Winter Care of Your Fruit Trees

With October here and a distinct chill in the air, it time to think about protecting all your fruit trees that you’ve nurtured through the growing season from predators.

Young apple trees in Seed Savers Exchange's orchard.

Why Protect Your Trees?

Fruit trees are especially attractive to animals that love to eat the bark and nibble the buds for winter food. If you want to avoid the cost of replacing trees year after year, then a plan for deterring them needs to be considered.

Most people usually worry about deer being the worst culprits. Mice and voles actually damage far more trees, especially young trees as they girdle the trunk near the ground line which is harder to detect until you notice the following spring that your tree isn’t growing. The bark on young trees is tender and until six or more years of age has not had the time to produce a thick outer bark that these mammals no longer find palatable.

I’ve often encountered homeowners that have become completely discouraged from raising trees as they have had so many problems with animals eating them.

Protection from Rodents

Let’s consider several methods of protecting your young trees, and I’ll explain some simple techniques that are effective and inexpensive.

It’s most important to wrap the trunk of the tree to protect it from mice and voles.

Some materials you can use are commercially available tree wraps.

  • There are 1 1⁄2” diameter spiral plastic wraps that are simple to install and are usually available in 24” and 36” lengths. They have small air holes for ventilation and are easy to apply and have a cost of $1.10 to $1.35 each. They can be cut to fit for height. They are sunlight sensitive and become brittle after a few years.
  • Another popular choice is the ‘crinkled paper’ tree wraps that have an asphalt layer in the center which works very well. They are usually found in garden centers and inexpensive. If you only have a few trees to wrap, this is a good choice.

If you have materials available, home-made tree wraps are a great economical choice.

  • Old window screening is excellent, however metal screening is preferred as rodents can chew through the plastic type.
  • Other kinds of wire mesh screening are effective as long as the mesh size is not larger than 1⁄4” to 3/8”.
  • You can wrap the trunks with corrugated cardboard from packing boxes.
    • This is also a good place to trap harmful insects during the growing year (they love the crevices and crawl inside). Replace the existing cardboard every so often and you remove pests from your orchard.
    • Cardboard is certainly not weather resistant and will deteriorate quickest at the ground line.

Whatever material you choose, make sure that the protectant extends to the ground completely or is even buried slightly. This prevents pests from getting underneath.

Another simple technique to discourage voles and mice who often tunnel under the snow -  after a snowfall, stomp the snow in a close circle around the trunk of the tree and keep doing this for several snowfalls. The compacted snow is a good deterrent, though not the only one to rely on.

Deer Protection

For the rest of the tree, you have to consider the kind of winter that’s predicted for your area.

If you are expecting lots of deep snow, then you have to consider that animals, especially rabbits will be able to reach areas of your trees far above the ground. Deer, regardless, will be able to also reach most any young tree that is unprotected.

Deer can be a problem for your young fruit trees - take steps to protect trees over the winter.

The only reliable way to protect your trees is with a physical barrier.

Most commercial orchards use 8-9’ or higher deer fencing to keep deer out of the orchard. For average homeowners and especially suburban dwellers that can have higher deer pressure than even rural folks, this kind of fencing is prohibitively expensive. Consider several methods and their costs.

  • Liquid repellants can be applied but have limited ability to be effective throughout an entire winter.
  • Poultry netting is a good choice and fairly low cost.
    • Make a loop of chicken wire that is big enough to encircle the tree. Depending upon the height of your tree, choose an appropriate length but remember if deer can reach over the top, they will. Cut the wire with a pair of metal shears and twist back the cut ends over each other to interlock. Place around the tree if you haven’t already and consider a stake or two around the outside of this ‘ring’ to hold the wire in place.
  • If you access to woven fencing, this is an excellent choice as it is longer lasting and a better visual barrier.
    • The downside to this material is that if the hole size is too large, rabbits will get through. The 3’ high green or galvanized type, typically available at discount lumber suppliers only provides minimal protection from deer though generally effective for rabbits if the snow isn’t too deep. Commercial woven-wire fencing that is at least 5’ to 6’ works especially well for deer.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Once your trees have reached bearing age, typically, 5-7 years for most types, the trees have become large enough and tall enough to be above the reach of rabbits and the lower trunk bark is becoming thicker and less appealing to rodents. At this point, a wire-mesh wrap around the trunk which can be left in place throughout the year is a good choice. Deer can still be a problem, however the tree can likely withstand occasional browsing and still produce fruit.

A small amount of planning can make all the difference between proving food for yourself and your family, or providing food for hungry critters.

Dan Bussey is the Orchard Manager at Seed Savers Exchange's Heritage Farm where he maintains the nearly 900 different varieties of apple trees in our Historic Orchard.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.