Winter Care for Fruit Trees

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Protecting fruit trees from wind, pests and weeds in winter

We're all familiar with the concept of spring cleaning – shaking off the old, dusting down the decks and freshening things up. When it comes to fruit trees a more accurate description would be 'winter cleaning', as this is the time of year when we draw a line under the past year and look ahead to the next. It's our opportunity to get on top of bothersome weeds and lurking pests, check that trees are growing unhindered, and generally prepare the ground for another stellar season of fruitful rewards.

Weed and Feed

The first task to tick off the job list is a spot of weeding. Removing weeds from the base of fruit trees not only eliminates competition, it removes hiding places for insect pests that might be trying their luck by overwintering. Move weeds to the compost heap then fork over the ground to fluff up the soil. This will expose any grubs and eggs to hungry birds and the cleansing effects of frost.

Later on in winter you can fork some general-purpose organic fertiliser into the soil before applying a fresh layer of mulch. But it is important to wait until the worst of winter is over so that cold snaps have had a chance to work their pest-clearing magic. Thick mulches laid 5cm (2in) thick will slow down the progress of new weeds, lock in soil moisture, then help to gently feed and improve the structure of your soil as they rot down into it.

Using a grease band to prevent overwintering pests on fruit trees

Eliminate Overwintering Pests

Overwintering insects and their eggs are a common cause for concern in the fruit garden. The likes of aphids, red spider mite, scale insects and codling moth grubs can sit out winter by tucking themselves into the tiniest of nooks and crannies found within a tree's bark. They'll then rear their unwanted heads in spring as soon as warmth returns. Early winter is your chance to scupper their plans by spraying a winter tree wash onto your dormant trees. A repeat spray can be applied at the end of winter.

This natural, plant oil-based treatment is highly effective at dramatically reducing pest numbers. It is safe around pets and children, and by applying it at this time of year it will have minimal impact on other wildlife. Spray it directly onto the bark on a still, windless day, covering all of the branchwork to leave no escape. Don't forget to wear a mask and gloves to protect yourself from drifting spray.

Another preventative pest defence is the glue band, which stops egg-carrying moths from climbing up into the tree's branches from ground level. Tie the sticky bands securely around the trunk of each tree, glue-side facing outwards. Use string at the top and the bottom of the band to give a really tight fit so that the moths can't climb up beneath it. Apply bands to stakes as well – you don't want these acting as bridges to the destructive moths.

Rotten fruit on a fruit tree

Keep Stored Fruit Healthy

With all the leaves long shed it's easier to spot and promptly remove any mummified fruit hanging on in the branches. You may think these fruits pose little threat, but they are carriers for disease; left on the tree they have the potential to re-infect the following year. Better safe than sorry, so you're best rid of them.

Fruit stores will need regular check-ups to identify the first signs of rot or pest damage. Check through fruits at least once a week. Soft fruit should be used up or thrown onto the lawn for ground-feeding birds. The old adage of one spoilt apple upsetting the apple cart is all too true. Due vigilance will ensure you keep on top of rotting fruit so that the remainder stays in good order. If mice or other small animals have raided fruit stores then make sure the perimeter to your store is properly secure and block up any gaps.

Storing apples in newspaper

Cold Weather Protection for Fruit Trees

While cold weather is fantastic at finishing off hibernating pests, it can play havoc with vulnerable plants in pots. Ensure that semi-hardy fruit trees such as olives and lemons are moved into the protection of a greenhouse or cool conservatory if they haven't been already. Fleece jackets are available for hardier specimens, or make your own by wrapping horticultural fleece around branchwork and packing in additional straw for further insulation. Trees in pots also need proper drainage because sodden roots spell disaster when they freeze solid in prolonged cold weather.

Large dumps of snow are heavy, potentially weighing down branches to the point of snapping. Knock off snow using a broom or shake it free – but gently, as cold wood is brittle.

Repeated frost-thaw cycles can unsettle recently planted trees, loosening the roots and making trees susceptible to wind damage. Autumn winds can also loosen supporting stakes, leading to an inevitable wobble. Check stakes after frosty weather and firm trees back in as necessary.

Winter is also the time to replace rotten stakes, broken supporting wires on which wall-trained fruits are growing, and frayed tree ties. Stems and trunks swell as they grow, so existing tree ties may need loosening to prevent them digging into the bark or rubbing it and opening the door to fungal infection.

So there's plenty to be getting on with as winter bites. No excuses for sitting idle! As if you needed encouragement – an afternoon spent working on your fruit trees is satisfying to the core. The promise of next year's fruits should soften the chill and warm the spirit.

By Benedict Vanheems.

