Question of the Week: May 4, 2017
“Neil, how can I keep the little live oak seedlings from sprouting up all over the place?” It’s impossible to pull or dig them all up.”
When I was a kid, we lived on the east side of the Texas A&M campus. I walked home from A&M Consolidated Junior High by crossing the campus every afternoon.
Even as a youngster I saw the difference from one live oak to the next. Some of the trees were solid with root sprouts between the sidewalks and curbs, almost like some robust form of groundcover. I noted that not all of the trees did this. In fact, I figured that it probably wasn’t more than 10 or 15 percent that were producing these sprouts, and I carefully avoided those trees as I gathered acorns for my backyard nursery.
You may have heard me mention on the air that live oaks seem to vary more genetically more than any other tree species I know. Some live oaks almost have a weeping habit. Others are decidedly rounded. Some have small leaves and others have leaves that would almost cover your palms. And, whether it’s a correct observation or not, it has always seemed to me that the small-leafed, weeping forms are much more likely to produce these sprouts.
The obnoxious part of all this is that there is nothing you can do to stop the development of sprouts. They are tethered to shallow roots of the mother tree, and any weedkiller you might apply to kill the sprouts would also risk serious damage to the mother tree herself.
If you dedicate a couple of boring hours per year to slicing and removing these shoots with a sharpshooter spade you may be able to stay ahead of them. I have the same issue with one of my yaupon holly trees, and I try to do the removal after a heavy rain or thorough watering. I plunge the sharpshooter in at a 30-degree angle and I cut the shoots 3 or 4 inches beneath the soil’s surface. More sprouts will be produced later, but at least that gets rid of the ones that are there.
If you end up having to plant a groundcover beneath the live oak, choose a type such as regular mondograss that doesn’t produce runners. All that cutting of sprouts with the sharpshooter would chop the runners to pieces. You can minimize damage by slicing almost straight down into the mondograss.
One of the roll-type weed-blocking fabrics would probably stop the sprouts, but you would want to conceal it with small river rock or other decorative stone. Were you to cut through the fabric to plant shade-tolerant shrubs you could expect a geyser of sprouts to erupt, so it would probably be best just to leave it as is.
This is certainly not my proudest answer. I know it’s frustrating but it’s the only honest answer. I just can’t give you false hope. Luckily this problem doesn’t show up very often. Fact is, if I had a young live oak that started shooting up sprouts, I might be inclined to replace it as soon as I saw them.