There’s always a lot to do when it comes to getting ready for winter.
With the mad rush to get the last of crops in, mulch and cut perennials, and cool-season vegetables outfitted with hoop houses, it can be so easy to forget about trees!
But while fruit trees may seem resilient, they are still susceptible to damage from frost and cold temperatures, and it’s important to take steps to prepare them for winter.
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This article will teach you how to harden fruit trees in your yard as well as fruit trees planted in containers.
Preparing fruit trees for winter takes only a little time and effort, and doing so will protect them from freezing temperatures, cold winds, and damage from hungry animals.
it’s all about the roots
Roots are such an important component of a tree. They are the link between the tree and the nutrient-rich soil beneath.
During the spring and summer, the roots absorb water and nutrients from the soil, drawing them into the trunk, branches, and leaves.
As the days get shorter and temperatures drop in the fall, the tree prepares for dormancy. Deciduous trees will drop their leaves, preventing the production of energy through photosynthesis.
During the winter months the metabolism slows down to conserve energy and active growth ceases. The tree uses the accumulated energy reserves to survive.
Healthy roots are vital to a healthy tree, so it’s important to protect them from harsh winter conditions.
Periods of freezing and thawing can damage roots, especially for young or cold-sensitive trees.
Both clay and bark expand when heated and contract when cooled.
During freeze-thaw cycles, when temperatures fluctuate below 32°F above the freezing point and rise again, the top layers of soil thaw and expand during warm days.
At night, when the temperature drops below freezing point, the soil sloughs and shrinks as it contracts back down.
This process of expansion and contraction can break the roots or completely pull them out of the soil, causing significant damage to young plants.
Frost cracking is another way trees can be damaged during freeze-thaw cycles. The bark expands when daytime temperatures warm.
At night, the outer layers of bark shrink and shrink faster than the inner layers, which can cause vertical cracks in the trunk and broken branches.
These weak points in the bark are suitable places for pests and diseases to enter.
Fortunately, there are several steps that home gardeners and gardeners can take in the fall before hard frosts to protect their trees and prevent damage during the coldest winters.
Start by clearing away debris from around the base of the plants.
Remove any fallen fruit that may be rotting on the ground as well as those left on the branches.
Rake fallen leaves, and be sure to dispose of anything that shows signs of pests or disease rather than mulching or adding it to the compost pile.
layer on mulch
Speaking of mulch, this is another important factor in protecting your trees during the coldest times of the year.
Mulch insulates the roots, protecting them from the damaging effects of freeze-thaw cycles.
Think of a healthy forest, for example: there is no bare soil during the winter. Instead, the leaf litter acts as a layer of mulch, keeping the roots safe and comfortable during the winter.
Cultivated trees are no different in their need for insulation, but they lack a forest’s interconnected network of plants, resulting in more resilient trees with natural checks on pests and disease.
That’s why it’s a good idea to first clean up any fallen debris and rotting fruit around the base and then apply a mulch of wood chips, shredded leaves, or straw.
Feel free to apply your chosen material liberally, applying a layer at least a few inches thick in a wide ring around the trunk of each of your trees that is at least three or four feet in diameter.
It’s also a good idea to leave a few inches of space between the mulch material and the trunk to prevent a buildup of moisture that could cause the bark to rot at the base.
Avoid using compost or rotted manure as these can provide an unwanted boost of nitrogen, triggering new growth at a time when plants should be going into dormancy.
A few deep waterings before the ground is solid will help prepare the roots for dormancy.
This is especially important for plants, and especially so during dry periods of the autumn season.
In late autumn, after the leaves have dropped, water the trees thoroughly.
Use a soaker hose to water slowly and deeply, making sure the water penetrates the soil about a foot. Do this early in the day when temperatures are above 40°F.
protect from animal damage
With other sources of food becoming less available in the winter, local wildlife will start foraging for whatever they can find.
Young plants typically have branches that are just the right height for hungry deer or moose to reach.
