When there’s a distant chill in the air, it’s time to prepare fruit trees for winter. Properly winterizing young trees is essential for their protection from animals and disease. With proper tree care, your fruit trees will survive the winter. Tree guards and fences are the best methods to protect your trees from animals.
Nursery trees protected with spiral vinyl tree wraps
Fruit trees are especially attractive to animals that love to eat the bark and nibble the buds for winter food. To avoid the time, energy, and financial cost of replacing trees year after year, implement a plan for deterring pests.
Many people assume deer are the worst culprits; however, mice and voles pose at least as great a danger to young trees. Mice and voles actually damage far more trees than do deer, especially young trees, as they girdle the trunk near the ground line, harming the tender bark. This damage is harder to detect until the following spring, and can cause your tree to stop growing.
Once a tree is six years old, it develops a tough outer bark that many mammals don’t find as palatable. However, small critters like mice have managed to decimate the bark of even large apple trees. All trees are susceptible to health problems such as disease and fungus.
Keep reading to learn how to protect your trees and so that they will continue to thrive.
Mice, rats, voles, and rabbits can be detrimental to a tree, particularly when the tree is young and delicate. Tree guards are the only way to effectively protect your tree from small mammals.
Installing a tree guard is easy and can be inexpensive. Tree guards have both commercial and homemade options; however, no guard is a one-size-fits-all solution. To choose a guard for your tree, consider its years of growth.
Less than 5 years: Use spiral vinyl wraps to protect trees with less than five years of growth, but be sure to remove them before the summer. Sunscald can easily damage young trees, so it is important not to fit them with mesh guards.
5 to 10 years: Use a tree tube or a plastic mesh guard once fruit trees have at least five years of growth and are sturdier. Plastic mesh guards are similar to tree tubes, but have airflow so you can keep them on the tree throughout the year.
10 years or more: Consider a tree guard made from hardware cloth once trees have at least 10 years of growth and are showing mature bark.
You should protect a tree over the course of its entire life. Wrapping the trunk in a roll of Tyvek will give your large, old trees the protection they need. Since these wraps restrict airflow and can harbor humidity, only use a Tyvek wrap in the winter. Even small amounts of damage from rodents can create openings to harbor disease.
Install a tree guard when your tree is dormant or nearing dormancy (when the leaves have fallen and other vegetation has died back). All tree guards, regardless of material, should extend all the way to the ground, preferably at least one inch below the ground surface.
Spiral vinyl wraps are simple to install and commercially available. They usually come in both 24-inch and 36-inch lengths with a 1 ½ inch diameter, but you can cut them to fit for height. They are generally sunlight sensitive and become brittle after a few years. Take these steps to install a spiral vinyl tree guard:
Tree tubes are effective to protect trees that have at least five years of growth. These plastic commercial tubes usually have a latching system to secure the guard. Take these steps to install a tree tube:
Plastic mesh guards also effectively protect trees with at least five years of growth. Unlike tree tubes, however, you can leave these guards on year-round because of increased airflow. Take these steps to install a commercial plastic mesh guard:
Hardware cloth is commercially available and easy to make into a tree guard. Consider a hardware cloth guard once the tree has reached 10 years of growth, or starts showing mature bark.
Hardware cloth/mesh is effective as long as the mesh size is not larger than ¼ inch. Take these steps to install a guard made of hardware cloth.
Although mature trees are able to withstand the occasional nibbles from small pests, mice or pack rats can still decimate even large trees. Use a tree guard even on mature trees and when using a perimeter fence.
Old window screening is excellent for a homemade tree guard. Use metal screening as rodents can chew through plastic screens.
Chicken wire is effective as long as the mesh size is not larger than ¼ inch.
Corrugated cardboard from packing boxes has crevices that attract and trap harmful insects. However, cardboard is not weather resistant and will decay quickly at the ground line. You will need to replace this option often.
Plastic soda bottles are a creative alternative material. You can use almost any material that is rigid as a solution for some protection. Be sure to press the homemade guard firmly into the ground. If the bottles are clear, use paint or add an opaque material to the guard to protect the tree from sun scald.
If your area experiences snowfall, you may need to adjust the height of your tree guard. With heavy snow, animals will be able to reach the areas of your trees normally far above the ground.
Use the average snowfall for your location and the height of your tree to help determine the necessary height of a tree guard. Make sure the guard will extend about 20 inches above the expected snowfall. In some cases, you may need to cover the entire young tree. Here at Heritage Farm in Decorah, our average snowfall reaches around two feet.
However, snow can also offer additional protection for your trees. Use snowfall to your advantage with this simple technique to further discourage voles and mice:
Compacted snow is a good deterrent, though not sufficient on its own.
A tree guard will protect the trunk of your tree from smaller pests, however it will not protect the rest of your tree. Deer and elk will be able to also reach almost any young tree that is unprotected.
Most commercial orchards use fencing at least eight feet high to keep deer out. For the average homeowner, this kind of fencing can be expensive. However, tree protection is especially important in suburban areas where deer pressure can be higher than in rural areas.
Why not use liquid repellents over winter? Liquid repellents are easy to apply and deter deer with their unpleasant smell.
However, these wear off quickly and have limited ability to be effective throughout an entire winter. For orchards and larger gardens, reapplying the repellant can be costly and time consuming. Over time, some deer even acclimate to the taste and continue to forage from the tree.
The only reliable way to protect your trees from deer is with a physical barrier. Both individual fences and perimeter fencing are effective. Individual fences are great for protecting a small number of trees. Perimeter fences are best for large orchards of at least 10 trees.
Neither type of fencing will adequately protect a tree from small mammals. Use fencing in tandem with a tree guard.
Putting up deer fencing can get expensive. Fortunately, there are cheap DIY methods to build a deer fence that are practical and effective.
One simple method for setting up a deer fence makes use of posts, PVC pipe, and clear 30-pound monofilament fishing line. Learn how to install a deer fence with fishing line.
An alternative method involves utilizing a sturdy material like poultry netting or woven fencing to build the deer fence.
Poultry netting is effective and fairly low cost. Woven fencing from lumber suppliers is more durable and lasts longer. Follow these instructions to install a fence using chicken wire or woven fencing:
Individually fencing trees can become costly and impractical in orchards with more than 10 trees. In these cases, we recommend investing in a permanent perimeter fence.
Although mammals are a threat to young trees, installing tree guards and deer fencing will not guarantee a healthy tree. Insects, disease, and fungi can also cause damage to your tree.
Sanitation plays a key role in pest and disease management. Take these steps to protect your trees from pests, disease and fungi over winter:
Seed Savers Exchange offers a yearly Apple Grafting Workshop.
Registration for the 2024 workshop will be opening soon. Be the first to know by signing up for our newsletter!
Learn to graft your own apple trees through our series of virtual presentations and small-group sessions. Registration includes guidance for caring for your apple trees throughout the year and access to educational videos, recordings of live sessions, and other resources.
April 5—Grafting class with live Q&A and small group knife skills sessions
April 6—Orchard care with live Q&A and small group knife skills sessions
May 31—Disbudding and taping up with live Q&A
October 11—Protecting your tree for Winter with live Q&A
This article updates a piece previously published on the Seed Savers Exchange blog in 2014.