The Budding Orchardist: There is No Off-Season

The Third Installment in the Series “The Budding Orchardist”

By Jeff Kanters, Master GardenerSM Volunteer

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” –Socrates

(Image credit: Jeff Kanters)

After the long, hot, and drought-ridden summer of 2022, mid-October and November ushered in cooler weather along with shortening days. With these seasonal changes, the orchard trees, having stopped their robust vegetative growth, began to harden off and dropped their leaves through December. During this time, sugars once built and maintained in the trees’ leaf canopies via photosynthesis were transported down to the roots to be stored over the cold months ahead.

Preparations began in November to ready the trees for cold dormant-season management. Fruit tree care during the fall and winter seasons is as vital as it is in the spring and summer. Our team undertook the following to ensure future successes in the orchard.

• Painting the Trunks of Young Fruit Trees Before Winter

Trunk of fruit trees painted with white latex paint which helps prevent unwanted damage and subsequent problems. (Image credit: Jeff Kanters)

In early November all fruit trees were painted with a 1:1 dilution (one part water, one part paint) of white water-based (latex) paint along their trunks from the ground up to the first scaffold limbs. Important Note: Do NOT use OIL-based paint, as OIL-based paint is TOXIC to the trees! We did this for one main reason, and we get many questions about this.

The white latex paint reflects the sun’s rays and discourages large temperature swings to the bark’s surface. An extreme rise in heat of bark along the south-facing lower trunk can cause expansion and cracking when the daytime and nighttime ambient or air temperatures are at or below freezing. The cracking and damage to the trunk from temperature extremes opens the tree up to diseases and insects.

• Winter Pruning of Young Fruit Trees

After painting the trees, we scheduled winter pruning. Research has shown that the most optimal time to winter prune trees in the piedmont of North Carolina is between late December and early March, with February being the optimum month. There are fewer insects and diseases present, and the trees are dormant.

Winter pruning allows better visualization of the branching structure and the identification of diseased or damaged limbs. Also, by this time all the trees’ excess food (i.e. carbohydrates) is now stored in the roots, so pruning during dormancy does not decrease the available food stores of the trees when spring arrives.

While some root stocks may have a dwarfing influence on the top above-ground growth of some trees such as apples, this is not true of other types of fruit trees like peaches and plums. If you want to keep your fruit tree at a reasonable size for managing and harvesting fruit most easily, annual winter pruning is essential.

Neglecting annual training and pruning of fruit trees results in poor shape development, less quality fruit, greater disease susceptibility, and shortened life span of the tree.

Key fruit tree pruning priorities to maintain health and productivity of the tree are

  1. Remove all dead, dying, and diseased limbs.
  2. Remove limbs that crossover which can rub together causing damage to limbs and harboring disease.
  3. Remove limbs that grow downward or straight up.
  4. Increase sunlight penetration into canopy.
  5. Increase air flow in canopy and reduce fungal disease.
  6. Increase fruit production.
  7. Develop strong 45-degree angles on limbs to support fruit load.
  8. Maintain tree size (5 to 10 feet is the ideal size for the home orchard in terms of accessibility).

Important Note: Structurally, pome fruits (apples and pears) are pruned as a central-leader, Christmas- tree-like shape; stone fruits (plums and peaches) are pruned as an open-vase, bowl-shaped, multiple trunk form.

Key Pruning Equipment For Small Fruit Trees

A line-up of some of the fruit grower’s most important tools. (Image credit: J. Kanters)
  1. Lysol® disinfectant spray – Critical to ensure that the pruning tools are kept disinfected between pruning cuts to avoid the spread of disease. You can also spray tools with a 70-90% concentration of rubbing alcohol or 10:1 diluted bleach. The rule we apply is that if a tree appears healthy, then spray tool once before starting to prune and then spray again after completing the pruning of the entire tree. If, on the other hand, you have a tree with damage and potential disease on a particular branch you select to prune out, sterilize the pruning tool before and immediately after the pruning cut to avoid spreading disease to other healthy branches or limbs on the same tree you plan to prune next.
  2. Handheld bypass pruning shears – for pruning small branches up to ½ inch in diameter. Attempts to cut larger branches with pruning shears often results in torn, jagged pruning cuts and may damage the shears.1 (See note below for more information on bypass vs. anvil-action tools).
  3. Compact pruning tool blade sharpener – Very handy in keeping the blades of shears and loppers sharpened for clean prune cuts.
  4. Bypass pruning lopper – for pruning larger branches between ½ inch up to 1 ¾ inches in diameter.
  5. Pruning saw – for pruning large branches and limbs greater than 1¾ inches in diameter. Pruning saws are unique in that the blade teeth are oriented in alternating fashion forward and backward along the saw blade, thus allowing you to cut both on the forward push and the backward pull of the saw. Many shapes and sizes are available, from compact folding saws to straight fixed blades.

