Chill hours are the number of hours below 45 °F (7.22 °C)that a fruit tree needs to be exposed to during the winter months to produce fruit the following season. But what’s the importance of these chill hours, and why do fruit trees need them?
Fruit trees need chill hours for the following reasons:
- Break dormancy in fruit trees
- Develop flower buds
- Initiate successful setting and fruit development
- Improve fruit size and quality
- Reduce fruit drop
- Encourage root growth
- Promote leaf development
- Improve drought tolerance
- Improve pest and disease resistance
Before buying a fruit tree, you must know the chill requirement of the variety you’re interested in and ensure it’s suitable for your local winter climate. To help you understand why chill hours are so important for fruit trees, I will go over 9 reasons in more detail. Let’s get started!
1. Break Dormancy in Fruit Trees
Dormancy is a natural process that helps protect plants from cold winter weather conditions that can damage or kill them. When the temperature drops in autumn, fruit trees begin to prepare for winter by shutting down their growth. This process is known as senescence, and during this time, the leaves will fall off the tree, and the tree will enter into a state of dormancy.
Once the tree is dormant, it will stop growing until the temperature rises again in spring. This is why you will see fruit trees without leaves during winter.
However, just because the tree is dormant doesn’t mean it’s not doing anything. In fact, the opposite is true!
During dormancy, the tree actively prepares for the following spring season by growing new roots, storing energy in its trunk and branches, and developing flower buds. For these processes to happen, the tree must be exposed to a certain number of chill hours.
2. Develop Flower Buds
Flower buds are one of the most important parts of a fruit tree, as they will eventually turn into the flowers that produce fruits. Over time, the buds open, and flowers bloom, which will then be pollinated by bees, who transfer pollen from the male reproductive organs (stamen) to the female reproductive organs (pistil).
Once pollinated, the flowers will turn into fruits that will be harvested.
While this process sounds relatively simple, it’s not always easy for fruit trees to develop flower buds. One of the main reasons why fruit trees need chill hours is to encourage bud development.
When a fruit tree is exposed to colder temperatures during the winter months, it will undergo a vernalization process. This is when the fruit trees use cold temperatures to promote flower bud development for the following spring season.
The flower buds are formed at the tips of the tree’s branches, and without adequate chill hours, the buds will not develop properly. This can result in fewer flowers, smaller fruits, and lower fruit yields.
3. Initiate Successful Setting and Fruit Development
Successful fruit setting and development are essential for a bountiful, high-quality harvest. After the flowers have been pollinated, the fruits will start to develop and grow. This process can be influenced by several factors, including the number of chill hours the tree has received.
Generally, the more chill hours a fruit tree has, the better the fruit setting and development will be. This is because chill hours help to stimulate growth hormone production, which is necessary for the fruits to develop properly.
If a fruit tree does not receive enough chill hours, hormone production will be insufficient, and the fruits will not develop properly. This can lead to misshapen fruits, smaller fruit sizes, and lower yields. Poor-quality fruits are often unappetizing and can be difficult to sell.
4. Improve Fruit Size and Quality
High-quality and well-sized fruits are what every gardener or farmer strives for as they are more marketable and fetch a higher price. While many factors can affect the size and quality of fruits, such as soil nutrients, water, and sunlight, chill hours also play a pivotal role.
Fruit trees exposed to the right amount of chill hours tend to produce larger and higher quality fruits. The chilling process helps to break down carbohydrates in the tree, which are then used to form new cells during the growing season. These new cells will help improve the fruits’ size, shape, and color.
Also, chill hours can help improve the flavor of the fruits. During chill hours, the tree produces more sugars and organic acids, which gives the fruits a sweeter flavor. The fruits also have a thick skin, which helps to protect them from damage and pests.
5. Reduce Fruit Drop
Nothing is more frustrating than watching your hard work go to waste as fruits drop off the tree before they are ripe. While there can be many reasons for this, such as pests, diseases, or weather conditions, one of the main reasons is a lack of chill hours.
Inadequate chill hours can cause the flowers to fall off the tree before they are pollinated or the fruits to drop off before they are ripe. This is because the chilling process helps to harden the tree’s cell walls, which gives the flowers and fruits added strength and support.
Without adequate chill hours, the cell walls will remain soft, causing the flowers and fruits to drop off prematurely. With the strong, dry winds that often accompany winter weather, it’s no wonder that fruit drop is such a common problem.
With optimal chill hours, however, the cell walls will be strengthened, and the flowers and fruits will be less likely to drop off prematurely.
6. Encourage Root Growth
A robust root system is essential for the health and vigor of any plant, and fruit trees are no exception. The roots play a vital role in anchoring the tree in the ground, absorbing water and nutrients from the soil, and storing carbohydrates for the tree to use during periods of stress.
Chill hours can help encourage root growth by slowing the growth of above-ground tree parts. This allows the roots to catch up and become better established, making the tree more tolerant of drought-related stressors.
In addition, the roots of fruit trees that have experienced adequate chilling are less likely to be damaged by frost. The chilling process helps to acclimate the roots to cold temperatures, making them more resistant to freezing. This protects the roots from damage and ensures they can continue to perform their vital functions even during cold weather.
7. Promote Leaf Development
Leaves are essential for the health and vigor of any plant as they are responsible for photosynthesis, the process by which plants produce their food. Since most fruit trees shed their leaves during the winter months, it is during this time that they must produce the majority of their food for the coming spring season.
Chill hours play an important role in promoting leaf development, as they help to stimulate the growth of buds on the tree. As the tree breaks dormancy and the buds begin to grow, the leaves will develop and expand. This process is essential for the tree to produce the food it needs to survive and thrive.
Inadequate exposure to chill hours can delay leaf development and ultimately slow the tree’s growth, impacting the size and yield of the fruits.
8. Improve Drought Tolerance
As water becomes increasingly scarce during the winter months, it’s important to choose fruit trees that are drought-tolerant. While all fruit trees need water to survive, those that have experienced adequate chilling are more resistant to drought. Water is a critical resource for fruit trees as it helps to transport nutrients, regulate temperature, and keep the tree cells hydrated.
Chill hours help the tree to develop a deeper and more extensive root system, which is better able to access water during periods of drought. Additionally, the chilling process helps to acclimate the tree to dry conditions, making it more resistant to drought stress.
The fruit tree’s metabolism also slows down during drought, which helps conserve water. This metabolic slowdown is another adaptive response that helps the tree to withstand periods of drought stress. When selecting fruit trees for your garden, choose those best suited for your local climate and soil conditions.
9. Improve Pest and Disease Resistance
Pests and diseases can wreak havoc on fruit trees, causing damage to the leaves, roots, and fruits. Severe infestations can ultimately kill the tree. While there are several ways to control pests and diseases, chill hours can help to prevent them from becoming a problem in the first place.
Winter’s cold temperatures help kill off many pests and diseases that would otherwise survive and infect the tree. Chill hours also help to acclimate the tree to its environment, making it better able to resist pests and diseases.
Additionally, the chilling process helps to stimulate the production of enzymes and other compounds that help to fight off pests and diseases. These substances are produced in response to temperature changes and help protect the tree from damage.