Pruning pays off if you want productive peaches!
I thought that showing you a picture of some juicy peaches might encourage you to try growing some this year! Happily avoiding the unpredictable weather - I'm hoping to find time to finish pruning my polytunnel peaches in the next week before the fruit buds start to swell - it's so easy to knock them off then and lose fruit as a consequence. I won't be pruning any other stone fruit like plums or cherries outside yet though, even if the weather is dry - as that risks encouraging 'silver leaf' disease. Most stone fruits should always be pruned only if absolutely necessary, if a branch has broken, or for shaping the branch system in their early years - and then only when the sap is rising and growth has started in the spring. But most fruit trees undercover can be pruned at pretty much any time of year in my experience - although peaches and apricots flower early so it's best to do this before the buds start to swell. As the pruning methods in most fruit books apply to greenhouses with lovely walls or to traditional bush shaped trees - I had to invent my own method for growing peaches in a polytunnel!
Like many of the things I do - my method of peach pruning is just a little unorthodox but it works very well for me and I get huge crops! The peach pictured here is pruned as a rough fan/bush shape - which reduces the height, leaving some productive younger green shoots lower down that will fruit this year. It's not a traditional way to prune peaches - but I find it easier and it's not too time-consuming. The shoots don't need 'tying in' to supports as they would if it was strictly wall trained - and in fact it's far more productive than a wall trained tree would be! Being planted about 60cm out from the tunnel wall means there's space for the slightly bushier form while still retaining fairly good air circulation. If your tree hasn't been pruned for a few years and has become a mess of old wood, then you may have to take a lot off now to encourage shoots to form lower down the tree. Peaches will do this quite readily and will often produce lovely young shoots even from the trunk. If you don't take off most of the older wood the tree will put all it's energy into the topmost branches and this just makes the problem even worse - so you have to be brave and harden your heart!
Nectarines and peaches are pruned slightly differently to plums and cherries. As they always fruit most prolifically on the previous year's (green) wood, they need a certain amount of the older wood pruned out each year to stop them getting too big, particularly in the tunnel, to avoid them bursting out of the polythene top and also to promote younger fruiting growth, leaving enough well-spaced young growth on which they will fruit this year. You also need to be able to reach them! If you don't do this they soon become an unmanageable, crowded and unproductive mess. It's sometimes difficult to take out enough wood in summer though, so I often need to take out more at this time of year, particularly on the older trees. Then I can see exactly what I'm doing because the trees are naked, with no leaves and the young, greener growth formed last summer is much easier to see. They start into growth much sooner inside and already the fatter and rounder fruit buds are easily distinguishable from the growth buds which are slimmer and more pointed. Trees can quite easily put on over a metre of growth during the summer - so controlling them is vital. Pruning the top growth also naturally reduces further root growth correspondingly, which is a good thing as otherwise they can rob nutrients and water from crops growing in the raised beds near to their root area. The roots of any healthy tree will always extend over an area of at least roughly three times the height of the tree. After looking at them carefully, take out some of the older branches back to a point just abovewhere some new green growth which the tree made last summer appeared - bearing in mind the height you want. Later on in the summer, just after fruiting, prune out some of this year's longer new growths in order to keep them a manageable size and promote good air circulation.
My trees are never a pretty sight after pruning - but you have to be both brave and even a little brutal sometimes! The trees look so pretty in early spring, when they're adorned with their pink blossoms, that it's tempting to leave the flowering branches and not cut them off, but I know if I that if I don't prune properly now, then the fruit in the summer will be far smaller, too crowded and not nearly as good, sometimes even dropping off because the tree simply can't cope with developing so many. One has to harden one's heart. And don't be tempted either to leave long branches on trees that you've just planted - as this forces the poor tree to try to support that growth before it has properly developed it's roots - and this may well kill it. A friend of mine did this a few years ago despite my warnings - as they thought they might get fruit quicker. They didn't - it killed the tree! Prune trees right back after planting, to just two or three lower buds on each branch, pointing in the direction you want them to grow. New green growth will come from those in it's first year. It will fruit on those next year and you will reap the benefits of having a little patience! Each year after fruiting - cut them back again to establish a nice young branch system in whatever shape you like. Then go over them again in winter and just tidy up. Last year, yet again each of my fan/bush trees at the north end of my tunnel produced over two hundred perfect large peaches each, and we've been enjoying the frozen fruit as sorbets, smoothies etc. all winter. There is nothing like sinking your teeth into that first luscious, aromatic fruit!
