A Sucker Born Every Minute

It occurred to me recently that the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute” could apply to gardening.

PT Barnum
PT Barnum

After the leaves have fallen is a good time to prune. You can see the structure of the plant and new growth won’t emerge in response to your cuts.

A big part of pruning in my garden is removing suckers as needed. Suckers are new stems that may grow from the base or from underground horizontal stems. Suckers are what will turn a shrub into an impenetrable thicket. Suckers can pop up yards from the base of the mama plant.

Suckering dogwood. Photo from University of Minnesota Extension Service.
Suckering dogwood. Photo from University of Minnesota Extension Service.

You may want a thicket (good for wildlife), but if you don’t it is wise to hunt down suckers and cut them to the ground every year. Though in the case of suckers from the crown in some instances you may want to cut the older stems and let the new suckers grow in.

I have several shrubs that are prolific when it comes to producing suckers. Shrub dogwoods tend to be in this category, such as Grey Dogwood (Cornus racemosa – I have lots of these) and Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera). The same is true for some Viburnums, including Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus L. var. americanum Aiton). Oh, and I can’t forget Black Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa).

Highbush Cranberry
Highbush Cranberry

The phrase about suckers being born every minute is usually attributed to the showman P.T. Barnum. but it may have actually been coined by  a critic of Barnum’s named David Hannum.

Gray Dogwood
Gray Dogwood

I always thought P.T. Barnum also said “Never give a sucker an even break”, but that was actually W.C. Fields. In fact he made a movie of that name.

Do you ever give suckers an even break in your garden?

24 Comments on “A Sucker Born Every Minute

  1. I do to some extent give a sucker an even break at least the red twigs, but I do have to watch them. My blackberry and swamp rose sucker quite a bit (those I yank), but not my viburnum or elderberry, they have not suckered-yet!

  2. Ahhh, those devilish garden suckers! Burning bush and flowering quince — the bane of my existence. Both came with my yard and I wish they’d left with the previous owner.

    • I’ve tried to grow sweetspire here but it is not very happy. I think it wants more acidic soil, also maybe the winters are a bit too harsh.

  3. Too small a garden to let plants multiply by suckering, so I guess I would say no to your question. It does not stop them from trying though, the pear likes to put out young’uns with those annoying sticks coming out of the roots.

  4. Well….I have a confession, I am a sucker for suckers!!! I have so much ground I want to cover with shrubs and trees that I encourage shrubs and trees and perennials to take all the room they want. I even bought some shrubs that are quite famous to spread but in their defense, they do bloom nicely, attract pollinators and their fall foliage is quite lovely: the Sorbaria Sem. But in a small garden I would garden quite differently.

    • I just looked up Sorbaria sem, sounds like an interesting plant. Thickets have some value, especially if you have a lot of land to deal with.

  5. I keep the lilac suckers down but the flowering crab always seems to get ahead of me. I can prune that is January though so that helps.
    As soon as I saw the title I thought of that W.C. Fields movie. I’ll have to see if it’s on You Tube.

  6. The ones we’ve had the most trouble with have been a couple of low-growing, non-native Spireas. The suckers got so bad, the shrubs died off and all that was left was wispy suckers. It was time to pull them out! I replaced them with perennials. It will be interesting to see how they come back next spring. Suckers are obnoxious!

  7. You had me at the title of this post! I am a sucker hunter as I simply don’t have the space for a thicket. My blackhaw viburnums are plants that I watch closely for this as are some of my dwarf blackhaws. Happy sucker hunting! Nicole

  8. Many gardeners here in the UK fail to remove suckers of rootstocks and lose their real plant.
    I despair of the number of times I see the lovely contorted hazel with great straight rods of ordinary hazel taking over.

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