Plants with a pur­pose

Prun­ing a peach tree can be a test of a mar­riage but the re­sults are boun­ti­ful.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - Words Jenny Somervell

Lessons from a poor pruner on im­prov­ing your peach pro­duc­tion

We have bat­tled

for f al­most l t 10 years to t get t a peach h har­vest, thanks to our less-than-ideal cli­mate here in North Can­ter­bury.

But two shelves laden with pre­served stone fruit re­mind me of last sum­mer’s mir­a­cle.

“Are you still eat­ing them?” hus­band Ken re­minded me daily as he checked the bumper crop ripen­ing on our trees. “I’ll need the jars for the next lot soon!”

I gave it my best shot. But we hauled bucket af­ter bucket of peaches and nec­tarines off our trees for the sec­ond year in a row. There was a scurry to find enough jars.

Har­vest­ing fruit last year was a timely re­minder of why we need to prune. The high, up­ward-point­ing, fruit-bear­ing lead­ers at the top of the tree – which we had un­wisely failed to cut back – could only be picked by my tall hus­band on a lad­der at a stretch. I stood at the bot­tom, shout­ing in­struc­tions.

Up­ward and up­ward

Peaches reach for the sun. An un­pruned peach tree will quickly over­grow at the top, fruit­ing at the ex­trem­i­ties of long, un­reach­able branches, and pro­duc­ing weak, sparse growth in the lower frame­work.

If you want to be able to pick fruit eas­ily you need to keep the height down to en­cour­age fruit­ing lower down. How­ever, the trick is not too low. Low-hang­ing branches are a con­stant pain, ob­struct­ing the lawn­mower and path­ways around the gar­den.

Branch po­si­tion is im­por­tant too. On our trees, branches rubbed against each other, caus­ing dam­age. Branches on top of each other shaded fruit, re­sult­ing in some with a green­ish tinge that never ripened prop­erly.

Fruit that was too close to­gether on lat­er­als ei­ther failed to size up, or was blem­ished where the skins touched. Over­laden branches were stretched be­yond their bear­ing ca­pac­ity. One heav­ily-laden branch scraped so low, we had to wash dirt off the fruit be­fore eat­ing it.

The peaches could only be picked by my tall hus­band on a lad­der at a stretch. I stood at the bot­tom, shout­ing in­struc­tions.

One of the rea­sons we didn’t cut our trees back far enough was that I screamed too much when Ken made bold cuts. This was a big mis­take.

Over the years I have learned that it is hard to over-prune peaches and nec­tarines. They are the most for­giv­ing of trees and I needed to be too. Even if you botch it up – which we have done – you can fix your mis­take the fol­low­ing year.

In our first year of prun­ing, we set out with good in­ten­tions, armed with new se­ca­teurs and an ar­ray of prun­ing books.

Un­for­tu­nately, the in­struc­tions were con­flict­ing, lead­ing to neigh­bour-dis­turb­ing, time-con­sum­ing ar­gu­ments as we de­bated ev­ery cut. It is a strong mar­riage that can sur­vive prun­ing trees.

Eight years af­ter that first ar­gu­ment we are still to­gether, hav­ing sussed the ba­sics. We’re also see­ing the sat­is­fy­ing re­sults of our com­bined labour.

Each year, be­fore we start, we run over (and agree on!) the ba­sic prin­ci­ples:

• peaches and nec­tarines fruit on cur­rent wood only, so re­place­ment wood is needed each sea­son;

• stone­fruit are very sen­si­tive to shad­ing and need an open frame­work, al­low­ing for lots of light and air move­ment;

• we aim for a low, spread­ing tree with fruit­ing lat­er­als lower down.

We are both still fruit-fo­cused, but these days we are more re­laxed. We also di­vide the labour. Ken fo­cuses on de­vel­op­ing the frame­work and keep­ing the height down and I try to leave him to it. I fo­cus on prun­ing back old fruit­ing wood to en­cour­age new fruit­ing lat­er­als.

I’m also the hy­giene squad, clean­ing up the prun­ings and cov­er­ing any large cuts with prun­ing paste to avoid dis­ease.

When is the right time to prune?

The gen­eral con­sen­sus seems to be to avoid prun­ing stone fruit in win­ter.

Def­i­nitely don’t do it in wet con­di­tions, due to the greater risk of dis­ease such as sil­ver leaf, which en­ters through wounds.

Most sources rec­om­mend prun­ing af­ter fruit­ing in late sum­mer-au­tumn, when the weather is warm and dry. How­ever, we have also pruned in early spring.

New vig­or­ous shoots head­ing to­wards the mid­dle of the tree are best nipped out in sum­mer as they arise, be­fore they get too large.

The hardest part of own­ing a peach tree

I find thin­ning peaches dif­fi­cult. I want them all. It also feels ex­cep­tion­ally risky when the dom­i­nant nor’west winds we get can eas­ily blow most of a crop off the tree. We can lose the lot.

How­ever, un­der favourable con­di­tions, a peach tree will set far more fruit than it can carry to ma­tu­rity. About four weeks af­ter full bloom, thin the de­vel­op­ing peaches, leav­ing them about 15cm apart on the branches. The vol­ume of fruit will be the same, but the size and qual­ity will be much im­proved.

Our peaches ended up in the veg­etable gar­den when over­laden branches got too heavy.

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