Preparing Fruit Trees for Winter

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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Photo by Unsplash/Pratik Gupta

You’ve pruned your fruit trees in early spring then harvested fruit through the summer and autumn. Before heading into the warm indoors, take time to prepare your fruit trees for winter. This includes giving them protection from cold temperatures, rodents, infections and even the sun. The following three steps will help insure healthy trees for your next year’s harvest:

Mulching fruit trees with a thick layer of organic material will protect the roots from severe cold weather. Because fruit trees naturally grow by the edge of forests where the soil is littered with branches and leaves, similar high-carbon mulch is best. Wood chips, straw and leaves are usually most available and will protect the trees’ roots during winter. As this mulch decomposes the following spring, it gives soil a slightly acidic pH that fruit trees require for their best growth.

Photo by Mary Lou Shaw

Wood chips are a valuable source of high-carbon mulch and minerals. The highest in minerals are small branches not more than 2.5” in diameter. One source of these branches is from springtime pruning. Additionally, if tree trimmers are clearing electrical lines in your vicinity, ask them to dump loads of chips at your house. It may be a chore to transport them from driveway to orchard, but worth the effort any time of the year.

Straw is also a valuable source of high carbon mulch. Unlike hay, it is an excellent insulator because it has hollow stems which hold air. Always be sure the straw you use hasn’t been “dried down” with Roundup. You don’t want to mulch your trees with an herbicide that has also been patented as an antibiotic. We want the soil surrounding our fruit trees to be vibrant with microbes!

Leaves are a wonderful addition because the roots of trees transfer minerals from deep in the soil to their leaves. By enriching fruit trees’ soil with minerals, we are fortifying their immune systems from disease and increasing the nutrition of their fruit. At our house, we chop and gather autumn leaves with the lawn mower and then stack them thickly around our fruit trees.

Compost can also serve as mulch for fruit trees, but additional carbon should be added to standard compost used for vegetable gardens. Adding “brown” material like wood-chips, straw and leaves, gives compost the balance fruit trees need.

Three caveats regarding mulching fruit trees:

  1. Mulch should be placed at least six to eight inches deep to protect the trees’ roots during cold winter months.
  2. Mulch should be placed out to the drip line of each tree. If we picture each tree’s branches as an open umbrella, the “drip line” becomes evident.
  3. Keep mulch at least six inches away from the trees’ trunks. Mice and voles find mulch an excellent winter home, and you want to discourage them from damaging the tree’s bark.

All this mulching also gives you a head-start next spring when it will reduce competition from weeds and grass as well as preserve moisture for the trees’ roots.

Protecting fruit trees’ trunks is especially important in winter for two very different reasons. The first was mentioned above—rodentsand rabbits love to chew on tree-trunk bark which can kill fruit trees. Besides keeping mulch a distance from the trunks, young trees need the extra protection of tree guards. I’ve found the easiest tree guards to use are the white, spiral variety sold through tree nurseries and online. Not only can I put them on without damaging the bark, but if I forget to take them off, they expand as the tree grows. Rodents can’t chew through the plastic guards, so that problem is solved.

White tree guards also solve the second winter problem to fruit tree trunks—sun scald. Sunny winter days heat up the dark fruit tree trunks which then cool rapidly in the evening. These swings in temperature cause expansion and contraction of the bark which result in it cracking and peeling. Fruit tree trunks thus become more susceptible to insect damage and disease.

Photo by Mary Lou Shaw

White latex paint can be used instead of tree guards to prevent wintertime’s rodent and sun damage. White paint reflects back the winter sun and prevents the bark from warming and thus avoids cracking and peeling of the trunk’s bark. Interestingly, white latex paint also discourages rodents, rabbits and insects. It can either be diluted to ½-strength with water or used full strength. At our homestead, we place the tree guards on trees for their most susceptible first couple years and then use white latex paint on their lower trunks as the fruit trees mature.

Remove dead fruit to prevent fungal infections. There are usually some desiccated fruit remaining on fruit trees and the ground every autumn and early winter. This old fruit provides breeding ground for fungal pathogens. Balance can be tipped to the “good fungi” by removing all dead fruit from the vicinity of fruit trees. This helps the trees’ natural immunity withstand disease without using chemicals. At our homestead, old fruit is placed in a young compost pile where pathogens will be destroyed during the natural heat of the composting process. We never use fungicides because fungi are essential for delivering the soil’s nutrients to the food we eat.

Mulching around fruit trees, protecting their trunks and removing old fruit are three important measures to insure healthy fruit trees the following spring.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired physician and homesteads with her husband in Ohio where they grow most of the food they eat. Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, can be purchased through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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