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University of Illinois Extension

Late Season Work in the Home Orchard

November 27, 2013

URBANA, Ill. - Before the ground freezes solid and it becomes too cold for working outdoors, gardeners with a home orchard should take some measures to ensure that their fruit trees survive winter in the best possible condition, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture specialist.

Field mice can do a lot of damage over the winter by feeding on fruit trees if they are allowed to hide in the grass around the base of the tree, said Richard Hentschel.

He recommends removing all grass and weeds directly around the base of the trunk to clear several inches of open dirt.

"Cut the remaining vegetation carefully by hand if needed to discourage the mice from living there over the winter. If left tall and next to the trunk, field mice will live there all winter eating the inner bark of the trunks and the surface of roots, which can kill fruit trees," he said.

Using a string trimmer is not recommended because the bark of younger fruit trees is thinner and easily damaged, he added.

Hentschel pointed out that mice do not like to cross open frozen ground in order to get to the fruit tree because they become easy prey for predators. "Field mice are so small that gardeners cannot effectively fence them out. Field-mice damage often goes undetected until the snow melts and then it is too late," he said.

Rabbit damage is also seen during the winter months.

"Rabbits will eat the bark off trunks and any branches within reach, especially young fruit trees with smooth bark down to the soil line," Hentschel said.

Damage is distinct, showing white-colored exposed plant tissue where the rabbit has chewed away the outer bark. Rabbits feed less on older fruit trees with heavier bark until the snow piles up or until there is a snowdrift that allows them to reach the lower branches, he added.

Gardeners can use a variety of mechanical barrier materials to discourage rabbit feeding. During the winter months, chicken wire can be used as adult rabbits will be too big to fit through the openings, Hentschel noted.

"The ring of chicken wire should be at least a couple of inches from the trunk and needs to be secured so the rabbits cannot lean it over to feed. If you do this early enough and work it into the bare ground you created, it will freeze in place and you will not need stakes," he said.

Alternatives to chicken wire are plastic trunk wraps that can be easily used on younger fruit trees. For larger fruit trees, several layers of newspaper or commercial tree wraps can be used. Wrapping the trunk also provides protection for the tree from winter sun scald and possible frost cracks. Feeding deterrents can also be sprayed on the trunk and lower branches for the winter.

Another consideration frequently overlooked is soil drainage.

"Do not allow water to stand around the base of your fruit trees. For the winter months, you can fill in soil around the trunk so water and snow will not collect," Hentschel said. "This is an ideal situation for the development of disease, which will attack the crown and roots near the trunk itself later.

He added that allowing free water to crush the bark tissue as it freezes around the trunk will cause problems as well. "Once spring returns, the soil will need removing as you prepare for the next growing season," he said.

Source: Richard Hentschel, Extension Educator, Horticulture, hentsche@illinois.edu

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