For the last few years, both Aldi and Lidl have had bare-root trees available really cheaply sometime over the next couple of months. That's where I got mine - for a fiver each - one of the best investments I've ever made! Although one was labelled 'Peach' and the other 'Nectarine' - they both turned out to be un-named varieties of peaches. But happily for me - serendipity was at work! One is an early variety and the other is a later one - so they spread the crop very nicely and we have fresh peaches for around two and a half months in summer, with masses to freeze! Named peaches are generally available in garden centres - but they are much more expensive as they will be container grown - often in peat compost, which I hate. Peat is not a natural growing medium for peaches! If you have the room for a peach they're far easier to grow under cover in a tunnel or greenhouse as not only can you always keep them pruned to the size you want but they don't get peach leaf curl disease under cover. This is caused by rain washing the disease spores down into the buds before they break in early spring if theyy;'re outside. My peaches are planted at the north end of my larger tunnel, where they don't shade anything. They are roughly fan-trained over an area of 15 ft/4 metres overall, with a height of about the same, or slightly less. At their feet in a narrow bed about 3ft/1 metre depth I plant perennial herbs like various thymes, alpine strawberries, a few early bulbs and lots of scented single flowers to attract beneficial insects and pollinators. This works well for me.
It's a good time to finish winter pruning both in the polytunnel and outside if ground is dry enough to walk on.
Having said that - if your ground is wet then you'd be better staying off the ground around any fruit trees, or indeed anywhere else, until it dries up a bit! If you don't you will compact the soil and cause permanent damage, which then leads to drainage problems. Poor drainage can also then have a 'knock' on' effect' on nutrient uptake - leading to a condition called 'bitter pit' - which is a symptom of poor calcium uptake in apples and other disease problems. All fruit really hates bad drainage. If the weather turns drier over the next couple of weeks and the soil dries up a bit I'll do the pruning of the apples in the new orchard. If you have polytunnel fruit though - this is a great time to prune it as growth will be starting again soon and if trees are pruned properly you can look forward to a summer of luscious fruit!
I usually prefer to plant bare-root trees, whatever I'm planting, if I can get the varieties I want with bare roots - I feel that they establish and adjust to your soil far better. Container-grown trees in peat composts can take much longer to establish as their roots as the can be reluctant to explore the world outside their pot - even if you loosen some of the outer roots a little! Peaches aren't that fussy about soil but they do like it well drained, with a pH of about 6.5 to 7. Scatter a couple of handfuls of bonemeal and calcified seaweed over the planting area of about 2 sq. metres, these will supply phosphate, slow release calcium and other trace elements. If your soil is poor and lacking in humus and organic matter, and possibly compacted - that will mean it's also low in biological activity, so it could benefit from adding one of the beneficial micorrhizal granules available in sachets now from garden centres. These form a fungal network which help roots to establish a symbiotic uptake of nutrients quickly, and this will increase over the years. Fork all of these in really well and evenly when preparing the soil and scatter some of the granules over the actual roots as well. I also fork in a light dressing of good well rotted, crumbly compost before planting - not tons of nitrogen-rich manure which would promote too much soft, sappy growth. If you don't have crumbly old home made compost, a bucket of a good organic peat free potting compost will do the same job. I know that seems extravagant - but just think how much even non-organic peaches cost each - and then you'll see it's worth every penny! Just a few peaches will repay the cost of the compost at the price they were last year! Last year organic ones - if you could get them- were over a euro each! Just 12 peaches pays for a whole bag of the best organic peat free compost! (I use the peat-free certified organic potting compost from Klasmann which is excellent). Don't use a peat compost as this will not do the same job and is completely sterile, containing no vital microbial life, and eventually clogs the soil too.