• Dormant Spraying of Young Fruit Trees

As soon as possible after the trees are winter pruned, we dormant spray the entire tree with horticultural oil and fungicide. This treatment focus is preventative spraying before symptoms are observed. After pruning, the tree structure is smaller and less spray is needed to cover the tree. Also, the spray application covers pruning wounds adding further protection from diseases.

The horticultural oil typically kills overwintering aphids, spider mites, scale, and eggs as they are hatching and before populations take off in warmer weather. The fungicide kills overwintering fungal spores to suppress development of rusts, fire blight, and peach leaf curl diseases. We opted to use Neem horticultural oil as the base oil.

We are testing the use of a liquid copper-based fungicide that can be mixed with the Neem oil and applied at the same time to the trees. We follow the manufacturer label directions on mixing and dilution in the spray pump spray tank. We wear rubber gloves, face masks, and safety goggles when spraying the trees, along with long sleeve shirts and pants.

Important Note: Keep sprayers dedicated to the sprays applied. Do NOT use one sprayer for different types of spraying. For instance, commercial growers have a specific sprayer for herbicide control and another sprayer for disease and insect control. We label our sprayers with waterproof markers designating their specific use. Be careful not to use more spray solution than needed.

The timing of spraying is the tricky part. By late February temperatures are starting to moderate more in the Piedmont. To maximize the effectiveness of the spraying, ambient air temperatures should be above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Second, rainfall is not good within a 24 to 48-hour period after spraying as the effectiveness of spraying is considerably lessoned. As you can imagine, this task is easier said than done, given the fluctuating late-winter to early-spring temperatures and sporadic rains. We keep a close eye on both temperature and precipitation forecasts to optimize the effectiveness of the winter spray program. We strive to spray before too much bud swelling and break on the trees.

Important Note: To protect our beneficial insects, we strive to conduct dormant spraying before blooming and pollinators are visiting. Any subsequent spraying during the growing season is timed after blooming and when pollinators are not active. More on growing season spraying pros and cons the next installment.

The saga continues as the young trees awaken from dormancy and their growth resumes in March through the summer months. Join me looking ahead as we face summer disease and insect pest challenges on the orchard trees. Stay tuned.



1–A few notes on bypass vs. anvil pruning shears and loppers. We strongly encourage the use of bypass shears and loppers rather than anvil types. The bypass types are essentially two blades that make a clean cut. The anvil shears and loppers crush the branch stem and cause more jagged, less clean cut that may open the tree up for disease.

Bypass pruners (left) work much like scissors and make cleaner cuts while anvil pruners (right) tend to crush plant material. (Image credit: Barbara H. Smith, HGIC Clemson Extension)

Resources and Additional Information

Fruit Trees General:

Fruit Tree Pruning Basics:

Winter/Early Fruit Tree Spraying:

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Plant-Palooza: Inaugural Plant Festival and Annual Plant Sale Coming in April

By Melinda Heigel, Master GardenerSM Volunteer

You don’t want to miss these two exciting events! For more information on both events, visit the website

The inaugural Plant Festival on Saturday, April 1 will feature over 20 exhibitors and Master GardenerSM Volunteer plant experts to answer questions about native plants, non-native plants, trees, and shrubs, vegetables, herbs, annuals, and houseplants. You can also tour our on-site demonstration garden. To learn more about the festival, check out

For the annual Plant Sale on Saturday, April 8, please note that the line forms early and plants go quick! Please be green and bring your own box to the plant sale to carry your plants home. Find a list of plants available at the sale along with photos, descriptions, and a searchable database at


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Celebrate A Master Gardener

By Pana Jones, Extension Master Gardener Coordinator, Durham County

March 20 through March 26 is National Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Week! Has a Master Gardener helped you solve garden issues, inspired you to grow a garden or a particular plant, or shared some helpful information? If so, let us know! Contact Pana Jones, Durham County Extension Master Gardener Coordinator at

For more information about how to become an Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer, check out NC Cooperative Extension’s informative site or contact the local extension office in your area.

