Autumn is well underway. The leaves are falling, and it’s time to put the garden to bed in anticipation of the coming season. If you have fruit trees in your garden, especially young ones, preparing them for winter weather can help ensure that you’ll have healthy, productive trees in the spring.
Winter-prep tasks aren’t difficult or time consuming. First, remove any remaining fruit still on the tree. Unripe fruit can be added to the compost pile if there is no sign of disease or pests.
Once that’s done, clean up around the tree, removing both accumulated leaves and fallen fruit. If you skip this task, pests and disease can overwinter in the debris. Fallen fruit can attract deer or other foraging animals that can damage the tree by nibbling on its branches and bark.
While pruning of fruit trees should wait until late winter when the tree is fully dormant, you can remove damaged branches at this time. Excess pruning in the fall can encourage new growth, which will be unlikely to survive, and can use resources stored by the tree for the winter.
As a precautionary step, wrap the trunk of young trees with a trunk guard to protect the tender bark from rabbits and mice. The trunk guard should be tall enough to reach above the depth of the anticipated snowfall and a bit below the surface of the ground. Young trees, in particular those less than 2 years old, are at risk of potential girdling of the trunk.
Girdling is when the bark is damaged around the full circumference of the tree, usually by a small animal during winter or, during the growing season, due to trimming too close to the trunk. Often winter damage is not visible until the snow recedes in the spring.
There’s nothing so disappointing as discovering that critters have been feeding on the bark at the base of the tree. If only partially girdled, the tree can often repair itself, but if the damage encircles the trunk, this will result in the tree’s demise.
As an alternative to store-bought trunk wraps, a homemade trunk guard can be fashioned from a rectangle of quarter-inch hardware cloth. Fasten it with wire or zip ties into a closed tube encircling the trunk. Be sure that the tube is wide enough to avoid rubbing against the bark. Using a stake or two can help stabilize the tube to keep it from coming into contact with the trunk.
For more mature trees, consider painting the trunk with a coat of white interior latex paint (mix 50-50 with water) to help prevent sunscald and cracking of the bark by winter’s sun reflecting off the snow’s surface and extreme freeze-and-thaw cycles. Do not use exterior latex or oil-based paint for this purpose.
Once the tree is prepared for winter, add a fresh layer of mulch around it. The mulch will help insulate the roots from freezing/thawing when winter temperatures fluctuate.
When applying mulch around the tree, be sure to leave a circle several inches away from the trunk as a no-mulch zone. A “mulch volcano” (mulch piled against the trunk) can damage the bark and lead to rot and disease.
Finally, continue to follow any watering routine you have in place, being sure that the fruit tree is adequately watered as winter approaches, until it is fully dormant. Don’t, however, fertilize your fruit trees in the fall. That’s one task that should wait until spring arrives.
For more information on caring for fruit trees and many other gardening topics.
(Deborah J. Benoit is a University of Vermont Extension master gardener from North Adams, Mass., who is part of the Bennington County Chapter.)