I have a happy-go-lucky Asian pear tree that asks for nothing and has been producing the most delicious apple pears for the past 10 years. All I do is a tiny bit of pruning in February. Over time, I’ve found that I do best with apple and pear trees. Peaches and nectarines are a bit tougher to please – they’re the orchard divas. They crave a good amount of drama, so they purposefully attract insect infestations and fungal diseases just to get attention. (Trust me, I know this syndrome well: My twin sister chucked herself down a 10-foot staircase a week before my wedding so she could arrive on crutches and steal my spotlight. [She claims she fell. …])

Peach blossoms

Properly applied, low-toxicity dormant sprays can help keep your peach trees blossoming for years.

Photo Credit: Lori Wear

Dormant apple tree

Check your fruit trees carefully in winter for signs of pests and disease.

Photo Credit: Mary Lane

Dormant spraying

Be sure to wear protective gear when spraying dormant oils.

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

Despite how happy my Asian pear tree is, winter can bring on some troubles. That’s because there are plenty of pests that like to visit for the winter holidays. They enjoy hanging out and sucking vital plant nutrients from fruit trees, laying eggs and never leaving the back yard. (How rude!) What’s a gardener to do? Well, one option is dormant spraying.

What are dormant sprays? They’re highly refined oils and fungicides applied when trees are in dormancy – after leaves fall but before buds begin to open in early spring. Using them can be a heedful choice if you’ve got a number of fruit trees. (Of course, that said, don’t feel that you must spray your fruit trees just because your neighbors do. If you’ve only got a few trees and haven’t been using many broad-spectrum pesticides or synthetic plant fertilizers in your garden, there’s a good chance you’ve still got beneficial bugs coming for a visit. Those good guys will likely help take these overwintering insects and eggs off your hands without you having to lift a finger.)

If you do choose to spray your trees, however, always do so after the tree has lost all its leaves. Three winter applications are best. (Here in California, I like to aim for easy dates to remember, like Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day.) Make sure to water the ground thoroughly before spraying, and don’t spray on rainy or windy days. Once the tree is stripped of its foliage, any insects or diseases are exposed, so it’s a good time to apply a horticultural oil or a lime-sulfur or copper-sulfate fungicide. (For best results, thoroughly coat branches and twigs with horticultural oil.)

It’s always a good idea to choose products with a very low toxicity to people and animals. Even less toxic products can smother or create mild disruptions to the pests’ diet or surroundings. (Your local nursery professional or Cooperative Extension officecan advise you on the best product to use for your area and situation.)

Do remember that anything that kills insects may have other side effects, so always wear protective clothing, gloves and goggles – and always read the label and follow the directions exactly! Even though products may be labeled “organic” or “natural,” it doesn’t mean they’re completely harmless.

It may be winter and your fruit trees are dormant, but that won’t stop pests from looking for a free meal. So check your trees carefully. If you’ve got a problem, maybe it’s time to consider a dormant spray (and again, remember to read and follow the label). With a little work, this simple chore might just help keep your fruit trees in the pink – and your fruit bowl full – for years to come!