While the fruit harvest is over, there are plenty of fruit-related tasks for winter, from planting out fruit trees and rhubarb to protecting citrus and figs, writes Caroline Wheater
Winter is the best time to plant young bare-root or potted fruit trees such as apples, pears and plums, because they are dormant. Soil preparation is key to a happy fruit tree: dig a hole that is as deep as the root ball, so that the graft union sits well above the soil, but three times as wide to allow the roots to spread out easily as they grow.
Place the tree into the middle of the hole and carefully backfill with the dug-out soil, mixing in a little good-quality compost as you go, without leaving any air pockets. Then heel down so that the top layer of soil is firm and the tree not vulnerable to wind-rock. Once planted, water your tree a couple of times a week throughout the spring and summer for the first two years.
It is best to plant crowns of dormant rhubarb from November to March in rich soil in a sunny, well-drained spot, and leave plenty of space around it, because rhubarb will romp once settled in. In the first year, leave the stalks well alone to allow the plant to build up its strength, but after this you can enjoy an early crop in March or April by placing a rhubarb forcer over the top of the plant in February or March, which forces the stems to grow upwards in search of light. A good variety for forcing is Timperley Early, and other reliable rhubarb varieties include Victoria and Which? Gardening’s favourite for flavour, The Sutton.
Protecting citrus trees
Citrus trees cannot tolerate frost or low temperatures below 7C, so potted lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit trees that have been happily growing on the patio during summer and autumn are best taken into a cool conservatory or greenhouse over the winter. Avoid bringing them indoors, because the atmosphere will be too dry and warm for them. Water occasionally with rainwater, but let it drain away fully, because overwatering will cause stress and leaf loss.
Just as you should feed your tree regularly through the summer months with special citrus food, continue feeding from October to March, but using a winter formulation such as Vitax Citrus Feed for Winter Use (available from Dobies). And if your tree could do with a prune, February is the month to do it, when you can cut back by at least a third. Save repotting until March, and use a special citrus compost blend to plant your tree into. Citrus trees are widely available, but for a specialist offering, check out The Citrus Centre in Pulborough, West Sussex (01798 872786).
Over-wintering fig trees
Hardy figs suitable for growing outdoors in a south-facing, sheltered spot include Brown Turkey, Brunswick and Violette de Bordeaux (all available from Thompson & Morgan, 0844 573 1818), but even they need protection in the winter if a late crop of pea-sized fruitlets on the tips of the branches are to ripen the following summer. For figs that are planted into the ground, cover the branches with a few layers of horticultural fleece, or, if they are trained in a fan shape, pack the branches with straw. If your fig is in a pot, it’s best to move it to an unheated greenhouse or garage and, as well as covering in fleece, wrap the pot with several layers of bubble-wrap to prevent root damage from cold temperatures.