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Preparing Fruit Trees for Winter and Preventing Winter Damage

Published: November 24, 2021
Man white washing tree trunk. Preparing fruit trees for winter.
Painting the trunks of your fruit trees with diluted white latex paint will help to protect them from sun damage during the bright winter months. Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com

As the weather gets colder, fruit tree growers start preparing their fruit trees for winter. That is because unprotected fruit trees are vulnerable to frost damage. And frost damage can take a toll on the health of your tree in the long run. 

Some of us have planted our fruit trees directly into the ground. Others plant them in raised beds or in permanent outdoor pots. Either way you need to take steps towards preparing your fruit trees for winter and we will discuss that in this article.

Watch this 3 minute video for a quick summary on preparing fruit trees for winter.

why preparing fruit trees for winter is important

One of our main challenges in preparing fruit trees for winter is protecting fruit trees roots from winter frost damage.

The reason is that those roots are essential for all the tree’s key functions:

  • In the summer, tree roots bring water and nutrients in from the soil and draw those nutrients up into the tree.
  • In the fall, all the nutrients and energy produced by the leaves are drawn back into the roots for winter storage. Those nutrients will help keep the dormant fruit tree alive until spring.

So, what happens if your fruit tree's roots freeze during the winter? If the roots freeze, they will die. And when the roots die, your tree will no longer have access to stored nutrients. So your tree will become malnourished and may eventually die.

Winter cold can also cause cracks in tree trunks and broken branches and all can be entry points for pests and diseases. So preparing our fruit trees for winter is incredibly important. How do we do this? Read on to find out.

Person mulching fruit tree with straw | Preparing fruit trees for winter
One way to prepare fruit trees for winter is by mulching your tree with straw. This helps insulate your fruit tree's roots, protecting them from freezing during the winter. Frozen roots die and can no longer supply water and nutrients to the tree.

five easy ways to prepare your fruit trees for winter

There are five easy ways to protect your fruit tree from winter damage.

  1. Do not prune your trees in the fall. If you do, it may spur branch growth (learn more about when to prune fruit trees here) and tender young branches can break during a winter frost.
  2. During the summer, paint your tree's trunk with a 50:50 mix of white latex paint and water. Allow the paint to dry. This white coating will protect your fruit tree from sunburn! During the winter, bright sunlight reflected on snow can result in a crack in the bark on the sunny side of your tree. This damage can be an entry point for pests and diseases.
  3. Meticulously clean up all fallen fruit and leaves from around the base of your tree in the fall. If the fruit and leaves have any sign of pest or disease damage, they must be removed from the site. Why? Well, pests and diseases will overwinter in the leaf litter and come back to haunt you and your fruit tree next year!
  4. Mulch your trees to ensure their roots are insulated from winter cold. Use mulches that decompose slowly like composted wood chips or straw. Avoid using compost or rotted manure as it will give your tree a burst of energy and may delay dormancy. Learn more about mulches here.
  5. When mulching your tree, ensure that the mulch does not touch the bark of the tree at all. Place the mulch in a circle or donut shape around your tree, leaving up to six inches mulch free next to the trunk. Piling mulch up against the trunk can cause the bark to rot.

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special considerations for preparing potted fruit trees for winter

If "in ground" fruit trees can be susceptible to winter damage, potted fruit trees are even more vulnerable! Trees in the ground are partially insulated in the soil. We are just protecting the roots in the top few inches of the soil because they are more exposed to the cold.

But potted fruit trees are popular in landscape design today and those trees need more help in terms of winter insulation. Here's how you can protect them.

Woman around an outdoor potted fruit tree. Preparing fruit trees for winter.
Potted fruit trees left outside in cold climates need to be insulated to protect their roots from freezing winter temperatures. The first step is to surround the pot with chickenwire. Next you'll fill that frame with straw. Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com

So, what is the solution? During a recent class on preparing your fruit trees for winter at Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto, we insulated and winterized the site's potted fruit trees in three steps. Here are the tools we needed:

  • A roll of chickenwire that’s about as high as the pot your fruit tree is planted in
  • Wire cutters
  • A bit of extra wire to seal the wire circle
  • A bale of straw (not hay, because hay has seeds and can introduce weeds into your garden)

three steps to preparing potted fruit trees from winter damage

These are the steps for protecting an outdoor potted fruit tree from winter damage:

  1. Roll out the chicken wire in a circle around your pot, leaving about six inches of space between the chicken wire circle and the pot itself (as illustrated in the photograph above).
  2. Cut the chicken wire to size and secure the chicken wire. Used bits of extra wire to secure the circular chicken wire fence.
  3. Stuff the space between the pot and the chicken wire with straw. Put some straw at the top of the pot to insulate the soil from the top as well (as illustrated in the photograph below).
Volunteers preparing potted fruit trees. Preparing fruit trees for winter
Susan Poizner (kneeling on the left) with the volunteers from Evergreen Brickworks, posing with their newly insulated potted tree.

In the spring, when the weather starts to get warmer, you will remove the straw and the chicken wire. Spread the straw out in your vegetable garden or around fruiting trees and shrubs that are planted in the ground. It will now act as nutritious mulch that helps retain moisture in your soil and slowly decomposes, releasing valuable nutrients into the soil. Save the chickenwire so that you can use it to insulate your potted tree next year.

Fruit trees rarely need to be covered over the winter. But if a tree blooms in the early spring and a frost is forecast, it may need to be covered temporarily to protect the blossoms from freezing. If the blossoms die in a frost, then the tree will not produce fruit that year. Learn more in this video.

Do you have a cherry, apple, pear, or any other type of fruit tree that you want to protect for winter? Click on the button below to sign up for my monthly fruit tree care newsletter and I will send you a copy of my mini eBook "Seven Ways to Prepare Your Fruit Trees For Winter".

Happy winter everyone!

Growing Fruit Trees:
A Beginner's Guide

Learn fruit tree pruning, feeding, and pest & disease prevention in our mini-course. $39 USD for a limited time only.
LEARN MORE

Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist and the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards. She is the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training program at www.orchardpeople.com and the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast.  She is also an ISA Certified Arborist..

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