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Winter Care of Container Fruit Trees

Container Fruit Tree

With new houses having gardens that deserve the title ‘postage stamp’ we’ve seen patio growing of fruit trees in containers becoming more and more popular. The minaret columnar style of trees can be very productive in pots but they do require some extra care in winter if the tree is to thrive.

The Problem with Container Fruit Trees in Winter

There is a problem with container fruit trees in winter that catches out many owners after a British winter that goes between warm and freezing and back again. The tree dies the following year but the cause isn’t obvious.

Fruit trees growing in the ground go dormant for winter and store starches in the roots before shedding there leaves in autumn. Even on sunny winter days when the air may be quite warm the ground remains cold.

Come the spring, the ground warms up and this stimulates the tree to wake up. As the tree awakens, the starches laid down the previous autumn are then converted into sugars to fuel the growth of leaves and wood.

The problem with container growing fruit trees is the relatively small volume of compost in the pot easily heats up on a sunny winter’s day and fools the tree into acting as if spring has arrived. The starches are converted into sugars but as the temperature falls back the tree becomes dormant again and the sugars are not utilised.

The sugars then ferment and become alcohol which disrupts the tree’s systems. Usually the symptoms are that the tree starts to produce shoots but then collapses and dies. If you scrape some of the bark away you may actually be able to smell the alcohol.

How to Care for Fruit Trees in Containers in Winter

The ideal answer is to move container trees under cover and keep them at a low temperature, but slightly above freezing, until the spring. Since the tree has no leaves, the amount of light doesn’t matter. The back of an unheated garage would be ideal or a shed may be enough if it doesn’t get too cold.

A greenhouse is not the best place as the temperature can rise considerably on a sunny day even if there is snow on the ground.

It isn’t always possible so the second best solution is to move the trees into a shady area out of direct sunlight. Wrap the pots with bubble wrap as insulation. Cover the trees themselves with horticultural fleece.

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