Winter Gardening: How To Protect Fruit Trees From Frost Damage?

Winter is the most challenging season for fruit growers, especially those least winter hardy, like citrus, peach trees, and strawberries, as they are sensitive to frost. The severe low temperatures can damage most fruit tree blossoms and the fruits because they will form ice crystals around the cell walls.

Over time, the growing ice will damage the cell walls causing them to no longer be able to distribute nutrients from photosynthesis and the soil. Considering this issue, we will offer you a guide on how to protect fruit trees from frost damage.

Furthermore, this guide will include the factors that cause frost damage, why you must protect your plants, and quick tips to prepare for winter (what to do and how to make covers). We also make easy tips to protect your buds and fruit blossoms from frost.

If you are curious about what to give your plants the best to survive winter, kindly read this article to the end. You can also highlight some vital information beneficial for your precious fruit trees.

Reason for Preparing Fruit Trees for Winter Frost

As we mentioned previously, most fruit trees need winter protection to survive during the season unless they are winter hardy (e.g., apple and plum fruit plants). But, the real question is, why should you prepare fruit trees for winter frost?

how to protect fruit trees from frost
Fruit Trees in Winter
  1. The freezing temperatures can be life-threatening and take a significant toll on their health in the long term. As for fruit trees, the cold air can crack and break the stems due to low humidity during winter. Even though it seems nothing, fractures in their trunks can make them prone to pests and diseases.
  2. Low temperatures can reduce the tree’s ability to retain moisture. Moisture is needed to establish a firm rootball, especially for newly planted trees. But don’t worry, you can protect their trunks with tree covers before winter and remove them after the late frost in spring.
  3. Preparing fruit trees for the cold season is also crucial to protect the roots. The roots are the most important part because they absorb nutrients and water in the soil to be distributed to all the plants. If the roots freeze, the plant can no longer get the nutrients it needs to thrive.

The Temperature Should You Cover Fruit Trees

Determining at what temperature you should cover your fruit trees highly depends on the tree varieties you have and in which region you live. Generally, frost occurs when the temperatures drop below 32°F (0°C).

In addition, some suggest that fruit trees with buds require protection when the temperature falls below 28°F or -2°C as the temperature will cause 90% of the buds to be lost.

how to protect fruit trees from frost
Cherries Fruit in Winter

And with that being said, it’s time for you to save your fruit trees by providing covers to maintain the heat. This rule mainly applies to those frost-sensitive, like nectarines and peach trees. Meanwhile, fruits that grow on the ground level (e.g., strawberries) are the most vulnerable to the last frost. So, offering cover to the harvests is necessary to prevent loss.

On the other hand, some frost hardy, such as plums, cherries, and apples, can survive the cold without significant issues.

What Kind of Fruit Trees Survive Cold Weather?

While other fruit trees suffer from low temperatures, some fruit varieties cope well with the cold, including apple trees, apricot trees, plum trees, cherries, and pear trees. They are popular as the frozen hardy fruits you can rely on if you live in the US hardiness zones 2-5.

Fruit Trees Survive Cold Weather
Fruit Trees Survive Cold Weather

Furthermore, Apple trees usually thrive in cold temperatures down to -2°C and pears at -4°C. Similar to pears, cherries can also grow when the temperature reaches -4°C. Meanwhile, the plum may survive up to -5°C.

However, it does not mean that you completely let them grow without any particular protection during the frost. Cold temperatures below mentioned above are considered harmful to fruit trees, especially those with buds, flowers, and fruits.

Factors that Affect Freeze Damage to Fruit Trees

The degree of damage due to low temperatures on fruit trees is highly dependent on several factors, including the growth stage, tree type, duration of frost, and threshold temperatures. So, what are their influences? Let’s find out below!

1. Stage Of Growth

The growth stage is one of the critical factors in minimizing the degree of damage from freeze injury. Fruit trees that bear flower buds are usually more susceptible to low temperatures transitioning from winter to spring or summer to fall. This is because the development of tissues on the buds is in their active and active period, so they are sensitive to frost.

2. Tree Varieties

Each type or cultivar of a fruit tree can handle cold at a specific temperature. Some trees are cold hardy, like pear and apple trees, while others cannot cope with the freezing temperatures. Therefore, before planting these fruit trees, ensure they are resistant to cold weather in your area.

3. Frost Duration

Generally, areas with cold climates will have a longer frost duration than warm climates. For example, the US hardiness zones 1-5 have a lower temperature than the rest. Therefore, plants grown in these areas (like apples and pears) feature better resistance to severe low temperatures. Thus, reducing the impact of freezing injury due to frost.

