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.
The present month is generally a period of much anxiety among fruitgrowers, especially to those who make it a business and who in a great measure depend on the crops for their living. In this vast fruit-growing district it is a matter of great moment to have a fine fruit-crop. The present season, being a month later than what we have experienced for some years past, gives a substantial hope of abundance; and it is hardly possible that the trees could be heavier loaded with fruit-buds; but such promise is not very desirable with trees which are weakly and exhausted; a heavy clothing of blossom often meaning a great portion of the embryo fruit perishing. The finely-ripened wood and lateness are, however, much in favour of plenty. Where trees are under careful manipulation as regards thinning, their chances are two to one against the slovenly matted system not uncommon with the "penny-wise" cultivators. We have had some favourable opportunities of noticing what may be expected from the tree this year.
Taking a ride southward through the Evesham district, and some others, where fruit and vegetable growing are on an extensive scale, the former could not look more promising, while the latter never looked more wretched; and the cold easterly winds and falling snow as at present (April 12th) do not give "sweet solace" to market-growers of vegetables. With ourselves there is not much to complain of, beyond the loss of about 2000 Broccolis and the extreme lateness of growth. Frost about 6° to 7° each night at present, I fear, will cripple the Pear buds, especially those kinds which open early. Trees on walls may be protected in a measure, but standards, pyramids, and bushes in the open gardens and orchards can have little done for them.
During May there is such a pressure of work in gardens, that the disbudding of trees and general attention they require are overlooked and postponed. To be successful with fruits (as indeed with most other cultural matters), the adage, "delays are dangerous," must have full consideration, especially where insects take up their summer quarters. These pests should have "prevention" in practice against them previous to the fruit-buds opening. The wall trees, or trees in orchards, etc, if they can be managed so, may be gone over with a liquid, such as Gishurst's compound, which is known to be destructive to them, and which should be syringed lightly over the surfaces. Walls that have long been subject to the barbarous method of "nailing;' and "unnail-ing " are always good retreats for insect life, and they ought to have extra attention in keeping vermin from increasing in them. Soft soap (about half-a-pound or so to a gallon of water), with a quantity of tobacco juice to well colour it, will keep them in check, but it must be used as a " preventive," as, when the black or green aphis get into the developing foliage, they are soon shielded from all washes and liquid poisons, and remain curled up in the leaves till their work of destruction is completed.
Newly-planted trees should be secure against wind and drought. Mulching, if not attended to before, should be done without delay. Watering may be necessary on dry sandy soils and in dry positions, but the practice is not to be put in force when it can be avoided. Pond water, or that which has been exposed to sun and air, should be used when it can be had. For appearance' sake a little clean soil may be thrown over mulching, leaving the surface somewhat flat to receive rain.
Disbudding may now require careful attention. The system of doing it all at once and "done with it" is worse than not doing it at all, especially if the weather should be warm during the day and followed by frost or cold winds at night: fruit and trees suffer alike under such barbarous treatment. Apples, as dwarfs or espaliers, may be gone over, and any shoots taking the lead, at same time robbing other parts of the tree, may be nipped back or rubbed off. The newly-planted trees are better in every way when their growths are regulated in summer and the future main shoots decided on. Quantity of shoots is not the point to be aimed at, but those well placed at equal distances from each other, and plenty of room to develop the foliage and allow the fruits to have sun and air. To have finely-trained espalier Apples the shoots should be trained as they grow, securing those best placed, keeping them straight and equal in distance from each other. The same applies to Pears; those on walls require very frequent attention. If the lower buds are suffering from the advantage taken by the " leaders," the latter ought to be stopped so that the former may improve themselves.