The addition of organic compost opens up the structure of the soil, makes it more 'root friendly' and introduces important microbial life, which will adapt itself gradually to the type of tree which is grown there. All types of plants have specific kinds of microbes that like to live symbiotically with the roots of that particular plant - and if you start them off at the right pH, with some compost to feed on at first - they will soon multiply and form a huge living community around the root structure - supplying the plant with the vital nutrients it needs from the soil. A symbiotic relationship is a bit like a 'middle man'/or a sort of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' kind of thing! The plant makes root exudates - sugars which feed the microbes - and then in return all the microbes make the nutrients in the soil available to the plants roots - in a form that they can absorb. Basically it is pretty much the same way as our digestion works - so the soil acts a bit like the plant's stomach if you like - as I've explained before. Every year after planting, a light scattering of compost and a couple of handfuls of seaweed meal (for potash and trace elements) will keep them happy and busy, but not make the tree not too vigorous.
There's still just time to order bare-root fruit trees, bushes and canes for mail order delivery before March
The sooner you do this the better if you're planning on getting any - you don't want to be right at the back of the queue just getting the dregs of what's left at the end of the planting season. If you're looking for a new raspberry - then I can thoroughly recommend the autumn variety Joan J - pictured here. It's definitely the best tasting variety yet. I grew it in pots in the polytunnel last year and it fruited from June until almost Christmas. "An autumn raspberry fruiting in June" I hear you say? Yes - if you prune them MY way! Many people recommend pruning them right back after they've finished fruiting in late winter - but I always leave about half of the canes that formed and fruited in the previous autumn un-pruned. These then fruit early the following year - after which I prune them right down to the ground. Those will then form new canes which will fruit slightly later in the autumn than the new canes which grew up from those pruned in winter - thereby spreading their season even more and giving you a continuous crop for much of the summer and autumn. It doesn't harm the plants at all pruning this way, as autumn varieties are very vigorous anyway. I just feed, mulch and water them well. Like so many of the tricks I've learned over the years - I discovered this one literally quite by accident - by not getting round to pruning at the accepted 'right time' - due to an accident! All autumn raspberries will do this if pruned this way - but if I only grew one raspberry variety - it would be Joan J. It has enormous fruits which aren't just delicious fresh but which also freeze incredibly well.
Which apple varieties are good in a small garden?
Someone asked me recently to suggest two apple varieties which would be suitable for a small garden, which would fruit reliably early in the season, are good freshly picked and would then make apple juice for freezing. 'Discovery' is an excellent and productive early season apple that ripens through September, it's crisp, sweet and has very pink-tinted flesh compared to many apples. The internal colour indicates that it's full of healthy antioxidants too. Depending on the season's weather and where it's planted - the apples that are in full sun always colour best. Crisply delicious when just picked, it doesn't keep for more than a couple of weeks or so once it's ripe, but it does make a delicious pale pink apple juice - particularly when combined with the early cooker 'Grenadier' which ripens at the same time - in early/mid Sept. We don't make juice here any more as juicing discards the flesh of the fruit, wasting many healthy nutrients like antioxidant phytochemicals & vital gut- healthy fibre. This also means that juice is very high in quickly available sugars too - which are not good for us. Eating whole fruit is better for us - so we tend to make 'slushies here now - which are our half-frozen smoothies using whole fruits blitzed in the Nutriblender and diluted with a little spring water. These are delicious and thirst-quenching on a warm early autumn day!
As Discovery also flowers at the same time, being from the same pollination group, they make very good partners in a small garden. Grenadier is a terrific early cooking apple with plenty of sweet/acid flavour - good for all sorts of cooking uses in Sept. and Oct. If you store either of these apples after that they tend to lose their flavour and acidity though, becoming 'woolly', which affects their flavour, so the two are ideally matched. Both varieties are widely available and are good, reliable and disease-resistant. If you have room for three trees in your garden and would like a long keeping cooker - then they also make perfect partners for Bramley's Seedling. This apple is what is known as a 'triploid' - meaning that it has no good pollen of it's own, so therefore it needs two good pollination partners which reliably flower at the same time.Discovery and Grenadier partner it perfectly - so it's a productively fruiting 'menage a trois' if you like!
