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