During the winter months, home orchard owners need to protect their fruit trees from rabbits and voles. But hold off on any pruning until after the worst of the cold, winter weather has passed.
Rabbits and voles injure fruit trees by chewing the bark from the lower trunk and portions of the roots. This damage may kill or severely weaken the trees.
If grass has grown up around the base of the trees, it should be removed so as not to provide cover for rabbits and voles. If your trees are mulched, pull the mulch back for five to six inches at the base of the trunk to keep the rodents away.
Pick up and discard any fruit that remains beneath the trees to avoid attracting the rodents. Cleaning up fruit from the ground should be a part of annual fall and winter orchard cleanup.
Finally install rodent guards around the lower trunk. These may be plastic wrap guards that are commercially available. Home orchard owners can also construct their own guards using quarter inch hardware cloth.
The guards should cover the trunk to a height of 18 inches and encircle the trunk. During the winter months inspect the ground around the trees for tunnels in the grass or holes indicating vole activity. Use snap traps when vole activity is noted.
Prior to spring growth, prune out dead and diseased wood. Pruning increases air movement within the tree canopy, potentially reduces pest problems, improves spray coverage and promotes high-quality fruit production. Late February, March or early April usually is the best time to prune.
Submitted by Dr. John Strang, Extension Fruit and Vegetable Specialist, University of Kentucky