Image credit: Mary Knierim

Swarm Season Cometh

By Mark Anthony Powers, Master GardenerSM Volunteer and NCSBA Certified Master Beekeeper

A swarm hanging from a branch and later captured by Karen Lauterbach, Master GardenerSM Volunteer and me. (Image credit: Mark Anthony Powers)

Spring is for dogwood blossoms, fresh-picked strawberries, and…honey bee swarms. If you’re lucky you may have the opportunity to witness one of these amazing sights. Thousands of these fascinating creatures may hang from a tree branch or a garden sculpture in your own backyard.

Please don’t call pest control or spray insecticide on these hard-working homeless insects. There are beekeepers just waiting to hear about valuable free bees for their hives. Your county beekeeping association should have someone available on a swarm patrol who will happily scoop them up or shake them into a box and give them a home (Click here for local resources in Durham County and Orange County).

A large swarm captured in a box at a business in Durham. Once the queen is inside, the workers follow. (Image credit: M.A. Powers)

Honey bees in a swarm have bellies full of honey and are in their gentlest of states. The hanging mass of bees has bivouacked and may stay for an hour or a couple of days while specialized scout bees search for a suitable site to settle and create a new home. If you look closely, you can see these scouts dancing in straight lines while rapidly shaking their abdomens. This is called a waggle dance and tells other scouts how far away and in what direction a potential home exists. After more scouts visit these sites, a consensus is reached, and they all do the same dance. In 2019, I filmed a swarm at the Briggs Avenue apiary and you can watch it on YouTubeTM. Soon after consensus is reached, this vagabond colony will lift off in an impressive honey bee tornado and make a beeline for their new home which could be a hollow tree, a baited swarm trap strategically located by a clever beekeeper, or your neighbor’s attic.

Preventing a swarm colony from setting up housekeeping in someone’s home is just one reason to have a beekeeper expeditiously relocate them. The other is that, left on their own as a feral colony, they will likely succumb to parasitic varroa mites, an imported scourge that needs to be vigilantly managed with interval testing and treatments. Honey bees are actually livestock and need to be taken care of to survive.

Why do honey bees swarm? Spring is when they have ample food sources, and the colony (as a superorganism) is rapidly expanding. There is one queen, and she secretes a pheromone, “queen substance,” from tarsal glands on her feet. Her worker bee retinue spreads it around the hive where it suppresses the ‘urge’ (please excuse my being anthropomorphic) to initiate the cascade of events that leads to swarming. If there is crowding and the bottoms of frames don’t get enough of this pheromone, workers will create several wax queen cells that look like peanuts.

Swarm cells at Briggs Avenue Apiary. The center one has a larva and royal jelly. (Image credit: M.A. Powers)

After the queen drops an egg in each of them, and the egg becomes a larva, nurse bees feed the larva a steady diet of a high-protein substance called royal jelly until they seal the cell. The larva becomes a pupa, then an adult queen. The transformation from fresh egg to adult queen takes about 16 days. The first virgin queen out makes a piping sound and the other virgins, still in their cells, quack in response. The first queen then locates them and kills them, trying to ensure her place as hive monarch. Sometimes, if the colony is quite large to start with, workers will protect a few of these virgin queens, and they can accompany one or more subsequent smaller swarms, called afterswarms.

Afterswarm on a garden statue in our backyard. (Image credit: M.A. Powers)

Each swarm event takes about half of the workers from the original hive. It takes a week or longer for a virgin queen to mature and complete her mating flights, then another 21 days before her eggs become adult worker bees. This combination of loss of bees and delay making new workers weakens the hive and drastically reduces its productivity, especially its honey production.

So, what can beekeepers do to prevent swarming? The first action is to try to stay ahead of crowding and to add space when brood, pollen, and nectar/honey fill more than three quarters of the hive frames. If beekeepers find swarm cells, then the bees are already committed to swarm. If a beekeeper can get to it before the colony swarms, the best strategy is to trick this superorganism into ‘thinking’ that it’s already swarmed. To do this, one has to find the original queen among the 60,000 or so bees (think Where’s Waldo on steroids) and to place her along with brood, food, and enough bees to keep house in a new hive, called a split. This epic step usually works, and beekeepers get to keep all their bees in the two colonies. Two colonies was the bees’ goal to start with. And that’s why a superorganism of honey bees are programmed to swarm.

A queen among workers. Can you spot her? (Image credit: M.A. Powers)


Resources and Additional Information

North Carolina State University’s Department of Entomology and Insect Biology and Management’s site offers a wealth of resources about honeybees and beekeeping. To find links to The Wolfpack’s Waggle, a newsletter about apiculture, plus extensive articles on honey bee biology and management, visit their website.

