It's still warm in the orchard

There are pros and cons to the mild winter weather when working with fruit trees

The fruit field at RHS Garden Wisley may be bare and dormant but we still have plenty of seasonal jobs to do. Pruning is well underway and whilst working our way around the trees we have noticed some unseasonal activity.

A fieldfare rests in a holly

In a normal winter

Every year, at the beginning of winter, we are regularly visited by field fares and redwings who feed on any remaining windfall apples. There’s a whole team of us working in the orchard and it’s good fun.

At Wisley, we have 3ha (7 acres) of apples and pears to prune - that’s a lot of trees - but luckily we have plenty of time to complete the task.

We are able to start the job when the leaves fall at the end of November, and all being well we should be finished around the first week of March. Although, depending on the weather, the real deadline is bud break at the end of the month.

The trees are pruned every winter to ensure regular crops of a nice size, maintain good air movement and light penetration. So if you have an apple or pear tree in your garden there is still plenty of time for pruning.

Strange goings on this year

Fruit tree winter pruning

For weeks now the weather has been mild and warm, which is a mixed blessing. It’s comfortable for us working outside with the mild temperatures, but winter chill is needed for most fruits if they are to flower well. Many of the apples need 1,000 hours between 0–7ºC (32–45ºF). The weather has been playing tricks on fruits which need a properly cold winter. 

The plum, Prunus domestica ‘Beauty’, did not shed all of its leaves and is now flowering. This is a hybrid with the Japanese plum, Prunus salicina, and has a low chill requirement. It must have got some winter chill already - we had one frosty weekend in early November - and the mild weather has triggered early blossom.

Plum 'Beauty' with leaves and blossom in DecemberOn the plus side we can continue to plant because of the higher temperatures, so long as the ground is not too wet, and here at Wisley with our sandy soil it is still possible.

I  am now hoping for some fairly cold winter weather, as we move into the New Year, so that spring does not arrive too early.

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.