If you only have room for one apple, then an offspring of Discovery - a result of a cross with an apple called Kent which was bred more recently in 1975, is a really good apple called Red Devil - (pictured above cut in half). It's disease resistant, incredibly productive and self-fertile, in flowering group 3, so doesn't need a pollinator partner nearby. If you do have other apple trees nearby though, it's also a very good pollinator, and will pollinate trees in flowering groups 2 and 4 - which overlap their flowering times with group 3 trees to a certain extent. A delicious apple, it stays lovely and crisp for 3 months in my apple store, and is very high in polyphenol antioxidants which have many health benefits. Unlike Discovery, it is picked a little later in early October depending on the season - but will keep until Christmas or beyond - which I find more useful in an apple as there are always plenty of September ripening apples around - too many at times - but they become more scarce after October. Last week I chose a couple from my apple store to grate into a smoothie - it was just slightly less crisp - but still juicy and delicious and full of colourful antioxidants as you can see here from the colour of the flesh of one I cut in half to remove the pips!
If you would prefer a long-keeping eating apple and have room for three trees - then I would recommend 'Ashmead's Kernal' pictured here in my 'low-tech' recycled dead freezer apple store in January. It's a healthy, disease-resistant and very productive apple, which is at it's very best naturally stored from mid-December until April It's not an apple which many people know as it's almost never available to buy in garden centres or nurseries - but it's a very aromatic, crisply mouth-watering and nutty tasting apple, with a good sweet/acid balance which regularly beats the more famous Cox's Orange Pippin in taste tests and is considered to be one of the highest quality late dessert apples. It flowers in pollination group 4 - so it overlaps it's flowering time with Red Devil which provides good pollination for it most years.
Ashmead's Kernal is a late-keeping, russet dessert apple bred 300 years ago by Dr. Ashmead near Gloucester. It's one of my favourite late apples. Although often selected in competitions as even better-tasting than Cox - it's far less well known and unlike Cox is scab-resistant and far more tolerant of damp climates like ours here in Ireland, which encourages scab. Also a triploid - the heavy-cropping Ashmead's also needs 2 other apple trees nearby which will pollinate it - but this isn't usually a problem in urban gardens. It crops really well on the M26 semi-dwarfing root stock, and picked in mid-October - it keeps really well until April in cold storage. Useful for cooking from October - later on in December it matures into a delicious dessert apple with a very distinctive and mouthwatering 'pear-drop' flavour.
We're currently eating the stored Ashmead's which we picked in late October last year, and every time I bite into one of them, I thank old Dr. Ashmead of Gloucester who raised it around 1700! My rather unconventional apple store keeps these really well. It's an old broken freezer which I re-purposed and it has several drawers which I can pull out to inspect the apples daily for any that may be deteriorating. It also has perfect insulation, which keeps out either heat or severe cold, and I can vary the humidity by adjusting the door opening slightly. The apples are kept in a sort of natural suspended animation, so while still alive, they go on just quietly breathing and developing their flavour a lot more more slowly than they would otherwise have done if they'd been left on the tree. This means they will keep for several months, staying crisp and retaining all of their healthy nutrients.
I often wonder what dear old Dr. Ashmead would think of my apple store? Or if he could possibly have imagined that people in the 21st century might still be enjoying this wonderful apple and writing about how HE was the person who bred it?
My apple store is not just full of deliciously healthy, pure delights - it's also like having a treasure chest full of fascinating stories and rich social history!
