Our trees have served us well all through spring summer and autumn. Winter tree maintenance is all about making sure they can repeat the performance next year.
We’ve had a fabulous autumn thanks to our trees. A great fruit harvest and a spectacular display of coloured leaves. I have to admit I was rather glad of the shade they cast in summer time too. But as autumn draws into winter, it’s time to take care of some essential maintenance jobs so that the trees remain beautiful and productive for years to come.
Tidying up those fallen leaves
It’s not an exciting job, but it is important and there are lots of benefits.
First and foremost you are clearing the decks, allowing lawns or naturalised spring flowering bulbs to breathe and to thrive. Secondly, you get to spend valuable time out of doors in natural sunlight, which is good for you. And as an added bonus, you could save yourself money by composting the leaves rather than throwing them away and then buying leaf mould from the garden centre.
All you need to do is make a large but simple compost bin, fill it with the leaves and let it be. Better still, get in touch and I’ll do it for you. Your leaf mould will be ready to use as mulch in around 12 months-time or compost in 18-24 months. But while it’s “cooking” it will create valuable habitat for wildlife.
A top tip is to use a lawnmower with a grass bag to collect up fallen leaves. The leaves will be chopped into small pieces which will compost down quicker.
Any fallen twigs or branches can be stacked in a quiet corner where they will become a home-grown bug hotel.
A log pile is the perfect way to create a mini ecosystem. Alternatively, store suitable logs under cover for 12 months to season them and then they can be used for firewood.
Pruning and shaping
With the leaves fallen from deciduous trees, you can start pruning. First step is to remove any branches that are dead or diseased. Then you can look to the shape of the tree.
Most trees are pretty good at growing into a nice balanced shape but you may have found in summer that they have cast too much shade or that low hanging branches impede other garden maintenance tasks like mowing. Always aim to maintain a nice even silhouette but your number 1 priority should be for health and safety.
You might think that standing on top of a stepladder and using a chainsaw to slice through branches is a simple job. It’s not. And if you have ever seen what a chainsaw can do to a person’s leg when a ladder wobbles or a branch falls awkwardly, you wouldn’t even consider doing the job yourself.
Tree maintenance that can’t be done standing on firm ground with the chainsaw no higher than your chest, needs to be left to trained experts who have the right equipment, experience and insurance to stay safe.
If you are removing a whole tree – you really should ask for professional help. There is a cost to it but that’s considerably less than the cost of damage to people or property. I can’t speak for everyone but I am certainly always happy to either clear away any unwanted wood or stack it up so that you can season it for firewood.
Winter maintenance for fruit trees
Now lets talk about pruning fruit trees. Fruit tree maintenance is a vital winter job if you want your apples, apricots, plums and pears to be healthy and prolific.
First job is simple and needs to be completed ASAP. Grease bands.
Mottled umber moth (Erannis defoliaria), winter moth (Operophtera brumata) and March moth (Alsophila aescularia) have wingless females. These lady moths will climb the trunks of fruit trees in winter, lay their eggs and have their caterpillars strip the tree of its leaves in spring.
To stop the female moths reaching the top of the tree, the old-time gardeners used to put a ring of grease right the way around the tree trunk. Modern gardeners have several types of sticky and slippery bands that they can use – but I still like the old traditional way. Moth barriers need to be in place as soon after the end of October as possible. They won’t prevent attacks of codling moth – they need to be controlled in spring time.
The mottled umber moth – beautifully marked for camouflage but a real threat to fruit yields.
Next, we need to carefully prune fruit trees so that they produce the maximum amount of blossom and fruit next year. There are two considerations here. First, helping to make sure the trees put all of their spare energy into producing fruit and second, making sure that the fruit can easily be reached at harvest time. Windfalls don’t store very well so you need to be able to take the ripe fruit straight from the tree.
Again, fruit tree pruning is really a job for the experienced person – but if you’re never taught, you’ll never learn. I’m always happy to work alongside customers and clients, guiding their hands and helping them to learn. That’s how countryside skills have always been passed on and I feel strongly that they should never be allowed to die out.
The ancient art of coppicing extends the working life of a tree and makes it incredibly productive. Young trees are chopped down almost to ground level during the winter. Come spring, many new shoots emerge from the stump so instead of one thick, slow growing tree trunk there are now several, slender but fast growing offshoots or suckers. These can be harvested when they reach the required size.
Hazel and willow for example would be harvested every couple of years while the shoots are still supple enough for weaving into baskets or wattle fencing. Other uses for coppiced wood include charcoal burning, supporting poles for hops (or runner beans), or chipping for modern eco-friendly wood burners.
I love topiary. There’s something really satisfying about moulding and shaping trees into fascinating shapes that are just not natural to them. Over the summer months, topiary tends to get a bit shaggy looking and so come the autumn or winter, when growth has slowed and most garden maintenance jobs are on hold, topiary trimming can take place.
Some people are not confident at creating and maintaining their own topiary. That’s understandable, especially if the job involves working at heights. Me, I’m in my element. So if you need help with topiary – I’m your man!
Planting new trees and woodlands
If you are thinking about planting a new woodland, there are grants available from the Woodland Trust. They help towards the cost of tree planting – sometimes granting up to 60% of the total cost. At the time of writing, you would need to plant a minimum of 500 trees across an area of at least 0.5 Hectares. There are also grants available for hedging.
For schools and communities, the same organisation offers free trees. Definitely worth a look.
For restocking woodland, you may be eligible for a grant under the countryside stewardship scheme. More details here.
When planting a new tree, any tree whether it’s part of a woodland or a specimen tree in a garden, winter time is definitely best. For starters, it’s usually possible to obtain bare-root stock, which is far cheaper than pot grown trees. Plus, the plants can concentrate solely on settling their roots before the main growing season begins. Winter planting is less stressful for the tree and therefore it has the best possible chance of establishing.
Always dig a tree planting hole at least 30 cm wider than you think it ought to be. If you’ve ever seen a tree that has been uprooted in a storm, you’ll have noticed that the root system is like a large flattish plate. Tree roots spread outwards so that they act as a counterweight for the canopy. If they went straight downwards like the tap root on a dandelion they would never withstand any wind-rock.
Your planting hole must give the tree enough uncompacted soil to be able to spread its roots.
It’s always sad to see a beautiful tree upended. This picture illustrates beautifully how tree roots form a wide but relatively shallow plate as a counterweight to the canopy.
Be careful about planting depth too. The top of the planting hole needs to be level with the nursery line or root flare point of the tree trunk. If those are new terms to you, the nursery line looks like a bump towards the bottom of the trunk.
A square hole seems to encourage lateral root spread better than a round one. At least that’s the current thinking.
Before you cover your tree roots with soil, hammer in a sturdy stake (two if you are in a windy spot) and use a proper tree tie (not binder twine!) to secure the tree to the stake.
No matter what time of year, trees are an enormous asset to our countryside, our parks and gardens, the wider environment and yes, our food chain. They deserve to be nurtured and we should make the most of them.
If you need any help or advice with your trees, whether it’s choosing the right species to plant, tree health checks, pruning or planting, Keep it Green Garden Maintenance Services will be pleased to help.
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