Gardening: Peachy keen

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The Independent Online
An old pear dies ... time to plant a peach. Or should that be an apple?

Disaster has struck the old pear tree that grows against a west wall of the house, just to the side of the door through to the cobbled yard. It was one of the few good things in the garden when we arrived: a huge mad tree, trained against the wall in the shape of a giant T, with a cluster of ferns growing along the two generous arms that made the horizontal top. Now it's dead and I'm kicking myself that I never found out its name.

Why did it die? Well, I suppose it was honey fungus, endemic in old gardens. That has been responsible for the deaths of several other of our old fruit trees. The pear was probably weakened by the droughts of the last couple of years. And it was old. More than a hundred I would guess. Honey fungus, like pneumonia, always moves in on the weak and aged.

The sad thing is, we won't be able to plant another in its place. The cobbles and flagstones of the yard come right up to the trunk of the pear, so we would never be able to excavate much soil from the planting hole, or remove many of the old tree's roots. Fruit trees, like roses, never flourish if you replant them in soil where their doppelgangers have been growing. I'll miss it very much.

But there is space for a new fruit tree elsewhere - more specifically against the south wall of the kitchen garden, where a vine has been mouldering for some time. It takes up a lot of precious sunny space and the crops are uncertain. I also hate the mildew that affects the vine's leaves at this end of the season. Prompted by the memory of the home-grown peaches we had this summer, I've ordered another peach. The existing tree is `Peregrine', which has pale-fleshed, ludicrously juicy peaches, ripening in early August. This year I got to them before the wasps. `Duke of York' will be its partner, another pale-fleshed peach, which ripens by mid-July.

The disadvantage of growing peaches outside is the leaf curl which disfigures early foliage with hideous great blisters. Badly affected leaves drop off and a fresh set, unblistered, takes their place. But the process of having to leaf twice weakens the tree and, if you grow wall-trained peaches outside, you need to cover them with a tent of polythene between January and April. The spores of the fungus Taphrina deformans that cause the blistering are carried on to the tree by rain, which is why peaches grown under glass don't suffer from the problem. You can also spray against peach leaf curl, but the treatment is a preventative rather than a cure. That means you have to remember to spray regularly, once in the autumn just before leaf fall, and then twice more before the blossom comes out in spring. Use a fungicide such as Nimrod-T.

Trees already trained as fans are the easiest to manage against a wall, and in most places in Britain, peaches will need the warmth of a south- facing wall to ripen properly. First, fix eight bamboo canes against the wall, in an evenly spaced wide fan-shape. Plant the tree a little way out from the base of the wall, but sloping in towards it. Then tie the branches to the canes.

Like most pruning, it is easier to do if you understand why you are doing it. Peaches bear fruit on shoots that have been produced the previous season. So, for the best crops, you need to get rid of the old growths that this season's peaches have been borne on and tie in the new shoots that will carry next year's crop.

The bamboo canes give you a firm foundation on which to build the main branches of the peach tree. The fruit will form on the shoots springing from those branches, so, each year, you cut out old shoots and tie in new, keeping the whole framework tight against the wall. This makes the tree easier to manage, easier to cover (if you decide to do that) and helps the fruit ripen.

Peach trees grow quite easily from stones - any stones - but you can't depend on getting fruit as well-flavoured as the one the stone came from. And you'll have to train the seedling into a tree yourself. Initially, you need to bury the stone in a pot of compost and leave it outside during the winter. Frost breaks the seed's dormancy.

In March, bring the pot in and keep it in a greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill until the stone breaks into growth. Pot the seedling on until it is big enough to plant out in the open ground. A seedling peach should start fruiting within five years.

It's perhaps disloyal of me to be writing about peaches, natives of China, when today is Apple Day. Especially as apples are so much in decline as a commercial crop in this country. Over the last 10 years, apple orchards have decreased by a third. The Government even gives grants to grub them up. But why, when we currently produce only a third of the apples we eat? According to Common Ground, the environmental charity that organised the first Apple Day eight years ago, Britain is the second largest importer of apples in the world.

Paradoxically, an extraordinary number of apple varieties have been developed in this country over the last 300 years. Apples are classic "land-race" trees, that is, trees that have been selected and grown to withstand particular conditions in particular areas of the country.

`King's Acre Pippin' is a Herefordshire tree, dull green but richly aromatic, introduced in 1898. The `Claygate Pearmain' is a fine Surrey dessert apple, juicy and sweet, found growing in a hedge near Claygate by John Braddick in the 1820s. `Roundway Magnum Bonum', a distinctive apple tasting of pears, was raised in Wiltshire in the 1860s by a Mr Joy, head gardener at Roundway Park near Devizes. The wonder is, you can still get hold of these apples. Try Thornhayes Nursery, St Andrews Wood, Dulford, Cullompton, Devon EX15 2DF (01884 266746), Family Trees, PO Box 3, Botley, Hampshire SO3 2EA (01329 834812), Keepers Nursery, Gallants Court, Gallants Lane, East Farleigh, Maidstone, Kent ME15 0LE (01622 726465), J Tweedie Fruit Trees, Maryfield Rd Nursery, Maryfield, Nr Terregles, Dumfries, Scotland DG2 9TH (01387 720880).