top of quickly, because it’s very hard to control once it starts to colonize an area.

Norway Maple

Norway Maples are attractive looking trees that grow to heights in excess of 65 feet. With their dense and rounded canopies, they can shade out plants growing beneath.

Their bark is smooth and mottled gray in color. And they grow lobed dark-green leaves that can teach 6 inches in length and 5 inches wide.

Clusters of yellow-green flowers bloom in May, and then give way to a winged fruit containing seeds. The wind then blows them through the air enabling them to spread.

In the fall, the leaves turn into an orange and sometimes red color.

Even in full shade, they germinate quickly. Which makes controlling this tree a difficult exercise.

Tree Of Heaven

Although it sounds divine, don’t be fooled by the name: tree of heaven is certainly no angel.

Another native of China, it’s an exotic deciduous tree first brought to the US in the late eighteenth century.

The tree is recognizable by its gray bark, pinnate groupings of leaves, light green seed pods, and reddish-brown twigs. You can see yellow-green flowers in the spring on panicles that can grow up to 16 inches.

And did I mention that it grows fast? It can grow up to 60 feet in height at a rate of around 5 feet every season.

Because it can produce a huge amount of seeds, reproduce through its roots, and produce a chemical that kills nearby plants, it’s a highly successful invasive plant species that can rapidly take-over natural areas. And its aggressive root system can cause damage to nearby buildings.

The best way to control it is to remove the seedlings by hand before they develop the tap root.

How To Get Rid Of Weed Trees

The best way to prevent weed trees becoming a problem in your backyard is to remove them by hand when they are still a seedling.

Tip: Try watering the ground around it first to make it easier.

Take a look around all areas of your garden. Particularly out of the way places obscured from view, such as behind garden sheds. Because if you leave it until the end of summer it can become a much more difficult job.

If you find a weed tree that’s already established there are a couple of methods you can use:

Weed Killer

People often start by chopping down the unwanted tree close to the ground. But this isn’t enough on its own. If left untreated the tree will regrow.

You need to take the extra step of painting the leftover stump with a strong weed killer that will translocate to the roots and kill what’s left.

Some weed killers are best applied to the tree while it’s still standing before you cut it, so check the instructions of the product.

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Girdling

Bark helps to transport water and nutrients to the branches and leaves of the tree. This makes it an easy to reach target to disrupt its growth.

Girdling involves removing the bark around the circumference of the tree trunk. This can starve it, resulting in death.

While it’s often effective, don’t expect a 100% success rate. Sometimes trees can bypass the girdle and continue growing.

For the best chance of success, you need to remove all layers of the bark. Use a hatchet to cut about ½ to 1.5 inches deep and then remove the bark completely from around the tree. Try a minimum 2 inch wide girdle for a small tree. For bigger trees try 8 inches or more.

You can also apply weed killer to the stripped area for added effect.

Final Thoughts

Early identification and removal is the key. It really will make your life so much easier. But it’s rarely a one time problem. If the original source of the seeds is nearby then you’ll have to keep on the lookout for more in the future.

If the tree is already well established then it becomes a tougher job. Particularly if it already has an extensive root system.

Weed killer can help kill the tree, but many people don’t like using chemicals in their garden.

If you’re happy to leave the tree where it is then girdling can be effective. But to get rid of it completely you might need to call a tree removal expert.

2 thoughts on “Weed Trees: Identification & How To Kill [Complete Guide]”

Greetings! We have been in our home for 20 years and have a wooded/wetland behind our home. About 15 years ago I treated a weedy/grassy area at the edge of our property with roundup with the intention of clearing it for a garden. While everything was indeed killed, shortly after that a bunch of viney growths starting shooting up. I never got around to working the earth for a garden and in the meantime these weeds grew and multiplied. They are a rhizome A few years later I doubled my efforts and started to wage a war on these weeds that were now growing into trees because suckers were starting to invade our lawn. I tried many things, digging the roots up and following all the rhizome branches, even building a bonfire over a particularly large stump. They continued to flourish. I waged a summer long battle and then admitted defeat. We simply managed the suckers by mowing them and let the trees run rampant on the edge of our property.

With all of this free time I have now, I have been spending a lot of time outside and have decided to double down and try again to defeat them. I know I’m in for a battle. Many of the trees are now quite large. Yesterday we cut them all down with a chainsaw and I treated the outer area of each trunk with Tordon RTU. I am trying to identify the tree species and haven’t found anything that looks right. I am seeking any advice on how to eradicate these weeds and identify what type it is, can send photos. Thank you!!

Hello. I am not an arborists! With that being said, I would cut the stems as flush to the ground as possible and cover them with lots of cardboard, tarps, mulch, or anything else you can think of. This will block the stems from receiving sunlight. I would think the rhizomes would have to be mowed continuously to keep them at bay. Good luck to you!

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Have you got a weed tree in your garden? In this article, we show you how to identify weed trees and get rid of them