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Causes of winterkilled fruit plants

Northern highbush blueberry flowers

As trees and bushes begin to leaf out, the full effects of last winter's cold are becoming evident.  Some issues are transitory --- our Caroline red raspberries and many of our thornless blackberries were killed down to the ground, which means we won't get fruits until fall for the reds and until next year for the blacks.  (Black raspberries seem to be more hardy, showing no signs of damage.)  But other damage is permanent.

Baby currant fruits

Many of the young plants I rooted last spring and put in the ground last summer perished since they hadn't built up enough roots to survive a really frigid winter.  I gave Kayla samples of the figs and grapes I treated this way and warned her to keep them inside over the winter if she really wanted to make sure every single one survived.  Now I'm wishing I'd followed my own advice.  It looks like only one baby grape (Reliance) and possibly none of the baby figs survived the winter.  This is clearly an issue of age since our older figs are quite alive, although possibly dead back to the ground, while our older grapes are just fine.  Similarly, the two mulberries we planted last spring may both be dead, although our older tree is doing just fine.

Rabbiteye blueberry flowers

Elsewhere, winterkill is a sign that I pushed the boundaries of our hardiness zone too far.  Rabbiteye blueberries are on the edge of their survivability zone here, and two of the varieties that have done the least well here (Austin and Brightwell) perished during the cold weather.  We'll be replacing them with some northern highbush blueberries (rated to survive much colder winters), but are still happy to have lots of rabbiteye blueberries in our garden since the survivors are absolutely loaded with blooms this year.  And, on the bright side, it looks like our blueberry, currant, and gooseberry harvest may make up for those missing spring red raspberries. 

Young honeyberry

The saddest loss from the cold was two dwarf apple trees.  I'd put three of the dwarf trees off by themselves since they didn't fit in the main row, and the area where they lived might have been a bit colder than the other spot since the smaller two of the three loners perished.  Perhaps more likely, though, the deaths were due to deer damage over the summer weakening the plants, plus their M26 and M111 rootstock, which are reputed to be less cold-hardy than the Bud9 onto which most of the other dwarf trees were grafted.  (We do have apples on M111 rootstock elsewhere that survived the winter fine, but those were older trees that probably had more roots under them.)  Unfortunately, a one-year-old pear tree living in the same area perished also.

Hardy kiwi flower buds

Sprouting scionwoodAlthough this sounds like a huge litany of losses, you've got to keep in mind that I experiment like crazy, so we have a heaping handful of survivors for every plant that bit the dust.  However, the data is helpful because it helps me plan --- newly rooted trees should really be kept in for the winter since I never know if the weather will be particularly harsh, and I shouldn't count on spring red raspberries even though they're delightful since they might not survive the cold.

As a side note, I sprinkled photos of spring excitement through this post instead of photographing the dead and dying.  From top to bottom, photos depict northern highbush blueberry flowers, young red currant fruits, rabbiteye blueberry flowers, developing honeyberry fruits, our very first hardy kiwi flower buds (!!!), and the first sprouts from our grafted apples.  Life goes on in the fruit plantings...in style!



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I was so excited at the beginning of last week when I saw a bumble bee pollinating my blueberry flowers. Yesterday evening even my husband noticed the developing berries, and one of them even had a little tiny blue stripe. Even the buds that didn't look so hot, that I thought might have been frost damagedl, are starting to plump up.

Are we ahead of you, or are these older pictures?

Comment by Emily from Bristol Mon May 5 14:31:00 2014

Emily --- I took our photos yesterday, so I'd say you're definitely ahead of us. Bristol and Kingsport are generally at least a week ahead of our little microclimate, often two. Crazy what some pavement and lack of hills can do!

I'm glad to hear that your blueberries are doing well. Seems like you must have figured out last year's micronutrient deficiency?

Comment by anna Mon May 5 15:46:06 2014
Anna, yes! The nitrogen you suggested really helped. I started composting, and also adding about half a gallon each of Miracle Gro once a week. My blueberries look better than my grandparents even, which are in the ground! One of theirs even died over the winter, and their bushes are a year older than mine. I was afraid that a pot on a second story porch would be a recipe for frost damage, but they came through great! :)
Comment by Emily from Bristol Mon May 5 17:09:14 2014
Drat, I seem to have accidentally deleted an excellent comment by C. about adding phosphorus to the soil to promote root growth and prevent winterkill.... Sorry about that! Sometimes I miss one when moderating out the spam. :-/
Comment by anna Mon May 5 20:49:41 2014