Grease band photo courtesy of Harrod Horticultural

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Show Comments


"Codling moths don't fly up into the trees? Will the sticky bands on the tree trunk really prevent them from laying their eggs in the apples? I thought they used their wings to fly into the trees."
Patti on Sunday 14 December 2014
"Hi Patti. The sticky bands are effective against moths whose wingless females crawl up in to the tree from the pupal or chrysalis stage in the soil. This stops them from laying their eggs. Moths stopped in this way include the mottled umber moth, winter moth and March moth. The winter moth is the most troublesome and grease bands will stop it in its tracks (literally!). The grease bands are not effective against the codling moth, which do indeed fly up into the canopy."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 15 December 2014
"I have trouble with what we call Apple Maggots. Are they the same as the coddling moth? If not, is the treatment the same for winter care. Will the sticky band help with them?"
Cora on Monday 7 September 2015
"Hi Cora. Apple maggots are different to coddling moth. The sticky bands won't guard against them. The best treatment is to coat red spheres with a sticky substance such as tanglefoot. The adults are attracted to the red colour and will stick to the substance and be unable to escape and lay their eggs in the apples. Hang the traps in the trees so there is one trap to every 100 or so apples. If you prefer, you could buy real red apples and coat these - then compost at the end of the season."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 14 September 2015
"Where can you find a supplier of the sticky bands?"
John on Monday 1 February 2016
"Hi John. The sticky bands are widely available. They are perhaps more widely called 'fruit tree grease bands', or 'fruit tree glue bands', so look for these and you should find what you're after."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 2 February 2016
"How do I get rid of rust spots on my pear tree?"
Ben on Thursday 29 September 2016
"Hi could you please advise timing of tree wash, tanglefoot coated spheres and grease bands for apple trees? I have pheromone traps every year but still every apple has a maggot. A really big crop spoiled. I want to eradicate the pests for next year as far as possible. Also doesn't composting the infected fruit keep the pests in the garden? Can they survive the compost bin? Thank you in advance"
Sian on Friday 30 September 2016
"Hi Ben. The best way to cope with rust is to prune out any accompanying stem cankers. Rust is usually spread by juniper trees - so removing nearby junipers from nearby pears can help, though this is somewhat of a drastic measure! Remove infected leaves isn't worth the effort and risks spreading the disease spores further. "
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 6 October 2016
"Hi Sian. The best time to apple a tree wash is in early winter, while grease bands should be applied a little earlier in late autumn/fall. Composting infected fruits is fine because the fruit should fully compost, leaving any pests with nothing left to consume. They should have died off/left the compost heap before the compost is used."
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 6 October 2016
"Hi could you tell me why my 2year old fruit trees always have curled up black inside leaves they have grease bands on last year all had curled up leaves ,can I spray them before blossom on them , "
Dawn on Thursday 23 February 2017
"Hi Dawn. It's hard to say what it is from the description. Are there any holes in the leaves, or any webbing? Are the black patches localised or spread throughout each leaf? What type of fruit trees do you have? It sounds like it could be scab, but would want to check first. As a precaution I'd make sure you've raked up and removed every last trace of leaves from beneath the trees to prevent any of the disease over-wintering and re-infecting the trees. "
Ben Vanheems on Friday 24 February 2017
"Great information! If only the squirrels and the groundhogs would stop stealing my fruit I would get a lot more. lol . Of course that's a whole other topic :)"
Michael C Podlesny on Monday 18 September 2017
"What is "winter tree wash"? Is it a ready made product that I can buy? "
Rhonda on Tuesday 24 October 2017
"Yes, winter wash is an actual product you can buy. You might see it sold as 'Winter Tree Wash'. It's widely available, including on sites such as Amazon."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 24 October 2017
"Hi. I planted apple, pear, and peach trees when i moved into my house 5 years ago. My peach tree died the first winter, so i bought and planted another this past summer. All said self-polonating. I'm wondering how to protect it this year so i don't lose it again? And also i have yet to receive fruit from any of my trees and have been told i should be getting fruit by now. What can i do to help them? Thanks."
Norma Brown on Monday 15 October 2018
"whats the best way to water cherry trees and apple trees in the winter these are young just planted not even a year pld"
Derrick W McCray on Wednesday 13 November 2019
"Hi Norma. Apologies for the length of reply to your questions. If you are in a marginal area for peaches then you would ideally need to grow them in a protected part of the garden - away from chilly winds and, ideally, up against a wall that faces the midday or afternoon sunshine, so that warmth absorbed during the day is radiated back into the tree at night. The delicate flowers are often protected by draping fleece over trees on cold nights or, for walls grown as fans against a wall, by making a temporary screen of clear polythene over the trees. I am not sure what to suggest about the lack of fruits, other than to encourage you to perhaps plant more flowers around the trees to encourage pollinating insects, though to be honest they should be fine finding the tree blossom all on their own! It could be that the varieties you have bought are not in fact self-pollinating - worth checking this out online. Otherwise it may simply be a question of patience - this year they might fruit perhaps!"
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 13 November 2019
"Hi Derrick. Assuming you get reasonable rain over the winter, then the new trees shouldn't need watering until spring, when they burst into leaf again. As the trees are dormant, so long as the soil is moist, they will be fine till then."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 13 November 2019
"I just purchased a 'fruit cocktail tree' (it grows plums, nectarines, apricots, and peaches) and am wondering where is best to plant it by my home? I live in Indiana in the US, so we are looking at hot summers and cold winters. Front yard with full sun in an open area or back yard with less sun but more wind protection? Thanks!"
Danielle Deshaies on Saturday 18 April 2020
"It will want a sheltered position in sun. This will be particularly important early on in the growing season when the tree is in blossom, so that a late frost doesn't kill off the blooms, resulting in poor fruit set. So I would prioritise a position that is less prone to frost and that received plenty of sunshine. "
Ben Vanheems on Monday 20 April 2020
"Every year I use grease bands, but still have lots of grubs in my apples. If I use codling moth traps and clear the ground beneath my tree, will the problem be eliminated ?"
Doreen on Sunday 2 August 2020
"Hi Doreen. That will certainly help, yes. Sometimes bugs can get underneath grease bands, which is why they need to be fitted so carefully. But your approach is very thorough so should hopefully eliminate any problems."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 3 August 2020
"Some great information. Thank you."
Sandy on Friday 12 November 2021

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