Killing Small Trees in Prairies – A Helpful Tool

One of the greatest challenges of prairie management, especially in small eastern prairies, is managing the invasion of small deciduous trees.  Most prairie species (plant and animal alike) thrive best in open treeless habitats.  Encroaching trees can fragment large prairies into smaller pieces, shade out many species of prairie plants, and harbor both predators and invasive species that can change the whole balance of power in a prairie community.

Siberian elms are fast becoming a major threat to many prairies.  Killing numerous small trees like these without impacting the diverse prairie community around them can be difficult.

Siberian elms are fast becoming a major threat to many prairies. Killing numerous small trees like these without impacting the diverse prairie community around them can be difficult.

So what to do?  Controlling species such as eastern redcedar is relatively easy – they can simply be cut down, or even more quickly wiped out with a well-timed and planned prescribed fire.  Unfortunately, most deciduous trees resprout after being cut or burned, so killing them usually requires the use of herbicide to prevent that regrowth.  Cutting trees down and painting their stumps with a small amount of herbicide is a simple and clean way to eliminate them, but that task becomes much more daunting when there are hundreds (or more!) of small trees to deal with.

Over time, we’ve been using and refining a simple tool that makes the task much more manageable.  Some herbicides for controlling woody plants can be applied through a technique called “streamlining” or “basal bark treatment”, in which the herbicide is mixed with oil and applied to the outside of a young tree without first cutting it down.  It’s a nice alternative method, but after using it for several years, we had to keep replacing sprayers because the oil (and maybe the herbicide) was pretty hard on gaskets and other rubber/plastic components.

Then our former land steward, Chris Rundstrom, came up with the idea of adapting a tool developed by Jack McGowan-Stinski in Michigan called a PVC herbicide wand.  The wand has a sponge at the end, and was developed to apply herbicide to cut stumps cleanly and easily.  Chris thought it might also work well for the basal bark treatment – and he was right.

The "killstick" can make the difficult task of suppressing invasive trees much more manageable.

The “killstick” can make the difficult task of suppressing invasive trees much more manageable.

Over time, Chris modified the design of the “killstick”, as it became known to us, to make it work better for its new purpose.  Recently, our technician-turned-fulltime-land manager, Nelson Winkel, has been further refining it.  Now, we’ve got it working pretty smoothly and have decided to share what we’ve learned with everyone else struggling to fight off invading small trees.

Below are two links to instructions that will show you how to build and use the killstick yourself.  We’ve had good luck using it against every species of deciduous tree we’ve tried it on, as long as the trees are smaller than about 3″ or so in diameter and have smooth bark.  The brand of herbicide probably isn’t very important, as long as it contains the chemical Triclopyr and is labeled for the basal bark or streamlining technique.  Be sure to follow the label directions for the mixing and handling of the chemical.  The killstick allows you to apply the herbicide mixture to the tree through a wick rather than with a sprayer, but all other label directions should still apply.

Detailed Instructions

A Printable Tri-Fold Guide

If you try it out, we’d love to hear your opinions and ideas for further refinement.  You can leave a comment below or contact Nelson directly by phone or email (his contact info is included in the directions).

Good luck!

P.S. – the instructions for the killstick are stored on the PrairieNebraska website we’ve developed as a clearinghouse for information on prairies, prairie management, and prairie restoration.  If you haven’t seen the site, check it out – we hope it’s helpful to you.


28 thoughts on “Killing Small Trees in Prairies – A Helpful Tool

  1. Thanks Chris – this blog is such a great resource! I’ve also had good luck using a standard tank sprayer (with “Viton” seals – much more resistant to degradation than other, cheaper, types, especially w/the detergent in glyphosate products) with a sponge attached to the wand tip via a big rubber band. When the trigger is squeezed the sponge fills w/herbicide and can be wiped on the bark or “smooshed” on a cut stump. This REALLY saves on herbicide when compared to using the sprayer nozzles and reduces overspray too.

    • Scott- see the link to detailed instructions. We’ve been using Remedy Ultra lately, but other Triclopyr-based herbicides work as well. Just be sure you get one with a high-concentration of Triclopyr and that is labeled for basal bark treatment.

  2. We volunteer at a blackland prairie remnant (near DFW area in Tx) plagued by mesquite, elm, hackberry, etc. Should this technique also work for mesquite (or any deciduous trees) as long as they’re small/young enough to still have smooth bark? Also, there are many trees resprouting w/ multiple trunks: as long as the treatment is applied to all trunks, are these any more difficult to kill with this technique than single trunks?

    Really appreciate all the great resources. Thank you!

    • Jan, I talked with Nelson about your question. Neither of us has experience with Mesquite, so I guess you’ll have to try it and let us know! I’d be surprised if it’s not successful. Nelson says that he has good luck with multiple stemmed trees as long as he treats all of the stems.

      Good luck!