The importance of choosing the right root-stock
Whatever apples you plant though - make sure that they are on an M26 or MM106 semi-dwarfing root stock, which are by far the healthiest and best for a wide range of soils and climates but do particularly well here in Ireland. I don't find the more dwarfing ones good here on my heavy clay soil. They need perfect conditions which few of us have - and in addition - with climate change and wetter weather, fruit trees need to be far more resilient to continue to crop well. That's the last thing I would call the dwarfing root stocks! Also ensure that the graft union (the very swollen knobbly looking bit in the lower bit of the stem) is at least 4 ins or 10 cm above the surface of the compost they are growing in if they are in containers - otherwise the 'scion' (that's the variety of apple that's grafted onto the root stock) could possibly root past the joint and you will lose the dwarfing effect of the root stock. I see so many trees on sale in garden centres that are badly potted through ignorance - far too deeply! Some garden centres and nurseries still have bare root trees at this time of year though - and they're worth seeking out. You may get one or two apples this year on container grown trees - but in the long run bare root trees planted now will establish much better and be far more productive over time. Make sure that you plant bare root trees with the graft union again roughly 4ins/10cm above the soil surface, and with rainfall increasing due to climate change, planting on a very slight mound with added pea gravel or grit is a good idea. The planting area will always settle and sink a bit as it does so - and you don't want to create a badly drained 'sump'! Remember - a fruit tree is a long term investment for the future - to get a return you need to plant it well!
When I was talking about fruit varieties a couple of months ago I forgot to mention a truly wonderful plum - 'Belle de Louvain'. It's a fantastic variety - and is the one that's used to make those gorgeous big fat prunes in Belgium. It's available from a few nurseries - although it may not be on their general list and you may have to ask for it specifically. I got mine from Deacons about 25 years ago - looking it up yesterday I see it's not on their main website but they do have it listed if you do a search for it. A 'dual purpose' plum - it's really delicious and juicy as a desert plum for eating fresh when perfectly ripe (despite what was said on one gardening website! - I wonder if they've actually grown it?) - and for cooking there's absolutely nothing to equal it! It has a fantastic rich flavour and deep purple/black colour - which indicates how rich it must be in healthy antioxidant polyphenols.
The other good thing about 'Belle de Louvain' is that it's fairly self-pollinating and will set fruit even without another tree close by - but 'Victoria' would be a good partner if you have room to give it some company. It does well on less than ideal soils - hence it's grown very well on my heavy Meath clay. It also freezes incredibly well - just thrown into carrier bags without stoning and freeze them whole. I'm sure it would bottle well too - although I haven't tried - as the fruit stays quite firm when cooked. An absolute paragon of a plum! The major problem here is the destructive bullfinches eating the flower buds in late winter - something they're particularly fond of doing! Beautiful but very destructive little vandals they are! I haven't seen too many around this year yet - just one or two so far - I'm hoping they won't do their usual amount of damage. When the fruit is ripening - then badgers and foxes are the main problem! Anything within 'labrador standing on it's hind legs height' reach is progressively stolen over a couple of weeks as they gradually ripen! Beautiful and increasingly rare vandals both - about which I naturally have very ambivalent feelings - plums are one of my favourite fruits - but I don't mind losing a few if I have plenty! This year I'm going to try drying some if I have enough - they'll make nice healthy guilt free snacks!
I have some beautiful photos of 'Belle de Louvain' on the tree which I took a few years ago - but as my scanner's not working - I took some out of the freezer to show you instead. I'll gently stew them in very little water with a small amount of sugar and they'll be eaten when cold with a little creme fraiche or kefir soft 'cheese' - absolute heaven! I'm looking forward to supper!
Other fruit jobs to do now
This week I'll be covering some of my rhubarb crowns with straw and old dustbins - or very large pots - the first fresh fruit of the year is always at it's most delicious when forced and delicately pink. I would dearly love some of those gorgeous terracotta forcing pots but they are so expensive! Perhaps if I ever win the lottery! I'm also going to dry more of my seedless grapes this year - I haven't tried the black ones yet. We're still eating a few physalis (Cape gooseberries/golden berries) every day - picked in November and stored in the fridge, only one or two have gone off. They keep for ages in their little paper cases and are rich in Vit C and other nutrients like lutein which we all need at this time of year.
If you haven't done so already, then untie and lower all grape rods now to horizontal, in order to ensure that the sap rises evenly to supply each breaking fruit bud along the stem. If you don't do this the buds at the top will get the most sap and some nearer to the base may not develop at all. Grapes in pots or tubs can be laid on their sides for a few weeks for the same reason. And if you haven't pruned them yet - it's too late, as the sap will start to rise rapidly in the next week or so. If you prune them now - it will be just like turning on a tap! The sap will just pour out of the cuts, weakening or possibly even killing the vine. Don't despair if you haven't pruned - you can rub out any buds you don't want when they start to grow later on without any damage to the plant at all - but it's much better to prune them at the right time, as soon as the leaves fall in Nov/Dec. - well before the beginning of Jan. I'm going to dehydrate even more of my seedless grapes this year - I haven't tried the black ones yet. I do wish that the squirrels, mice etc. didn't eat all my nuts - then I'd have even healthier, more balanced homegrown snacks!
