Once you’ve picked the last of your fruits this season, you may think your work with your fruit plants is over. However, a few tasks can be done in the fall to set yourself up for a successful growing season next year.
Sanitation and disease management
One of the most important things you can do for your tree fruits is to remove any fruit that is still on your trees, or that has fallen on the ground. Diseases like black rot in apple and brown rot of stone fruit can overwinter on fruit. Come spring, spores of these fungi will be released from the fruit left behind (mummies) and infect your crop. By removing this fruit, you can help reduce the chances of those diseases developing.
Cleaning up fallen leaves can also be helpful with disease management. This is especially important with apples if you’ve had issues with foliar diseases like apple scab. Apple scab (and some other foliar diseases) overwinter on leaves and infect new leaves in the spring. If you have problems with foliar diseases, leaves can be raked up and burned, buried, or composted. Leaves can also be chopped up with a mulching lawnmower, so they break down faster.
One other disease that can be managed in the fall is peach leaf curl. Peach leaf curl infections happen in early spring, before buds start to swell, so many people miss the window of opportunity to manage this disease. If you’ve had problems with peach leaf curl on your peach trees, they can be sprayed with a dormant spray of chlorothalonil, lime sulfur, or a copper-based product in late fall after leaves have dropped. Trees can also be sprayed in early spring before the buds begin to swell.
Fertilizing and pruning
Avoid fertilizing your trees, especially with nitrogen, in the late summer and fall. Fertilizing later in the year can stimulate new growth that is more susceptible to winter injury. You also want to avoid pruning fruit trees (unless you are removing dead wood) until late winter or early spring. Like fertilizing, pruning in late summer and fall can stimulate new growth that is susceptible to winter injury.
Like with tree fruit, good sanitation is important when trying to manage diseases in small fruits. Make sure to remove or bury any fruit that is left on plants or the ground. If you have problems with disease, make sure to remove diseased plant material.
If you grow strawberries, it’s a good idea to mulch them over the winter. As we go through freeze-thaw cycles during the winter, strawberry plants can be heaved out of the ground, and the crowns can be exposed to cold temperatures that will damage or kill them. Mulching strawberries will help moderate the temperatures and protect plants.
Place 3-4 inches of weed-free straw over plants once we have had a few consecutive nights of temperatures in the 20s (F). Depending on the year, this typically ranges from mid-November to mid-December. Once soil temperatures reach 40˚F in the spring, the mulch can be removed.
Blueberries will also benefit from being mulched. Blueberry plants are shallow-rooted, so mulch will help protect roots from heaving. A 4-6 inch layer of mulch, such as wood chips or pine needles, can be used. Mulching will also help retain soil moisture and suppress weeds in your plantings.
Mulching blueberries in the fall can also help with management of mummy berry. This disease will also overwinter on old, mummified fruit. The mummies can either be removed or buried under two inches of mulch to help prevent infection of plants in the spring.
Raspberries and blackberries
If you grow raspberries and/or blackberries, apply up to three inches of mulch to plants. This will help prevent heaving and retain soil moisture. Pruning is typically done in late winter or early spring.
Wildlife such as voles, rabbits, and deer can be problems in home fruit plantings as they feed on the roots or bark of fruit plants. Fall is a good time to put tree guards around trees to protect them. Hardware cloth or plastic mesh materials can be used.
If voles are a problem, use one-quarter inch or less mesh hardware cloth and make the guards at least 18 inches tall. Make sure they are flush with the ground, or, if possible, try to bury them at least two inches deep into the ground, so voles cannot tunnel underneath. If rabbits are an issue, make guards 24-36 inches tall. Cleaning up weeds and grass and pulling mulch away from tree trunks that voles can hide in can also help reduce problems.
If you use plastic spiral tree guards, make sure to remove them in the spring. If they are left on trees, they can trap moisture, creating an ideal environment for pests and diseases to develop.
In addition to feeding damage by deer, bucks may also damage woody plants by rubbing their antlers on them. To protect plants from deer, you can try placing a five-foot-tall wire cylinder around the plant. Fencing could also be used, but it needs to be at least 8 feet tall (to prevent deer from jumping over it).
Another option for managing deer and rabbits in your fruit plantings is using repellents. Two types of repellents can be used, contact and area. Contact repellents are applied directly to the plants and repel animals by taste. Area repellents are applied near the plants and repel by smell. If you choose to use repellents, read the label and make sure it can be used on edible plants.
Take some time this fall to prepare your fruit plants for winter so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor next year.
Good Growing Tip of the Week: If you grow your fruit in containers, place them in a protected location or an unheated garage, so the roots aren’t exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Containers can also be buried in the ground.
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MEET THE AUTHOR
Ken Johnson is a Horticulture Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Calhoun, Cass, Greene, Morgan, and Scott counties since 2013. Ken provides horticulture programming with an emphasis on fruit and vegetable production, pest management, and beneficial insects. Through his programming, he aims to increase backyard food production and foster a greater appreciation of insects.