In the garden

A fruit tree where the spacing of buds is about right.

A fruit tree where the spacing of buds is about right.

Fruit trees need attention all year, but the rapid growth and fruit setting in spring brings extra needs.

This year, Fanny Lobry, from Lyon, France, is helping us with the orchard fruit thinning, having spent the past month in Young working for Greg Brooke-Kelly, who is the main supplier of organic stonefruit (cherries, peaches and nectarines) and prunes into Canberra.  Lobry is  doing three months of rural work to secure a second year of a working holiday visa. She has probably served readers while training at the Boathouse restaurant, and is keen to ecure a sponsorship to stay longer.

Every spring, we wonder how good the fruit set will be, as you can never predict how many blossoms will set fruit. If everything goes well, you might need to remove 60 per cent to 80 per cent of your apples and 50 per cent to 60 per cent of stonefruit to ensure good size. Heavy frosts in late winter will often do most of the heavy lifting for you, as happened this year with our apricots and plums. This can be heartbreaking when all of the white blossoms shrivel up and the buds fall to the ground two weeks later. Most of our apricot tree branches are carrying just a few marble-sized fruits now, but they will be premium size.

Fanny Lobry.

Frenchwoman Fanny Lobry helping out in the orchard.

If the season brings average weather, the volume of fruit on a tree is the biggest determinant of the size of fruit at harvest. Excess fruit will compete for the supply of carbohydrates, so all the fruit will be small. Large volumes one season can also lead to no fruit the next year – alternate bearing is a real problem with varieties of apples, such as golden delicious, fuji and royal gala.

For many home gardeners, it is so hard to remove even one little peach or apple from a tree, but when you thin fruit you are taking care of the tree, preventing branches breaking and opening up the air flows which is important for drying after rain.

Peaches and nectarines often require the heaviest thinning. My brother Colin, who lives near Cowra, removed more than 1 000 peaches off one tree in a good season, and the remaining 600 to 700 were big and juicy at the harvest.

Fully grown apple trees can produce three to four cases of apples regularly with care (larger varieties have 80 to 100 in a 15- kilogram case; smaller sized apples might have 110 to 120 in a case. In the early 1950s , Charlie Butt's orchard along Spring Range Road had an enormous granny smith apple tree that produced a record 15 cases of fruit.

Well-established European can also set a lot of fruit, and as pears become very heavy it is important to thin well.

Thin fruit when it is only thumb-nail size. Thinning before will mean you are inspecting too many blossoms that have not actually been fertili sed; they will wither and drop off naturally after a couple of weeks. Stonefruit should be thinned by the end of October before they get bigger than 2.5 centimetres. But if you haven't done it, it is still worthwhile to do it now.

Apples and pears are best thinned over November, four to six weeks after full bloom when you can see what has set. Asian pears should be heavily thinned now, otherwise your nashi and ya pears will not grow and you will have a harvest of hundreds of tiny, useless fruits.

Tips for thinning

Check the thickness of a branch when deciding how vigorously to prune it. A new, very small branch is likely to break under the weight of many fruit a month before harvest. Remove the smallest fruit and any that are deformed.

With stonefruit, don't leave two fruit buds side by side and touching – they would become distorted by growing against each other. Remove any fruit buds sitting in the fork of two branches.

On peach, nectarine, plum and apricot trees, leave fruit alternating on both sides of the branch. Allow about a hand width ( seven to 10 centimetres) between each. If the fruit cultivar is early maturing, leave a little more space.

Pome fruit trees have a different flowering system. Like cherry trees, they put out clusters of flowers. Apple trees can regularly set five to eight apples a cluster. Where you have fruit on short spurs, leave just two or three fruit on each. On a long branch, thin most heavily at the growth end.

Take care when thinning, as you are working in the zone that will produce fruit in following years – any damage to the bud base could have consequences. Use either a good, sharp, sterili sed pair of secauteurs or a strong thumbnail to cut through the stem of the apple or pear, not damaging the base.

Newly planted trees, especially on dwarf rootstock, should have all fruit removed in the first year after planting. This allows the tree to channel all its energy into developing its roots and branches.

While you are thinning, remove any watershoots that are coming up from the rootstock. As well, if the middle of the tree (especially apples) has become very crowded, you can thin mid-season to allow in more air and light.

Young stonefruit trees should be able to carry 50 to 150 remaining fruit after three years in the garden. Apple trees could carry 25 to 40 apples after three years. But do not be disappointed if a young apple or pear is still not carrying fruit two or three years after planting. Sometimes pear trees can take up to five years from to produce a crop. After 20, the harvest will be huge.

>> Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.


In the garden

• Transplant leek and celery seedlings into a prepared trench row so the soil can later be hilled up. Transplant kohlrabi and celeriac seedlings, basil and coriander.

• Plant eggplant and capsicum plants into the garden but keep covered with inverted pots (or homemade bottle cloches) while night temperatures remain below 10 C.

• Plant seeds for silverbeet, beetroot, carrots, radish and parsnips. Thin out earlier carrot plantings to allow the strongest plants space for growing.

• Intercrop fast-growing cos and open lettuces in a new garden of leeks or sweet corn and harvest before th e main plants need the space.

• Citrus trees can be established in the garden now. Buy young trees with healthy foliage. Plant in a sunny location on the north side of a garden or house wall for later frost protection, or plant into a larger ceramic pot.

• If aphids arrive on the new shoots of roses or on the leaves of stonefruit, remove by rubbing them off with your thumb. If they become a bigger problem, apply a soap spray every few days for two weeks.

• Aim to plant out remaining seed potatoes. Hill up to protect the newly forming chits from being exposed to sunlight, which would turn them green and make them poisonous.