After a seemingly endless summer, fall and winter have finally arrived. Leaves are a-changing, rains (and snow) are falling, and winds are whirling on through here. With this shift in seasons, fruit trees are also transitioning from growing and fruiting to their dormant stage through winter. It can be easy to forget about your fruit trees once the harvest is finished, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. Listed below are a few best practices for winter tree care to help you better care for your fruit trees year-round.
First, if you’re thinking about pruning, hold off until the tree is fully dormant. This is usually in December in Western Washington. Depending on the type of fruit, you can usually “winter prune” from December until March and sometimes early April. The best months to prune fruit trees such as apples and pears in the winter are January and February. Ideally, the conditions are on the drier, sunnier side for a day or two, but that often just isn’t the case here. Also, avoid pruning on windy days, as working up on ladders can be riskier in these conditions.
Next, once the tree has finished dropping its leaves, rake up as much of that fallen leaf litter as possible. For other types of deciduous trees, this may seem like valuable mulch to leave around the tree to build up the soil’s organic matter. However, leaving the fallen leaves around fruit trees can actually promote pathogen spread in subsequent seasons. For example, the spores of fungal diseases such as apple scab overwinter in these leaves during the winter and are discharged during rainy periods in the spring. As temperatures in the spring warm up, the spores germinate and may reinfect the apple tree, thus affecting the tree’s health and the fruit itself. So, be sure to rake up as much as you can and dispose of the leaves in the city compost bin. Do not add the leaves to your own compost bin. And if raking isn’t your thing, then you can try using a Billy Goat or similar leaf vacuum.
Third, fall and early winter is a perfect time to create a mulch ring or reapply a new layer of mulch to the base of your tree. Although the tree is going dormant, its fibrous roots will continue to grow until the ground fully freezes, which can be later in the winter here. Mulching helps to create a healthier soil, which these roots can thrive in. Not only will this added layer of mulch continue to build up the soil’s structure and organic matter, but it will also help to smother out lingering fungal spores that may reinfect the tree during the following season. If you don’t get around to this now, you can always mulch and integrate compost in the springtime as well.
Now is also a prudent time to schedule assessments with fruit tree experts (like City Fruit!) to evaluate any hazardous branches that may break during winter storms. High winds as well as the excessive weights of ice and snow may break branches causing damage to property or personal injury. Keep an eye out for excessively overhanging, broken, and dead or dying branches. You can contact Julian, our fruit tree specialist, at [email protected], or call our office at 206-922-3967 to schedule an appointment for an assessment or to prune hazardous branches
Lastly, it’s still not too late to give bud grafting a shot. If you’re trying to introduce new cultivars of fruit to your existing tree, to increase cross-pollination of a type of fruit, to save an old or sentimental tree, or maybe just to practice grafting, then now is still a good time for some types of fruit. As long as the bark of the stock still “slips” or separates easily from the wood, then bud grafting can be performed. This is another service that you can contact Julian about if interested!
At City Fruit, our goal is to harvest heatlhy fruit to share with all – and this begins with loving tree care. If you have any questions regarding fruit trees or what we do in public orchards, please reach out to us via phone or email!