Winter Protection

While it's important to select cultivars that are hardy for your area, other stresses, such as insect and disease damage, can weaken plants and make them more susceptible to winter injury.

Taking care of your trees throughout the year can minimize stress and improve their chances of surviving over the winter. One of the most important factors influencing cold hardiness is the nutrient status of your plants. If plants are deficient in one or more nutrients, winter injury is likely to occur.

Yet if plants have too much nitrogen in their tissues, they do not "harden" properly. Hardening is a physiological process that cold-climate plants go through, which includes storing carbohydrates and proteins in ways that allow them to survive cold weather.

For most fruit plantings, nitrogen should be applied only in the spring (strawberries are an exception). Late applications of nitrogen fertilizer can cause a late-season flush of growth and delay hardening, increasing the risk of winter injury.

To help plants harden off, do not water them after mid-September unless there is a severe drought. Many growers allow weeds to grow late in the season to help remove water and excess nitrogen from the soil and thereby help plants harden properly. Others plant a cover crop. Mulch applications help prevent soil heaving in new plantings.

Plants store energy collected from the sun through photosynthesis as carbohydrates. Those entering winter with few carbohydrates stored in their roots and buds are likely to grow poorly in the spring or be injured by cold temperatures. Proper pruning at the right time allows plants to maximize sun exposure and improve carbohydrate storage. Pruning too late in the season may cause a flush of growth and reduce a plant's hardiness.

Mulching strawberries helps prevent significant winter injury, but mulching too early can be as detrimental as not mulching at all. Early mulching shades the leaves from sunlight and prevents the plant from accumulating sufficient carbohydrates. Strawberry plants should not be mulched until the temperature falls below 20 degrees F for three nights in any one week, usually near Thanksgiving in much of New York State. It is best to mulch immediately before the first heavy snow and remove straw mulch before the end of March.

A small, well-tended planting will yield more high-quality fruit than a larger, neglected one.

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