Looking peachy: Growing peaches and nectarines can be a battle against the elements but it's worth the effort

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The Independent Online

For the past two weeks, I have been on a publicity tour in the US, zooming through time zones faster than a character in Doctor Who. Sleep doesn't come easy in these conditions and in a dozen different beds I have passed the dark hours, not counting sheep, but working my way round the blooms on our new nectarine tree. Sheep have never seemed to me good companions for an insomniac. The wretches keep getting tangled up in briars, or sticking their heads irretrievably through wire fences – in other words, doing all the things that sheep do in real life. The advantage of the nectarine flowers is that they stay still.

I tried nectarines once before in our old rectory garden, where I planted the variety 'Lord Napier' on the south-facing wall of the kitchen garden. This was a proper old walled garden, which over a period of 40 years we gradually brought into full production. I planted all the walls there with fan-trained fruit: peaches, nectarines, apricots, greengages, pears. The gages and pears did beautifully, but the nectarines and peaches suffered terribly from peach leaf curl. I knew they might. Covering the trees in the early part of the year is the best defence, but in that garden, there was never enough time (or money) to do all the things I knew I ought to be doing.

So one of the main aims of building the greenhouse in our new garden (I wrote about the house itself earlier this year) was to provide the perfect growing conditions for a peach or a nectarine. They don't need heat, but they do appreciate the protection of glass, partly to keep away the spores of the fungus that causes the debilitating leaf curl, partly to shelter the blossom, which comes very early in the season. Unfortunately, I only had room for one tree which, fan-trained, will eventually take up the whole of the back wall of the greenhouse. It faces west, which is ideal, and is about 3.75m (12ft) across and 2.5m (8ft) high. Both peaches and nectarines are self-fertile, so a solitary tree, if properly pollinated, will not be a barren one.

For a while, the nectarine was racing neck and neck in my imagination with an old, white-fleshed variety of peach called 'Peregrine'. But then, last summer, while wandering around an old walled garden with the gardener in charge, I was given a 'Lord Napier' nectarine to eat, warm from the greenhouse wall. The decision was made. I wanted another moment like that, standing with juice running down my chin and the ambrosial taste lingering on the tongue.

So last autumn, the nectarine was ordered (£27.75) from Frank Matthews' superb nursery in Worcestershire. I picked it up and drove it home in triumph, for it was a beautiful tree, fan-trained, with six pairs of branches curving out from the trunk. We'd already got parallel wires stretched out 24cm (9in) apart all the way up the back wall. And we'd dug out a border 60cm (2ft) wide all along its foot. The tree roots can go right down into proper earth, for we broke up all the concrete under the border and filled it with barrowloads of our own compost.

The tree came into bright pink bloom just before I went away and, playing bee (it was still too cold for insects to be on the wing) I whisked around the flowers with a soft paintbrush, transferring pollen from flower to flower. I've never done this before and it's a wonderfully absorbing task. It's too early to know whether any fruit has actually set, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

'Lord Napier' is one of the earliest of nectarines, generally ready by the first week of August, when the cheek facing the sun mottles with red overlaid on the cream skin. It's an old variety, raised by Thomas Rivers at his famous nursery at Sawbridgeworth, Herts in 1860, but still good enough, 150 years on, to gain an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

The tree, bearing flowers but no foliage when I left for the States, has now leafed up and it is a relief to know I won't have to watch again the painful blistering that is the first sign of leaf curl. The spores of the fungus Taphrina deformans that cause the blistering are carried on to the tree by rain, which is why nectarines and peaches grown under glass don't suffer from the problem. When I grew them outside, the blistered leaves used to drop off and a fresh set, unblistered, eventually took their place. But the process of leafing twice weakened the trees and, outside, they never prospered. You need to cover outside trees in a tent of polythene between January and April, or spray with fungicide. Or both.

If you are spraying, remember that the treatment is a preventative rather than a cure. That means you have to spray regularly, once in the autumn just before leaf fall, and then twice more before the blossom comes out in spring. Inside the greenhouse, I won't have to bother.

Against a wall, trees trained as fans are the easiest to manage and, when I picked it up from the nursery, our nectarine was already neatly tied to a triangular frame of bamboo. We'll fix our own fan of bamboo canes against the wall, so that the main branches of the tree can be tied in to create a firm framework.

Pruning fruit trees seems complicated if you read about it in a manual. But it's easier to manage if you first understand why you are doing it. Nectarines (and 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 have borne this season's peaches and tie in the new shoots that will carry next year's crop.

The bamboo canes will give a firm foundation on which we can build the main branches of the nectarine. The fruit will form on the shoots springing from those branches, so each year, we'll have to cut out the old shoots and tie in the new, keeping the whole framework tight against the wall. This makes the tree easier to manage and helps the fruit ripen. With stone fruit, you prune in summer, not winter. Winter cuts too often lead to canker and the disease known as silver leaf.

I'm not too fussed about the pruning, as I learnt a lot about that over the years I was growing trained trees in the old rectory garden. Mostly I'm thinking about correct feeding and watering. Outside, you don't have to worry too much about that, but the old gardener who fed me that 'Lord Napier' nectarine warned me that, under glass, they are thirsty creatures, thirstier than peaches.

I'll mulch the border well each year in early spring and add some high potash feed, such as Tomorite, when I'm watering during summer. George Bunyard in The Fruit Garden (1904) goes into wonderful detail about guano-water, soot-water and other little treats necessary for a successful harvest. Certainly, I can do the soot. Guano would be trickier. Would our nectarine notice if it got chicken droppings instead?

Nectarines (and peaches) 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 wait at least six years to get it. For a faster, more reliable result, try a specialist nursery. Frank Matthews is at Berrington Court, Tenbury Wells, Worcs WR15 8TH, 01584 810214, enquiries@fpmatthews.co.uk, frankpmatthews.com.

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