To learn more about becoming a beekeeper and for local chapters and programs on apiculture, visit NC Beekeeper’s Association’s informative website.

Clemson University’s Home and Information Garden Center has a great factsheet on swarm FAQs. For more information, see the link below

For gardeners interested in doing their part to support bee habitats, NC Cooperative Extension agent Debbie Roos’s site on pollinator conservation offers advice on the best pollinator-friendly plants and much more.

Visit the author’s website to learn more about beekeeping through his fiction which features the world of bees.

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Plant This, Not This: Alternatives to Invasive Plants

By Karen Lauterbach, Master GardenerSM Volunteer

English ivy like the ‘Gold Heart’ cultivar pictured here can revert to green, more aggressive forms and pose real problems in the landscape. (Image credit: Joey Williamson, HGIC Clemson Extension)

I am still regretting some of my plant choices from 30 years ago, especially English ivy (Hedera helix ‘Gold Heart’). At some point, it reverted to the wild type and began spreading across our wooded lot and climbing trees. It has been a years-long battle to bring it under control, and I’m still not sure who will win in the end. It is a tenacious foe.

I wish I had heard the recent Durham Garden Forum talk years ago. Charlotte Glen reviewed common invasive plants in the North Carolina Piedmont and recommended alternatives: plants native to our area and non-natives that are not invasive. Glen is the state coordinator for the NC State Extension Master Gardener program. Glen said that woody invasives – trees, shrubs and vines – pose the most severe harm to our ecosystems. She noted that only a very small percent of introduced species become invasive. But when they do, they can replace native plants, create a monoculture, and change the whole function of an ecosystem. Glen said that by planting natives, gardeners can increase biodiversity and benefit the environment.

So, what are the invasive plants that gardeners in the NC Piedmont should avoid? Two of the top offenders are Bradford pears (Pyrus calleryana) and privet (Ligustrum sinesis and Ligustrum japonicum). What appeared to be the perfect landscape tree – the Bradford pear – has now become the number one tree to avoid. Instead, plant okame cherry (Prunus ‘Okame’), Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’) or trident maple (Acer buergerianum). Native options include redbud (Cercis canadensis), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea or Amelanchier grandidfora), sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) and two-winged silverbell (Halesia diptera). Still available in the nursery trade, privet (Ligustrum spp.) should be avoided. Instead plant cleyera (Ternstroemia gymnanthera), Distylium ‘Linebacker’, holly osmanthus (Osmanthus heteroplyllis), or dwarf burford holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Dwarf Burford’).

Emerging invasive shrubs include nandina (Nandina domestica), leatherleaf mahonia (Berberis bealei), and barberry (Berberis thunbergii). For more about these shrubs and what to plant instead, view the PowerPoint slides from Glen’s presentation1

Some of the worst invasive vines–in addition to my foe, Hedera helix–are Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda), Chinese wisteria (Wisteria senensis), and sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). Glen said that good alternatives for Piedmont NC gardeners are the following natives: coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), and climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea barbara).

Glen also demonstrated a new resource for North Carolinians: The NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. The Plant Toolbox contains over 4,600 plants that grow in and around North Carolina. The toolbox is designed select plants that will thrive where they are planted. The link to the Plant Toolbox home page is

To join the Durham Garden Forum and have access to a video library of all presentations since 2021, fill out the membership form and mail it with a check for $25 to the address shown. You can find the membership form at Membership includes discounts at area garden centers (For Garden’s Sake and The Durham Garden Center). Upcoming presentations are listed below.

• March 21: “Propagation” with Sara Smith, Durham County Extension Master Gardener.
• April 18: “Landscape Design,” with Anne Spafford, Ph.D., Professor of Horticultural Science at NC State University.
• May 16: “Plant-to-Plant Interaction,” with Anita Simha, community ecologist and PhD candidate in Duke University’s Program in Ecology.
• June 20: “Bamboo: Uses in the Landscape and Effective Removal,” with David Benfield, founder of Brightside Bamboo. 
• July 18: “NC Native Herbal Plant Remedies,” with Arvis Boughman, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and the author of Herbal Remedies of the Lumbee Indians, and Robert RedHawk Eldridge, who is of Sappony decent and a storyteller. He travels across the country sharing stories about his ancestors and Native American culture.


1–Link to Glen’s presentation slides

Resources and Additional Information

NC State Extension Gardener Handbook has an through chapter available online about native plants for NC.

The NC Botanical Garden has a great list of native trees, shrubs and vines for your landscape as well as an illustrated online booklet about how to control invasive plants.



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