ANY TIME from late February through to May is blossom time for fruit trees. With the earliest trees, such as almonds, peaches and apricots, hand pollination is often recommended to ensure fruit set, and the traditional tool is a rabbit tail on a stick.
We gardeners pray and hope for a good “set”. We then wait anxiously through the late-spring frost season, worrying particularly about those plants that have but recently finished flowering, even screening those things that we can on still, clear evenings.
How vividly I remember the second year of “fruiting” with my first apricot fan. The year before it set just seven fruits, and only three ripened to give us a foretaste of what we hoped was to come. This time the set was wonderful, with dozens of thumbnail-sized fruitlets. When a serious frost threatened, I dropped the screen, but by the end of the following day all but two or three little fruits had turned black. Fortunately, the year after brought a bumper crop.
Having gone through this frost worry, we watch nature take its course, hoping that the next time of loss is not too serious. This is the natural thinning of crop that is known in my home area of Kent as the “June drop”. If you have a good set, the chances are that too many fruits will survive, except perhaps with young trees.
Several of our favourite varieties are prone to keeping too many, and this can bring double trouble. Firstly, this year is dominated by small and often poorly flavoured fruits, and secondly, next year may bring little if any crop. Varieties particularly prone to this biennial bearing include Victoria plum and apples such as Blenheim Orange, Bramley, Cox, Newton Wonder and Laxton’s Superb.
Over the past few years I have become more and more ruthless in thinning my apples; the picture shows a Cox tree which had three-quarters of its fruit removed. So often, even after nature’s thinning, you find three or even four fruits in a single truss.
I have come to the conclusion that it rarely pays to leave more than one. For apples, the time to do this is usually towards the end of June, although the middle of the month is not too soon for earlies. I work on the principle that by the time the fruitlets are the size of cherries, they are likely to stay unless I intervene.
For plums, which flower earlier, thinning time comes around the start of the month, while the likes of peach and apricot are ready to attack in late May. Even if you overdo it, what is left will be of the best quality and flavour.
Mike Swan is head of education at The Game Conservancy Trust.