Spring is an exciting time of year in the garden. But, in the orchard, this is the time when we get to see what kind of crop we will have for the whole year! During winter pruning we get an idea about where the fruit will be located, based on the position of fruiting spurs on many species. Then we have to wait for the spurs to show what they’ve got by flowering. Once the flowers are out, we are hoping that the bees and other pollinators haven’t forgotten where we live. As the blooms begin to fade, we are like expectant parents, impatiently waiting to see the tiny progeny. Everything we have put into place to give our precious trees a wholesome and nourishing environment, is delivering our report card. At shuck split we see what we have. The more the merrier, right?
Not so fast! When we finish patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, we need to plan carefully for the care and feeding of our sweet babies. Could we be looking at too much of a good thing? Are we asking our noble fruit trees to take on an impossible task, as we imagine each tiny fruit growing into a juicy, sweet, fragrant behemoth? Fun to eat and easy to process, every orchardist wants the bragging rights that come with big fruit. Oh, and perfection would be nice too. We want our produce to be large and perfect just like the ones in the high priced bin at the grocery store. Is that possible in a backyard garden?
As I was growing up, my Mother told endless stories of life on the farm. Picking pickles… not fun; catching grasshoppers… not bad; but, thinning the fruit trees… was high class work! Years of watching Grandpa and being tutored at his elbow gave her the confidence and skills to know how and when to edit the crop. Our family farm had a reputation to uphold: We always brought grade A, fancy fruit to market. The folks wouldn’t have it any other way. Our family had innumerable tricks for pruning and fertilization, but after those good practices, it came down to choosing the heroes, one fruit at a time. And in that bygone era, the undistracted focus of a child was perfect for the job. So, my mother and some of her siblings spent many spring and summer days, quietly contemplating the merits of one tiny fruit versus its companions in the clump.
What’s so tricky about that, you might ask? Just pick the best looking, biggest fruit and tear the rest of them off! Well, yes and no. Let’s flip that paradigm on its back. The children were actually looking for the smallest, weakest, possibly blemished fruit in the clump. And, unless you are psychic, how do you know what the fate of the others will be? A hungry beast may get past all of your careful preventions and take a nice bug-sized bite out of the fruit that you chose as the hands down hero! What then? And while we are at it, let’s be careful out there. When we remove embryonic fruit, it must be done in a gingerly fashion. Pretend you have the sharp vision and small hands of a child. An old friend, whose family owned a large apple orchard, had a favorite saying that he used for anything and everything: “Treat ‘em like eggs!” He was talking about apples, of course. But, it works for all fruit.
On the first visit to the orchard for thinning, take the weakest fruits and leave the others, provided they are not crowding each other, and let them develop just a little longer. If you have a bumper crop, you can take as many as half, but thin every other one, not taking half from just one side. In the next thinning, take a few more. Over time you will see that even a very vigorous tree will do some thinning of its own. And the innumerable predators who seek after the fruit will have their way with some others. You will eventually make the final choice of which will be destined for the fancy fruit bowl… all in good time.
Now, a word about peaches: We all love the sweet scent of ripe peaches. In most places they, and their close friends, the plums and cherries, are the first fruits of summer. Peaches have a tendency to fall into a pattern of bumper years and fallow years. Hard pruning is the only way to deal with this aspect of a wonderful plant. Remember that the fruit trees we grow in our orchard today are not the plants they were before we began tinkering with them. Ages of selection have changed their lives. Imagine a pack of wolves standing next to the finalists at the dog show. These two are as different as a crap apple and a Pink Lady! Treat them as the pedigreed princesses that they are!
If you did not get around to pruning your peach tree last Winter, you do not have to sit there and watch your lovely tree drooping and likely cracking limbs under the weight of a huge crop. The only solution at this time of year is to do some shortening of the longer branches first. Then go in and do a thinning so drastic that it makes you feel like a gardener gone crazy. This must be done to get a useful crop. But, more importantly, it must be done to save your tree. Peach trees are short lived, so proper pruning from transplant, and every year thereafter, is vital to raising a tree with a good structure. An overloaded tree can turn a thick, healthy limb into a tragic, cracked off mess, fit only for the brush pile.
When you walk outside to visit your fruit trees, you are one of the luckiest people on the planet. One way or another they chose you to be the keeper of their magic, and will thank you with their precious fruits. Oh? You thought it was the other way around. Check out the book Botany of Desire: A Plants-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollan. Then decide who chose whom. I know it’s a marriage made in heaven.