Tucking the garden into bed for the winter requires different tasks depending upon the plant. While you may not think of fruit trees as...

Share story

Tucking the garden into bed for the winter requires different tasks depending upon the plant. While you may not think of fruit trees as needing the same attention as a vegetable garden or perennial border, there are steps to take now to keep your tree healthy and productive. Fall is also a good time to plan ahead for winter pruning.

Regular maintenance ranges from monitoring for disease or pests to giving your trees food and water. If you’re considering landscape renovation, evaluate existing trees and know what to get if you’re buying new trees. Finally, get out to see other trees in the community this time of the year and help celebrate the marvelous abundance we enjoy from fruit trees.

Local fruit is stacked high at farmers markets and groceries right now, so if you’re considering a new tree, buy locally grown varieties and host family taste tests.

To see what you’ll be leaving behind for future owners of your home if you plant a fruit tree, visit the 120-year-old Piper Orchard in Seattle’s Carkeek Park. One of the oldest orchards in Seattle, it’s being renovated and maintained by a hardy group of volunteers, who are hosting a fall festival Oct. 20.

Fall maintenance

Consider these tasks to keep your trees healthy:

Water: Although rain has already set in, it’s a good idea to check the dryness under the tree, says Gary Moulton, fruit horticulturalist at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Northwest Research Extension Center.

“If you go into the winter and it’s really dry around the tree, its roots are more susceptible to freeze entry,” he explains. A tree’s network of roots generally extend to the drip line, which is as far as the branches spread from the trunk, so set your sprinkler or soaker hose to cover the entire area.

Fertilize: “We usually do a fall fertilization in November, to try to replace the potassium and magnesium,” Moulton says. Those elements are leached out of the root zone over time. Also, he suggests adding garden lime to the soil under the tree every three to four years. This combats soil acidity, another byproduct of our rainy climate.

“It will give you better quality fruit and it’s healthier for the tree.” Consult a nursery for appropriate fertilizers for your tree.

Weed: Young trees especially will benefit from a careful weeding around their trunk, but you might not imagine the reason.

“In the winter, rodents can chew the bark away on young trees,” Moulton says. If you remove the weeds, they won’t have a hiding place near the tree.

Practice orchard sanitation: Clean up windfall fruit around your tree, especially if it has signs of pests or diseases.

“Rotting apples allow the pests to be in the ground and come back up and haunt the tree in following years,” explains Piper Orchard volunteer Don Ricks. This year, the orchard enlisted visitors to help out, with great success. Neighbors and a Boy Scout troop have kept the ground free of fruit, he says. They also rake up fallen leaves to control apple scab.

Although fall is not the time to apply chemical controls or traps, it is a good time to evaluate pests or diseases, so you’ll be ready next year when they arise.

Master Gardeners can help identify most problems. Timing your response is essential to reducing or eliminating the problem; some dormant sprays are to be applied as early as January.

What about pruning?

Most arborists agree that fruit trees should be pruned in winter, when the tree is dormant. However, there are a couple of things you can do now.

Before the leaves drop, assess the tree. A main pruning goal is to allow light into the central part of the tree, so the lower branches aren’t shaded by those above. Also, look for weaker branches, those with fewer leaves or less fruit.

When you are ready to prune, seek professional guidance. Moulton and colleagues have written pruning bulletins, available free on the college’s Web site, or try “Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning,” by the founder of PlantAmnesty. It is available in nurseries or through PlantAmnesty.

Right tree, right spot

Finally, harvest is a good time to consider whether your fruit tree is doing its job. Is it purely ornamental or do you want the fruit? Is the tree as productive as you expected? Is it too big for your space? Is it getting enough light?

Some older fruit trees are cherished heirlooms. However, if you’ve inherited a fruit tree when you bought the house and it’s become a nuisance, consider replacing it. There are many trees that stay small and are bred to resist problems. Finding the right size tree is a matter of knowing its “rootstock.”

“When you buy a fruit tree, you’re buying two varieties,” says Moulton. “The top, that produces what you’re going to eat, and the bottom, that determines the size.”

Look for the rootstock number on the tree label (if it doesn’t have one, ask the nursery) and know where the number fits on the size chart. Be warned: some “dwarf” trees can still grow to 20 or 30 feet in height. A “mini-dwarf” variety, which might grow to 10 feet, is great for most urban yards.

To discover the right tree for you, consult WSU’s “Fruit Handbook for Western Washington” or contact the Western Cascade Fruit Society. Many groups hold informational seminars and fruit tastings, and are a great source of information on cultivating your own backyard fruit tree.

Bill Thorness is a freelance garden writer in Seattle: bill@thorness.com