Branches trained too thickly, spurs allowed to become matted and densely crowded, are common evils among Pears, and the trees thus cast their fruit-buds or refuse to swell fruit if they should set. Apricots will now be swelling where they have set freely, and careful disbudding of the trees is necessary, so that the fruit may not be unduly exposed to the inclemency of the weather. Much severe frost, hail, and cold rains may be experienced during May. Commence by rubbing off the shoots growing straight from the tree, and stopping those which are taking too much of the lead. Apricots are very impatient of the knife, and should have little pruning left to be performed during winter. This and a thoroughly firm soil composed largely of lime are two items very conducive to keeping Apricot trees in health; late ripening of wood and much winter cutting are evils which strongly lead to canker taking place with these trees. Cherries are best treated on the spur system; they can be trained into any form, but, like Apricots, they must have the greater part of the necessary pruning done during the growing season. Morello Cherries are best when much left to themselves, kept carefully from crowding, and the knife used only as a necessary evil.
Peaches and Nectarines must be disbudded with much caution, as the present crop as well as the future health of the tree may be much impaired by wholesale stripping. The trees and crop are by no means safe from severe weather - sharp weather may yet be expected - the foliage is nature's covering, and it is quite necessary that it should not be unduly removed. First remove any out-growing shoots clean from the trees, looking carefully for any leaders which may be robbing the tree; stop them before they grow much - this will speedily equalise the growth, without checking the trees; choose the shoots which are to form the bearing wood of next year; they should be from the base of the old shoots, and closely laid in. When they are tied straight and neatly now they are more easily managed at the winter pruning. A little done often to the trees is conducive to success, and one who is experienced in the work can go over a great space in one day.
Figs now being uncovered and tied to their places will show what fruit they are likely to produce. The greatest evil we see with respect to these in three-fourths of cases is the persistence in crowding them to the walls; some may be seen plaited and twisted like hedges. Where such is in practice it is no wonder that thin crops on the ends of some shoots which have been liberated are the only fruit seen in five seasons out of six. Whether Figs are spurred, or an annual replacing of wood is the system on which they are grown, signifies little, but it is certain that in either case they will not succeed when crowded on the walls. A neighbour who grows immense quantities in orchard-houses prunes annually as he does his Black Currants, leaving the trees open in centres, and otherwise well thinned. The quantity of Figs which this cultivator gets annually on walls is enormous; and it is there, especially under glass, that the finest Figs in the country are had. We prefer the practice between spurs and young wood annually laid in and cut out, but indeed these shoots are so short and stiff that they are little else than spurs, and always bear abundantly.
All should be kept close to the wall, neat and orderly, and when at any time the trees take to growing excessively, careful examination of the roots will show that some are going down into colder soil. These may be removed and a mixture of bones, brick-rubbish, and soil rammed firmly underneath the roots; fibre will then be plentiful, and there will be no fear of plenty of fruit. If shoots start freely into growth and no fruit attached to their base, they may be rubbed off to let them break further back, and some dormant buds may push fruit. It is always of importance to keep the trees close to the walls when they are planted, with the view of being benefited by the bricks and mortar. In some warm southern districts Figs are treated more like orchard trees, and allowed to grow as they like. We have seen this answer well in Sussex and in the Isle of Wight, but it would be folly to try it in northern districts. In gardens this has a slovenly appearance. Stopping of Figs induces fruitfulness: the top pressed at every fourth leaf gives sturdy fruit-bearing wood.
Currants and Gooseberries may require stopping of leading shoots. Though these are generally left to themselves, a little care, especially with young vigorous bushes, amply repays the little labour expended. The centres thinned out a little to shape the bushes, and leaders prevented from robbing the other portions of the bushes, are their chief wants in summer pruning. The same applies to those against fences. Caterpillar may be seen on Gooseberries, and should be either hand-picked or dusted with white Hellebore powder while the bushes are damp: the powder mixed with water and syringed over the bushes answers well. Strawberries may be planted from the stock which have been forced, or from the store beds. The plants made firm at root and well watered will give little trouble afterwards.
In the orchard house, stopping and thinning of shoots, gradual thinning of fruit, careful watering and syringing, increasing the supply of air as the season gets warmer, fumigating and dusting with tobacco powder to prevent insects establishing themselves, are the chief wants in this department. M. T.