Down the Garden Path: Winterizing your home orchard

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 because 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 often 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 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 Fahrenheit 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 generally are 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 so water can escape.

• Richard Hentschel is a Horticulture Extension educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. This column originates on his blog at To get more tips from Hentschel, watch his “This Week in the Garden” videos on Facebook and YouTube.