    • To answer on the mesquite question: Triclopyr based herbicides will work on mesquite. I have lots of landowners down here near College Station that use Remedy mixed w/ diesel to control both mesquite and yaupon as Chris said as long as they are under 3-4 inches in diameter and have smooth bark.

  3. What a great and simple modification of Jack’s original design. I love it. I assume it doesn’t dribble herbicide as you move from tree to tree?

  4. We have big problems with buckthorn in VT and this should take some of the back pain out of cut and dab application. Will have to start experimenting with basal treatment. What I’d really like to see is a lopper with 5′ long handles and angled blades to cut trees of squarer to the ground. Thanks!

  5. Has anyone tried to make a cap for the end so the wick doesn’t drip herbicide when not in use? I’ve also had rodents chew the sponge off a weed wand when in storage. Maybe they like the salty taste.

    • It’s a good idea, Rich. I’m not sure if Nelson has thought about that, but I’ll be sure to mention it to him! We usually just store them upside down and/or in a bucket in case of drippage.

  6. Chris, In my experience the explanation of trichlopyr chemically girdling a tree (buckthorn) is not accurate. Since trichlopyr is a systematic herbicide, it spreads throughout the tree. This is apparent because when you’ve applied enough herbicide to potentially kill a tree the leaves will wilt slightly. I often wait to see the effect of the herbicide on the tree for a couple days (weeks) and apply more herbicide until an impact on the tree can be observed. The best way I have found to apply the minimum amount of herbicide necessary to get a lethal dose is small repeat applications in succession. If you do not get a lethal dose or treat the resprouts, you will be dealing with a much more difficult to treat multi-stem monster.

    I have read studies on the effectiveness of herbicide that were conducted over a two year period. The problem with these studies is many species respout a year or two after herbicide has been applied to a stump. It is necessary to return to areas that have been treated for a couple years to treat all resprouts.

    Another effective method for killing trees is girdling. I use a tool that is slightly different from the tool used by the person in the following video.

    There are draw backs and benefits to girdling. A big benefit of girdling is you do not need to purchase herbicide that tends to only be sold in roughly $300 dollar quantities. Another benefit is you do not need to be licensed to girdle on public land, as is required to apply herbicide in a number of states. Girdling often takes two seasons to kill a tree, which may be unacceptable in certain situations.

    A concern with both girdling and basal bark application is vines might grow on the dead trees. The dead trees may also cause problems with smoke when conducting a prescribed fire in populated areas or be a hazard to people. These concerns might necessitate cutting the trees, piling them, and burning them after they have been killed.

    I hope this information is helpful.


  7. Chris,

    Could I reprint this in the Missouri Prairie Journal either in the spring or summer issue? May not be room in my section for the spring issue because I have almost already filled my space. I bought the materials today and hope to put one of these together tomorrow. I haven’t found the material for the wick, though. Would something like an old sock work?


    • Steve – you can absolutely reprint it, excerpted or not, as you wish. Let me know what I can do to help. Don’t know about the old sock question… I know Nelson experimented with various things before settling on the wick material, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that would work! One of the nice things is that it packs really tightly…

      • Thanks, Chris. I’ll let you know if we need anything more from you. We will give credit for the article and any photos Carol uses.
        I got it put together. Used doubled polyester rope for the wick. Later found wiping cloths at Dollar General so I’m set with options. Can’t wait to try it out.

  8. This looks like a nice simple and practical tool. I’d make a modification though. I’d put a screw off cap on the top end of the stick and use that for filling with chemical rather than taking apart the stick on the lower end.

    • Dave,

      We’ve tried that in the past, and it can work. The disadvantages are that screw caps often leak more than a sealed end, and when you tip it to fill from the top, herbicide can leak out of the wick end. Anyway, it can work either way, and a screw cap does have some advantages too…

  9. I wondered why you didn’t put a screw cap or plug in the top and was going to try it. May cement the cap on, now.

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  12. My issue is my Wetland restoration Program area which has invading cottonwood which is so thick that no sunlight is getting to the grasses in several acres. There is not enough material to burn in some areas and others, burning didn’t help.

    Seed trees are to the west of me somewhere in the next mile or so off property.

    I have mowed in the past but obviously the woody plants return. I am trying glyphosate in a rope wick but I don’t think it is painting it efficiently. Will know in a week or so. I may have to explore other rope wick designs.

    Regardless, I see that Milestone/2,4-D mix is recommended by another study.

    Any experience or studies on rope-wicking acres and acres of cottonwood? With the forbs, etc seems wicking is the best method when when you have 75-100% invasion area.

    • Mike – that sounds like a tough one. I assume the area of young cottonwoods is too large to be acceptable for your site objectives? (We’ve started changing our opinion about Missouri River bottomland restoration in eastern Nebraska and are moving toward accepting – even encouraging – cottonwoods in some places.)

      I think you’re trying what I would try in your place. Wicking can work on sumac, I know, but I’ve not tried cottonwoods. Have you looked into a roller wick? There are several models out there, and they might get more herbicide on the leaves and be more effective that way. Wish I had better answers… Good luck!

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