We winterize the lawn mower, why not the home orchard and landscape? Now is the time to prevent problems later, by spending some time with your favorite young trees and fruit trees.
Rodent damage to the trunk at the soil line happens when grass is left to grow tall next to the trunk. Rodents love to hide in the vegetation and will eat the bark off the trunk and the surface of the roots all winter long. Remove the grass and weeds using hand clippers, not the string trimmer, as that can cause more problems.
Rabbits love to eat thin-barked fruit trees (and thin-barked ornamentals), as well as any young tender branches and twigs they can reach. Once the trees develop the heavier, thicker bark, rabbits seem to leave those trees alone.
Mechanical barriers are the most effective method of preventing rabbit damage. Use a cylinder of chicken wire or hardware cloth, or use fencing specific to keeping young and adult rabbits out. The openings are narrow at the bottom and get bigger the higher you go on the fence. Young rabbits will not be able to get inside in the spring either. You must secure it so the rabbits cannot push it over (working the cylinder of wire into the soil before it freezes works well).
Remember, it must be higher than any expected snow or snowdrift common in your yard, or you should be prepared to shovel the snow away from the fence. Also, since fruit trees are branched low to the ground, a wide wire cylinder is often the most practical, far enough away from the trunk and lower branches, and high enough to prevent rabbits from feeding in the event of a heavy snow.
There are other materials that can be used such as spiral plastic wraps or commercial tree wraps that are applied once cold weather is here to stay. The best wraps will be lighter in color to reflect heat away from the trunks. Wrapping the trunk also will have an additional benefit, preventing winter sun scald and freeze or frost cracks. When the trees are wrapped, we are not trying to keep the trunk warm, but rather to shade the trunk from direct sunlight that can raise the trunk temperature above 32 degrees and later dropping to cause the freeze crack. These cracks are most common on the southern or western exposures of the tree trunk. This damage will not show up until the following growing season. These wraps should be removed after the chance of late frosts and freezing temperatures have passed in the spring to allow the trunks to grow in girth and develop the thicker bark to resist rabbit and frost crack damage in the future.
One area that is often overlooked is water drainage away from the trunk at the soil line. Tree trunks standing in water that freezes causes damage to the trunk, leading to trunk and root rots. Be sure to allow for drainage away from the base of the tree for the winter. You also may have created a watering berm for the summer growing season, so be sure to knock the berm down in several places so melted snow can escape.
About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.