We winterize everything else, why not the home orchard? Now is the time to prevent problems later by spending some quality time with your fruit trees.
Rodent damage to the trunk at the soil line happens when grass is left to grow tall next to the trunk. Remove the grass and weeds using hand clippers or by pulling, but do not use the string trimmer, as that can cause more problems. Rodents love to hide in the vegetation and will eat bark off the young trunk and the surface of the roots. This feeding can girdle the tree, causing the tree to die.
Rabbits love to eat thin barked fruit trees (and other 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 fencing specific to keeping rabbits out that have graduated openings. 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. You must secure the cylinder of wire so the rabbits cannot push it over and feed. The fencing should be higher than any expected snow or snowdrift common in your yard. Since fruit trees are often 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 will also have additional benefits, preventing winter sun scald and 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 cause a freeze crack. These cracks are most common on the south or western exposures of the tree trunk. This damage will show up later in the growing season. These wraps should be removed after the chance of frost and freezing temperatures have passed in the spring so the trunks can grow in girth and develop bark to resist rabbit and frost crack damage. This will need to be repeated annually until heavy bark forms.
An overlooked issue is water drainage away from the trunk at the soil line.
Fruit trees are generally not tolerant of waterlogged soils anyway and trunks standing in water and then frozen over causes damage to the trunk which leads to trunk and root rots. Be sure to allow for drainage away from the base of the tree for the winter. You may have created a watering berm for the growing season, so be sure to knock the berm down in several places to water can escape.
Read more on winterizing fruit plants with the Good Growing blog.
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.