Protecting Fruit Trees from Birds and Squirrels

When we initially planted our four apple trees we had dreams of apple cobblers, apple pies and apples in our lunches,  We planted four trees, two Gala and two Fuji, along the sides of the main stairs in our garden.  After four years of nurturing and coddling I slowly came to the realization that we were never going to get any apples. We had beautiful abundant blooms in the spring and loads of little apples in late May. But before they even had a chance of ripening, birds and squirrels would eat every last one. Sadly, eat is a bit of an overstatement. The squirrels would take them from the tree, take about 5 bites and then then leave them around the garden,  The birds would just peck them on the tree thereby stunting their growth and the apples would eventually fall off. After a few more years, we tried to cover the trees with bird netting. That was futile. The trees had just gotten too big. It wasn’t possible to hang bird netting over the whole tree without leaving big access holes. I hung rubber, lifelike snakes among the branches. Made no difference. By July 1st, there would be no more apples on the trees. That is, except for one glorious year. That summer we lived the dream. Me and my younger son had an apple in our lunch every day that summer. A little taste of nirvana. What was different that year? In a word: foxes. In that year there was a fox explosion in our neighborhood.  And those babies ate most of the squirrels. Leaving apples for us. That one year was the only year that we’ve ever had any apples from our four trees.

But here’s the thing, apple trees in bloom are truly spectacular.  And these four trees were prominently sited in our garden. They were on either side of the 15 steps that connect our flagstone patio to the upper lawn.  Each April, the view from my side porch and kitchen sink window was of billowing pale pink blossoms creating a glorious allee up our stairs. So, however frustrating it was that I wasn’t actually able to eat the apples, I learned to live with ornamental apple trees. But then last year I came across this book:

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In her book, Ann Ralph, explains how to prune most fruit trees to keep them quite small. No taller than 4 or five fee high and wide. And even at that size the trees will still produce many apples.  Well, at that size I can protect my apples from the birds and squirrels. So, last year I took the drastic step of taking down two of my glorious apple trees. And replaced them with four of these: 

Photo Aug 09, 4 14 50 AM
This is what hope looks like – one year old apple tree

In fact, at that size, I realized I could grow four trees where before there had been only two.  So, that is what I have done.

This is how it works.  Start with two to four foot tall apple tree slips. Bare root trees are generally easiest.  For apple trees in particular for most varieties you will need at least two trees that will cross pollinate and allow fruit to set.  Usually varieties that bloom at the same time will work. When planting the trees, dig a large hole that will accomodate the roots and give them plenty of room to spread out.  Make sure to amend the soil with plenty of compost and water the tree well. Nothing new there. But then the first drastic cut. Cut the main leader off at about two feet from the ground.  It will now seem like you have just worked really hard to plant a stick. And it might even be a little disconcerting. Do not fret. What you have done is ensure that the main trunk doesn’t grow much more than a couple of feet.  The buds just below the drastic cut on your very short tree will put out branches during the growing season. These branches will be start to be the scaffold of your tree. They will shoot out more horizontally. 

From this point on, the basic approach is pruning your tree twice a year at the summer and winter solstices.  In the summer you are trying to limit new growth to keep the tree small. By the summer solstice what you cut off will likely not grow back with as much vigor because you are cutting off leaves while they are still photosynthesizing and collecting energy for new growth.  With the winter pruning you are working to make sure that the structure of the tree provides air to the center of the tree and is balanced. Because the leaves are gone, it is also easier to see where to cut branches that are misplaced and crossing over one another.   With all of these cuts, you are looking to limit the overall growth of your tree. For my new trees, it’s still to soon for fruit to set, but I am determined that when they do, I will be able to protect them for harvest.

Citrus and Olive Trees and any Trees you can grow in pots

In my Zone 6b/7a garden, I can only grow citrus and olive trees in pots.  This allows me to bring the trees inside when temperatures fall below freezing.  Lemons ripen in January for us and using homegrown lemons and home raised eggs for lemon curd and lemon bars in the dead of winter is truly divine.

By growing them in pots, they generally keep quite small yet still produce fruit.  But once again, particularly for my lemon tree, if I don’t take action, squirrels will take nips out of the growing fruit and even take the fruit.  So for these I cover each growing fruit. This can look kind of silly but works remarkably well. In most years, I have saved netted bags, like the ones that onions and clementines come in, and when the fruit sets I just tie the netted bags around the fruit with a bit of string or little metal ties used to keep bread bags closed.  This year, I have a bit more fruit than usual and I really want to keep the lemons. I considered buying netting from the fabric store and making my own little bags but I found these: INSERT LINK to candy bags. Not only are they are less expensive than what I would have spent on the materials to make my own. But the great little pull strings are really perfect to cover the lemon fruits snugly but not too tight while they are growing and ripening.  So, this is what my lemon tree looks like this year: 

Photo Aug 12, 4 00 51 AM
Lemon Tree in pot with netting over the fruit

Next year I am going to also add these bags to some of the apples on the mature trees I still have on one side of my stairs.  This should allow me to get at least some apples….

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