4. Threshold Temperatures

Still related to the previous factor, every plant has a threshold temperature. These temperatures describe their resistance to frost, eventually affecting the frost damage. Fruits such as strawberries (60-80°F) and nectarines (45°F at min) will quickly experience freezing injury once the frost arrives. In contrast, pear trees can cope with temperatures up to -25°F and go dormant, but the buds can only survive with temperatures of at least 26°F.

Planning for Frost in the Fruit Garden

how to protect fruit trees from frost
Fruit Garden in Winter

Now, we would like to discuss how to protect fruit trees from frost damage. In this section, we provide two kinds of step-by-step ways to prepare your fruit and vegetable garden before winter comes. And, of course, ensure you have plentiful harvests despite the cold season. Check them out below!

Easy ways to prepare your fruit trees for winter

  1. Avoid fall pruning as it will disturb the young trees during frost and possibly irreversibly break the stems. Pruning also inhibits your plant’s growth.
  2. Paint the barks or trunks of the trees with white paint. The color will protect the trees from extensive sun exposure in the summer while preventing the stems from breaking during winter.
  3. Don’t let all the leaf litter and fallen fruits strewn under your fruit trees. They will invite pests, and diseases will also be carried away. This condition will be exacerbated if the stems of your fruit trees are cracking, allowing easy access for those culprits to infect the trees.
  4. Mulching is critical to retain moisture and warm temperatures for the trees, especially their roots. Frozen roots are extremely detrimental since they cannot access the nutrients necessary for growth. However, do not offer manure and compost, as these duos will boost the energy and delay the dormancy of your trees.
  5. You cannot mulch close to the barks or stems. As much as you want to provide the best for your fruit trees, prolonged contact between the two can stimulate wood decay diseases caused by fungi.

Preparing potted fruit trees from winter damage

  1. Watering the potted fruit trees prior to frost is necessary. Although they do not need much water when they are dormant, keeping the roots moist to stay alive and function is important. But remember not to flood the soil with too much water if you do not want it to freeze.
  2. Some winter hardy fruit trees, like apples, need chill hours to open their buds. Without this period, your apple trees may delay their leaf growth, and the buds will close until spring. Hence, take them outside when the temperatures are cool. Or, you can place them in the unheated areas.
  3. Avoid wind, especially if it brings cold air. It can lead to trunk splitting, leading to further serious issues, pests, and diseases. Therefore, offer shelter and take them inside whenever the cold breeze comes. You can also insulate the roots by digging the pots into the soil.

Covering Blossoms to Protect Against Frost

Besides the buds, fruit tree blossoms are also prone to frost. Hence, protecting them from cold temperatures and keeping them warm is vital if you want tasty harvests in spring or summer.

You can try to cover your plants with covers made of sheets or other fabrics. Make sure the materials are light so they don’t damage your plants due to the pressure from the shell.

Cherry Blossoms Covered in Snow
Cherry Blossoms Covered in Snow

Use two to three layers to maximize warmth for them. In addition, ensure that the cover has completely covered the plant to the ground level to fully trap the heat and store it during the cold season.

Well, it may not work for larger trees. But at least it makes an excellent cover for dwarf shrubs, small fruit trees, and other low-growing plants to help them through harsh winter.

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FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Can fruit trees survive frost by themselves?

Generally, you need to save your fruit trees from frost damage by covering them with plastic materials or other cloth to keep the heat around.

However, fruit trees like apple trees and plum trees thrive well through the frost by themselves. They are well-adapted to the colder regions. Thus, they can survive low temperatures under 32°F. However, you can always help them by mulching to store the heat in the soil.

Will frost hurt newly planted fruit trees?

Not only becomes an issue for established plants, but frost also damages a newly planted fruit tree. It can destroy the buds, flowers, and even shoots that start growing. The crystal ice formed from the freezing process of water between the cell walls in plants. They will break the walls and make them unusable to transport nutrients throughout the plants or trees.

Should you water new trees before a freeze?

New trees are susceptible to frost, especially if they are drought-stressed intolerant. Hence, watering the trees with adequate water a few days before frost will increase the chance of their survival.

The best time to offer water is in fall, before the frost arrives, as the ground will start freezing and won’t let the soil absorb the water. In addition, watering can only be done when the air temperatures are higher than 40°F because the roots of new plants are yet established and prone to cold. Avoid watering when there is snow or ice on the ground.

Why do farmers spray water on plants before an overnight freeze?

Spraying water before the frost is beneficial to keep the heat to the surrounding trees. The water will freeze when the temperatures drop below zero, then release heat to keep the plants or fruit trees thriving. These methods also save the fruits from cell damage caused by frozen temperatures.

Can you use cardboard boxes to protect plants from frost?

Besides towels and sheets, you can use cardboard boxes to protect your fruit trees and plants from frost damage. The boxes will help retain the heat. They also prevent crystal ice from forming around the trees and plants, which can damage the cell walls, making them unable to transport food. Thus, conserving the plant from freezing temperatures.

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