This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
Wherever pruning has not been finished - and in many cases it was almost impossible to finish the work, as frost set in so early and was continuous - but for the sake of getting the trees finished, all kinds may now be cut to the necessary extent. Peaches and Nectarines are generally left to the end of the month, or March. Planting was cut short also by frost. We have at present some bundles of trees in soil by the roots, and protected with litter till ground is ready; but we prefer waiting till ground is dry enough and warmed by the sun, should it come in time. In some forest-planting we have the same consideration as with fruit-trees. Pruning of Apples in orchards may be done as early as possible. In the great fruit districts, there are men who are called pruners, some of whom do their work well; but too often the trees - all and sundry - receive the same amount of lopping. For Standards, open centres, and a total absence of crossing branches, are two important points: if ail is right, there will be no dead wood to cut out. Where there is dead wood and canker, it is a true sign the roots are in bad soil, far from the surface. Lifting or getting these feeders out of the unhealthy soil is the only remedy.
We would do it this season, late as it is, rather than have the evil increase by another season's delay. Dressing from the surface may be done with impunity: decoying the roots upwards to sun and air. All loose shoots, if such are to be found, should be cut in to form spurs. Cordons, whether on wires or along fences, simply require shortening back of the previous season's shoots; when they are very fruitful they require little manipulation. Some of the best fruit we have seen have been on Cordons by the edges of walks and borders; but "management" the whole season through has much to do with it. Bush-trees are easily managed. Cutting in as one would Currants, and keeping these dwarf trees about 4 feet high, and about 6 feet apart, is a very interesting sight; and great quantities may often be taken off a small piece of ground. Such Liliputian growth is more to give interest to amateurs who wish to get a good knowledge of the kinds. Apples may be trained on fences or buildings, either horizontally or perpendicularly, as is generally done with red and white Currants when they are to be netted up. What applies to Apples is generally suitable to Pears. The latter are more ready to form natural spurs, which are the best, and most likely to last longer than those cut in with the knife.
The finer kinds of Pears are less hardy than Apples, and do little without the aid of a wall, except in the more southern districts. Training on walls is an operation which is attended with good results when well done, and the roots kept healthy and near the surface. All the training and knife-work possible will never make fruitful trees when the roots are allowed to go down - away from sun and air. The spurs growing out from the walls may be cut off, and those growing on each side of the branch should be left; and they should never be allowed to become crowded. In northern districts the spurs should have the full benefit of the wall. The difference we have noticed by the close system is very remarkable. On walls many systems of training may be practised with good results. Horizontal, or taking shoots at right angles, and each placed about two or three bricks wide, is the system which gives least labour, and looks very neat. Fan-training is simply extending the branches to a given distance formed as a fan. They start close to the main stem of the tree, gradually widening, so that at the extreme points they may stand a foot or more apart.
We often have seen these shoots left a few inches apart; and the cultivators have wondered how they, year after year, show profusion of bloom, and never bear (scarcely) any fruit. The reply is simple enough: the fruit-buds are always so crowded by foliage up to late in the autumn, that they never ripen, and are consequently unprepared to fertilise their blossoms when they open. Let the roots of such trees have the influence of sun and air to form fibres, and every alternate branch cut out, and we have no fear of fruiting. We once had the charge of a splendid wall of trees, which were all loaded every year, many seasons running. They were got into fine shape and size by a skilful predecessor; and we lifted them piecemeal, mulched the surface with good manure, cut off long spurs, tied others close to the wall, and the result was a great change of fruit, both in appearance and quality. It is useless to suppose that attention to these items once is to be a permanent success. They must be examined yearly, and receive what is to keep them healthy and in bearing condition.
Plums, like Pears, can be trained in any form, but they are very often found fan-shaped; but seldom are these or any stone-fruits found well trained (even where they are in healthy bearing condition), but spread over the walls to cover the space without any proper system. We prefer laying them out similiar to Pears, with leading shoots from the trunk to the full extent, with short side shoots and natural spurs from base to top. The centres are cut back to about half the length of the side shoots to give the necessary branches to fill up the whole tree ; but it is long since we discontinued cutting back so closely. A tree when at its full size should bear fruit to the base - the two lower branches being horizontal, about a foot from the ground.
Pyramid Plums may be pruned and treated as Apples and Pears; but as with all stone-fruits, they like very firm soil and plenty of lime or chalk in it. Pruning should be mostly done during the growing season: little should be left till winter; but dead spurs and those coming out from the walls should be cut off, and old shoots getting past use should be replaced by young growths. Plums trained upright or horizontal form may be spurred like Pears, every season renewing some exhausted portion of the tree. Cherries are often liable to canker; and they are the worst of trees to cure of the malady. They do not lift so easily; it is best to watch them from their very early stages, working in lime-rubbish to the soil near the roots. They must be well cut back in their centres, as it is difficult to get wood to fill up a tree evenly. They may be managed easily on the close spur system. Standard Cherries bear abundantly in some localities, but it is often difficult to preserve the fruit from birds. In the Cherry orchards which supply London Market, powder and shot are freely used, and the "pickers" go over the trees, taking the fruit as they ripen.
Cherries grown on walls are high-class fruits compared with Standards. Morello and Kentish Cherries should have extra firm soil, strong, and free from manure. They bear on the young wood formed the previous season; cutting the shoots in to form spurs does not answer well: if natural spurs are formed they are fruitful. The wood should be short-jointed and firm, whether on Standard trees or those trained to walls and fences. It is a mistake to suppose that a north wall is essential for these. The best we have seen were on the front of a house among other buildings: they are, however, often very fine on north walls. Apricots are often fickle to deal with: as one expects them about their best they often die off piecemeal - sometimes the half of the tree at a time. When planting, the subsoil should be examined; if it is cold and unhealthy, a layer of concrete should be placed over the soil under the roots, then a layer of brick and lime-rubbish. The trees in most situations should be planted high. When gross sappy growth is observed in the growing season, these should be topped as they grow; lifting the roots in due time.
The pruning may be performed as recommended for Plums. Peaches and Nectarines may remain untied till March, keeping the bearing-shoots from the walls - keeping these late has much to do with their success. All trees should be free from moss, American blight, scale, or any other insects: a washing with Gishurst compound, using a brush, may be necessary. Moss may be scraped off and the bark coated with lime. Trees about being planted should have wide holes, good loam, and proper mulching for the roots. Rasps, Currants, and Gooseberries should be planted in deep, well-manured soil; the first named in a cool position. M. T.