This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", 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 cultivation of this much-prized fruit does not receive the general attention that its value demands. This may in most cases be accounted for by the amount of trouble that is necessary, not only at the time of blossoming, to protect the blooms from frost, and at the ripening season to protect the fruit from the ravages of birds, etc, but also from the fact, that in late, low, and damp localities the fruit seldom attains maturity, or, if it does, it is often small and of inferior flavour. This, in my opinion, ought not to be a barrier to its more general cultivation, but should incite us to endeavour to assist nature by some simple artificial means, whereby the difficulties may in a measure be overcome. That the Apricot will not stand any great amount of forcing, more especially during the early part of its growth, is well known; yet it has been found that artificial means, judiciously applied, havein many cases proved "father to a crop" where failure before "had held supreme sway." I hope to be able to show that outdoor cultivation in even bad localities is not incompatible with a good and well-ripened crop of Apricots.
Apricots have been classified by various writers, but to Mr Thompson must again be awarded the palm for having given us in his 'Gardeners' Assistant,' at once the best, most complete, and easiest understood of all which have come within the range of my observation. He has divided them into two classes - the first, those with kernels bitter; the second, those with kernels sweet.
Division 1. Fruit small, round, early; flower small. Division 2. Fruit large. This division is further subdivided into - 1. Channel of the stone closed up, flesh parting from the stone. 2. Channel of the stone closed up, flesh adhering to the stone. 3. Channel of the stone pervious.
Division 1. Flesh parting from the stone. Division 2. Flesh adhering to the stone.
I would first treat of the propagation of the Apricot, which may be done in one of three different ways - viz., by seed, budding, and grafting. Mr Thompson, in the 'Gardeners' Assistant,' states: "There are some sorts which reproduce themselves with considerable exactitude from the stone, and are accordingly propagated in that way. The Moor Park is one of these, . . . and it and several others are frequently raised from seed by the French." We have no experience of this ourselves, but from the above work, and books on French fruitgrowing, it would appear to be a favourite practice, followed with considerable success, on the Continent. It is to be noticed, however, that none of these authors are prepared to state that trees so produced are in all respects the same as the parents; so that, if particular varieties are wanted, the best and surest plan is to have recourse to budding, which is preferable to grafting. If new varieties are wanted, then seed is the only way to obtain them. As formerly directed, care must be exercised in protecting the blooms when the pollen is ripe, so that there may be no chance of impregnation taking place save with the varieties intended by the cultivator.
For particulars regarding this, I refer the reader to the articles upon "The Pear" in the volume for last year, where he will find the matter fully discussed. Seed should in all cases be saved from young, healthy trees, the stones being selected from the finest and ripest of the fruit. They may be sown in a well-prepared border, moderately rich, with old Mushroom-dung, or, what is perhaps better, rotten leaf-mould. If the latter is used, one-third of the whole may be composed of it. The bottom of a wall having a south or east exposure will answer the purpose very well. The stones may be placed in lines 1 foot apart, and 2 or 3 inches between each: 1 1/2 or 2 inches is a good depth to place them, and if severe or protracted frost should set in during winter, they must be protected in some way. If all goes on well, the following autumn the seedlings will be ready for transplanting into more permanent quarters. This operation may take place in the month of September, and it has been recommended that the taproot should be shortened back, for the obvious reason of causing the roots to spread out nearer the surface, thus preventing a coarse habit of growth, and the penetration of the roots down into the bad subsoil.
Two feet between the rows, and one foot from plant to plant, will be good distances. As the young trees grow they will require to be regularly shifted, giving them more room at each removal if they are intended to be proved upon their own roots. As this would incur considerable labour, as well as several years' delay, by far the better plan is to take one or two of the best buds off each seedling, and have them budded upon a good, old, healthy tree; and the probability is, that the seedlings may all be proved before they are three years of age. Those not considered worthy may then be tossed away, those worthy of further trial may be retained and carefully looked after. When this is being done, care should be taken to have every seedling numbered, and a duplicate should accompany the buds, so that no mistakes may arise.
The stocks in general use for dwarf-trained Apricots are the Mussel and common Plum, and for those intended for tall standards, or riders, the St Julien is said to be the best, on account of the fine straight stem it produces. In France, the latter stock, as well as Damas Noir and Cerisette, are in very general use. The stocks for this purpose should in all cases be raised from seed, as experience has proved that where suckers had been used the tree was never so healthy as from seed. Trees from suckers are far more liable to exude gum, and are not so long-lived as seedlings. The time for budding the Apricot depends entirely upon circumstances and situation. In the south of England it may be done as early as the middle of June, while in the more remote districts of Scotland it may be the middle of August before all things are in proper condition for the operation. The best rule to be laid down is, that the operation will be performed with the best chance of success when the wood is approaching maturity, the bud and wood parting freely the one from the other. As the wood and flower-buds resemble each other somewhat at this period, they should be selected with care, for the labour will be in vain should flower-buds be inserted.
Wood-buds are always long and tapering, while flower-buds are more plump and of a roundish form. Various modes of budding may be employed with success, but the simplest, and perhaps the best, is the shield-budding, which has already been explained in these papers. It is of the greatest importance to look regularly over the buds once a fortnight or so, to see that none of the ligatures are too tight; and if so, have them loosened. There is nothing more likely to sow the seeds of disease in the young tree than to allow the ligatures to remain upon the buds until the stock has become marked or cut thereby.
Grafting is a mode of propagating the Apricot that is seldom had recourse to under ordinary circumstances. Where necessity may compel its adoption, the best and surest mode is whip-grafting. In the case of old trees this will be considered almost an impossibility, when it is known that success cannot be depended upon unless recourse is had to the earthing-up process - that is to say, earth must be drawn up over the stock and graft much in the way that it is done to vegetables. The stock ought to be cut over in winter, when the trees are dormant; and the scions should also be procured about this time - at all events, not later than the first week in February. The best and firmest shoots should be selected for this purpose, and if one inch of the scion is of two-year-old wood, the greater will be the chance of success. About the middle of March is a good time to perform this operation, but circumstances alone can be the guide. The Apricot, however, breaks into active growth at a much earlier period of the spring than any other fruit which I have already alluded to, and as a rule we may say that the operation should be performed two or three weeks earlier upon it than upon either the Pear or Apple. As soon as the operation is finished, the soil may be drawn up as already hinted, so as to cover over the clay that surrounds the graft.
This is of much advantage to the scion, and facilitates the union. The soil, being drawn up in this fashion, serves the double purpose of excluding the air and keeping both stock and graft in a more favourable condition than if fully exposed to the drying and withering influences of sun and atmosphere. Unions are thus often formed by grafting where it would be impossible without the aid of earthing-up. Stocks that are intended to produce dwarf fan-trees ought to be worked at a height of about 10 to 12 inches from the ground, whereas those intended for riders should be worked at heights varying from 4 to 6 feet. Some cultivators have adopted a system of rebudding for the avowed purpose of obtaining dwarf trees; that is to say, they bud upon a dwarf stock, and again bud upon the last inserted bud the following year. This, no doubt has the desired effect, but unless the walls are under the average height it will not be necessary. Where the wall is below 8 feet in height, I might recommend a trial of the system for curiosity and information's sake, as it is a well-known fact to all practical men that it is not an easy matter to keep young vigorous trees within such bounds, without using the knife more freely than is really good for them.
(To be continued).