This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
April is the time to "shorten-in" your peach, apricot, and nectarine-trees, both for the sake of the fruit they will bear this season and the health and good condition of the trees. I suppose everybody understands the difference between shortening-in and common pruning. If not, I must make a long story 6hort by saying, that shortening-in is nothing more than cutting off the ends of the last year's shoots.
Suppose, for instance, the case of a young peach-tree just coming into bearing. The growth of last year consists of shoots, all over the outside of the head, or top of the tree, each shoot from ten to twenty inches long. Well, in the case of such a tree, I should shorten-in every shoot one-half - that is, I would cut off five inches of the end if the shoot is ten inches long, or ten inches if it is twice that length. If the tree has made but a moderate growth, then I would take off only a third; or the same if there is but a scanty store of blossom-buds. But if the tree is strong and healthy, and shows an abundance of blossom-buds, then half the length of the last year's shoot is not too much.* The fruit will be larger, you will have as many bushels, and the flavor will be much richer; and what is of great consequence, the constitution of the tree will not be impaired by overbearing.
In the case of large, or old peach-trees - especially if they have been neglected, or badly pruned - something must be done that will bring them within bounds again, and restore them to good condition. This, as I have satisfied myself, may be done by "heading-in," which is nothing else than cutting back the ends of the principal limbs - say from two to four feet - in order to make the tree throw out a new head of young, healthy bearing wood. Of course, this proceeding loses you the crop of fruit for this year; so, that if that is important, you must take one side of the tree this year, leaving the other side to bear, and next year head-in the other side. In this way I ha?e restored old apricot and peach-trees that were " given up by the doctors" as superannuated and worn out in service, to a pretty respectable condition of youth again; good at least for half a dozen years more.
* I mean, of all the strongest shoots. The weak ones may be left two-thirds their whole length.
It is the fashion nowadays, when the chemists and doctors wish to know what is to be done to help a plant or tree, to examine its ashes. It is, in truth, not a bad plan, and is evidently founded on the old doctrine that the new grows out of the old; "ashes to ashes and dust to dust." Exactly what the elements of the peach-tree ash are I don't know, for I have not been able to find any analysis; but I conclude they are pretty largely lime and potash, for I have found by repeated trials that wood-ashes is the very substance (along with sufficient manure in the soil, mind), to maintain a healthy, substantial, and productive habit in a peach-tree.
Don't be so foolish (as many persons are, when they are going to give an extraordinary relish of a new-fangled manure to a plant), don't be so foolish as to content yourself with sprinkling four or five handfuls of ashes around a peach tree and expect its leaves to turn color with a lease of new life. Take half a peck of leached ashes to a young tree, or half a bushel to a fall grown tree - in that proportion at least; put not a dust of it around the trunk (that is, so far as benefiting the roots go), but make a calculation with your eye of how far the roots of the tree spread; it may be two feet, it may be six feet every way from the trunk. Then, having satisfied yourself about where the greater part of the young fibres are, spread the ashes on the surface of the ground, over them, and turn it under about three inches with the three-pronged spud, or a light spade. If such treatment as this don't give you healthy trees, then your stock is radically diseased, and only worth a place on the wood-pile.
That little enemy, the peach-worm, will very likely have established himself in your trees; he is already there to a dead certainty if you are not wide awake to his sapping and mining habits. If, therefore, you have not been over your trees last fall, and got the upper hand of him for the next six months, altogether the best way of doing business with this gentleman is to Lynch him on the spot, by ferreting him out of his hole, in the neck of the tree, just below the surface of the ground. You can do this good turn for a peach-tree in five minutes, by lifting the soil around it two or three inches deep, laying bare the stem just between wind and water, as the old sailors say. If all looks clean and smooth there, very well; replace the soil again. If, on the other hand, you see gum, then look out for the enemy. Scratch a moment with your knife where the gum oozes out, and you will get on his trail; cut into the bark till you find him - in the shape of a white grub, three-quarters of an inch long - and when found, " make no note of it," but settle his accounts as rapidly as you can.
This grub comes from an egg laid in the bark, in summer, by the winged insect. Unless the creature is wonderfully abundant, it contents itself with looking about for the tender bark at the surface of the ground. On this account it is a good plan to outwit the rascal by heaping up a little cone or pile of wood ashes, tan or sand, say six inches high, around the trunk. The sole object of this is to guard the soft place in the bark at the neck of the tree. On this account you must clear away the pile every fall, so as to let the bark harden again. If you do not, but keep it there winter and summer, you will find that it does no more good than blowing against the wind - for the very plain reason that the bark becomes tender at the top of the pile, instead of the surface of the ground, as before.
Some years ago a good deal was said in favor of pouring boiling water about the neck* of peach-trees. It was said to kill the worms and do no harm to the tree. I am an advocate for this practice. I do not consider it, by any means, so thorough a means of ridding the tree of worms as "war to the knife" is, but still, it will in most cases do the job for them most effectually; and many a tree that stands near the kitchen door may be protected in this way by her who holds the kettle for a weapon, as well as by the " regular army" of practical gardeners.
Besides this, I have satisfied myself, by experiment (though I am sorry I have not yet had time to get up the theory), that a good dose of hot water is a means of bringing-to many a peach-tree just about giving up the ghost. It seems to rouse the vital powers; and if there is life enough left, a good scalding at the neck seems to produce a reaction that is at times quite wonderful.
Three years ago I had two trees, a peach and a favorite apricot, that had been failing for a couple of seasons - often thought before that very serviceable trees. They had been rather badly treated by the worm, to be sure, but that had been attended to in time, and the roots appeared to be in very fair condition. Still, the trees dwindled, looked sickly, and bore little or no fruit. As a desperate remedy, I resolved on a trial of hot water. I removed the soil directly round the neck of the tree, making a basin three inches deep and twenty inches across. Into this I poured twelve gallons of boiling water.
To my great satisfaction the trees, instead of dying, immediately pushed out vigorous shoots, took a healthy appearance, and made a fine growth of wood, and have since borne two crops of delicious fruit. I experimented last year again, with equal success, and now am ready, like old Dr. Sangrado, to prescribe hot water in all desperate cases. Yours, An Old Digger.