Trust me, because I’m speaking from experience – investing in some tree cages is definitely worth it!
Cages should be tall enough to prevent deer from reaching the top. Check out this article for tips on building a DIY deer fence.
Small rodents can also cause damage by gnawing on the roots and trunks during the winter.
You can use a hardware cloth barrier around the base of the tree. Make sure the fabric extends at least 12 inches into the soil.
prune after dormancy
To prevent branches from sprouting new, delicate growth in the fall, wait until after the leaves have fallen and the tree is dormant to prune.
This should generally be done anytime between December and February, after the trees have gone dormant but before buds begin in spring.
Pruning correctly can improve airflow and help prevent disease.
Using sterile pruners, remove dead or diseased branches, suckers, branches that are growing on top of each other, or any branches that are growing straight up.
Some trees require special pruning techniques. For example, bananas should be cut back to about six inches long before winter. Learn more about overwintering bananas here.
protect potted trees
While it is important to chill fruit trees planted directly in the ground, it is just as important to protect fruit planted in pots.
Since they aren’t insulated from the earth, container-grown plants’ roots are more sensitive to cold, and more likely to freeze and die—without a little extra help from you, at least.
There are a few different ways to chill pot trees. You can keep them in a protected location, insulate them, plant them temporarily directly in the ground in their pots, or bring them indoors.
Before determining which method to use, be sure to do the necessary research to understand the species you are working with:
how cold is it? What climate does it like? Does it need some sunlight in winter, or can it move to a darker spot?
For example, many species of citrus are tropical and cannot be kept in freezing temperatures at all.
Apples, on the other hand, are hardy and most can tolerate some amount of cold.
Once you have a sense of what each plant can tolerate, you can choose a protection method:
1. Store in a protected place
Choose a location that won’t freeze, such as a garage or shed. Ideally, this should be an unheated location that is protected from the wind, with consistent temperatures in the upper 30s or 40s.
This method works best for cold hardy species such as fig, cherry, or apricot trees, which have natural periods of dormancy.
2. Insulate With Mulch
There are several ways to do this. One method is to encircle the trunk with a ring of chicken wire and fill the frame with straw, chopped leaves, or another type of mulch.
To do this, make a wide circle around the container with chicken wire, leaving about six inches of space between the cage and the pot.
Cut the cage to size and secure it by attaching it to the other end, using pliers to bend in the cut edges.
Fill the space between the cage and the pot with mulch, up to the surface of the pot. Add about a foot more of mulch over the top of the pot for extra insulation.
Remove the mulch when spring arrives. You can spread it over the veggie garden, or put it to good use elsewhere!
For young plants or cold-sensitive species like citrus, you can provide extra protection by wrapping the pot in burlap before adding the mulch and wire.
3. Plant the container
If you have the space, containers and all, you can temporarily plant your trees in your yard.
Before the first frost, dig a hole large enough to bury the container. Spread six to 12 inches of mulch on top and leave it until the soil thaws in spring.
This is a useful method if you’re planning on planting new trees in the ground later, as you’ll already have a prepared hole that you dug when the ground was easy to work with!
4. Bring it Indoors
Another option is to bring the pots inside.
While this may not always be practical, especially for large or heavy trees, it is a great option for tropical species—such as avocados, bananas, or breadfruit—that prefer warm temperatures and sunshine throughout the year.
Select varieties that are hardy to your climate to reduce the risk of damage. Avoid fertilizing in mid-summer to discourage new growth at the end of the season. Water deeply in fall shortly before the first freeze, especially during dry weather. Prune in late winter or early spring, when the trees are dormant.
keep warm and cozy in winter
Chilling fruit trees is a no brainer.
And it’s worth taking a few extra minutes in the fall to make sure these valuable assets for the landscape are well preserved until spring.
What methods do you use to cool your fruit trees? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments below!
And to learn more about growing fruit trees in your garden, check out these further guides:
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