Your guide to the dos and do nots for the season ahead.
Words & Photos Rachel Vogan
At the moment, most deciduous fruiting plants are sound asleep having a well-earned rest after the growing season. Now the ground is cold, it is the right time to be thinking about planting new deciduous fruit trees, such as apples, plums, peaches and pears. Commercial nurseries dig up these – and nut trees – over winter, while they are in their dormant growth phase.
Before planting any fruits, evergreen or otherwise, ensure you have the right place to plant whatever you choose to grow.
Right fruit, right place
Most fruit trees live in the ground for decades, therefore careful positioning is vital to ensure they have the room to grow to their full capacity. The essential basic requirements are full sun, protection from strong winds (none find it easy to hold on to fruit in gale force winds!) and moisture-retentive, nutrient-rich soil. Rainfall alone is not enough to establish fruit trees; a reliable source of moisture for the first couple of seasons is required.
If your soil is lacking in substance, improve it by adding compost, manure and/or possibly grit or sand, if drainage is poor. Otherwise, consider growing fruit trees in large tubs or wine barrels – in which case, dwarf hybrids are the best ones to plant.
Some trees, such as feijoas and olives, will cope in shallow soils, whereas larger nut, pip and stone fruit trees prefer deeper soils.
To prune or not to prune?
There is a common myth that all deciduous fruit trees need to be pruned in winter – this is not the case. Once established, fruit trees need shaping only every other year, depending on the type of tree. Do the homework on what your tree requires before you head outside with the pruning saw or secateurs. Poor pruning can remove all the fruiting wood for next season’s crops, which is heartbreaking, so arm yourself with knowledge before you make the first cut.
Winter is a brilliant time to get on top of numerous fungal and disease problems. Spraying at this time of year helps break the spore cycle of many fungal and disease issues that can overwinter in the ground, fallen leaves, old fruit and in the bark of trees. Winter oil and copper-based sprays are widely used, and both require a series of sprays to be effective. Follow the instructions carefully, especially when a second or third application is required– schedule yourself a reminder!
Winter fruit tips
Easy to manage, established pip fruit (apples, pears, quince, medlar and crab apple) can be pruned to shape and trained in winter. These crops fruit on the previous season’s wood (old branches), so be careful not to remove too much old wood. Aim to remove any excess upright growth to encourage fruit to be produced on the lower branches for an easier harvest.
Crab apples still look fabulous at this time of the year as they hang on to their fruits for such a long time. And while not many people eat them, for the winter garden they come into their own.
Leave the secateurs where they are for stone fruit (peaches, plums, apricots, cherries and nectarines). Winter is all about spraying, staking young trees and raking up any fallen disease-affected leaves.
Pruning should be done in summer, after the plants have finished fruiting. Winter pruning spreads spores of fungal diseases, such as silver leaf and other nasties.
Avoid planting new citrus over winter unless you have a sheltered spot or are choosing to grow your plants in containers. The plants will be actively supporting ripening fruit now. A light prune to allow more sunlight in could be helpful in mild areas, but avoid doing any pruning in cold areas until late spring.
In cold climates, protect citrus by covering with frost cloth or building a temporary shelter. Old outdoor umbrellas work well as citrus shelters.
Once plants have finished fruiting, pruning can commence. Feijoas are fast-growing fruits, therefore a prune every couple of seasons is beneficial to maintain size and shape in smaller gardens. The aim of pruning is to allow more sunlight into the plant and to reduce the size of the plant. Essentially, a bird should be able to fly through the middle of the tree easily.
The main winter task with olives is pruning – cut back to shape and limit the size of the plants. Letting more light into the centre of the plant will aid in fruit set. However, olives do not need to be pruned every year.
While figs do not need a lot of pruning, do so if the plants need to be limited in size. Remove any branches that cross over each other, along with any damaged or diseased wood. Snip off any suckers that appear around the base of the tree – these limit the development of fruit further up the tree. Sap may flow from the stems if the soil has started to warm.
Prune vines back each year to promote new fruiting branches. Cut the long stems back to four or five buds in winter and tie up any young new side branches you wish to train to be future fruiting arms. Pruning can be done as soon as the leaves have fallen.
If you’ve moved house and inherited a few fruits trees and have no idea how to get started, seek out help before picking up the tools. Either get an expert in to guide you for the first season or seek out information on how to shape the trees, depending on what they are.