Strawberry plants in pots for forcing early need to come into the tunnel now. If you don't have any of last year's runners in pots ready for doing this - you can dig a couple of old plants up with a good root ball and pot them up, giving them a feed when they start to show some new growth. After doing this they will need to be thrown away though - as it will weaken them, but it will be nice to have a few early strawberries. Remember to pot up some fresh runners for doing this later on in the year. Or plant some of the wonderful variety Albion - an ever-bearing variety which fruits in my polytunnel from May until November.
One thing I must do is to source some more barrels or tubs for collecting rainwater. Fruit and veg are very thirsty - particularly soft fruit - and need plenty of water in the summer. I've been saving rainwater for years as all plants actually prefer it - not just the low pH lovers like blueberries and lemons. No plant evolved to drink chlorinated tap water! Water is becoming more of a worry for all of us with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. It's always been a problem for us here in the summer anyway as we're on the end of the line coming from a small local reservoir - so we're always the first to go and the last to get our mains water back if there's a shortage. So I always need a back up - particularly for the tunnels. Water is very valuable - many people waste huge amounts because they take it so much for granted - so to be honest I wouldn't have any objection to our water being metered - as long as we're only paying for what we use rather than a flat charge - one size fits all - approach. It would encourage water conservation and far less waste. I don't want to pay for what's wasted by leaks or my neighbours washing cars and watering lawns in the height of summer - then forgetting to turn their taps off! There's nothing more infuriating than seeing water actually running down the road from neighbours hosepipes when there's nothing coming out of our taps!! Quite apart from any environmental considerations!
There's always some kind of fruit suitable for growing somewhere in any garden!
Fresh fruit is always expensive to buy in the shops - particularly soft fruit - and it's really easy to grow yourself with very little trouble. Even in the smallest garden, or on a balcony, there's room for some somewhere - you can train all sorts of fruit against walls or fences - no matter which way they face - as long as they've got good light. For instance an apple or pear espalier or fan could produce at least 10-12 kg of fruit a year once established and there are many varieties that will grow even on a north facing wall. Any good book or catalogue will tell you which ones are most suitable for difficult places.
If you don't have a garden - many fruits will even grow in containers. For the price of just a couple of punnets of fruit - you could buy plants that will produce delicious and ever increasing crops for years! I Two of the most productive would be perpetual strawberries (of which my favourite is Albion - from Ken Muir's Nursery, and also Cape Gooseberries which you can grow cheaply from seed yourself. Both are happy in containers, easy to grow and full of healthy nutrients. So often the things we're told are good for us are hard work or hugely expensive - but getting some of your five a day is temptingly easy if you can just go and pick it outside the back door!
Instead of expensive and soil-fussy blueberries - blackberries are incredibly easy to grow - even in containers, not fussy about soil and are incredibly productive. They just don't have a massively funded 'Blackberry Council' to promote them like blueberries do! Although their antioxidant properties are almost as good - and you can afford to eat far more of them if you grow them yourself. We eat them every day here, they fill in all the air pockets in the freezer nicely in their large bags, thereby save energy too! How's that for super fast - super healthy, climate-friendly takeaway food? Wonderful that something so easy can be so good for us - and much fresher, far more nutritious and far cheaper when it's grown organically in your own garden. Unlike the chemically-grown, plastic wrapped and plastic tasting junk that's mostly available in shops - after travelling countless carbon-guzzling air miles across the globe at this time of year!
Why not make this the year you grow some of your own fruit. Or if you already do - then maybe try a new type of fruit you haven't grown before? - Then you'll be able to look forward to harvesting your own super-fresh, properly ripe, juicy deliciousness - free from any pesticides and fungicides! Just the way that Nature provided them for us to eat!
Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.