June and July are the best times to plant apricots and other deciduous stone fruits.

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Apricots - Picture Courtesy PixabayApricots - Picture Courtesy PixabayThe delectable apricot is a lovely shade tree and the first fruit tree to bloom in spring and the earliest to harvest in summer. It is self-fruitful, so you don’t need a pollination partner to get fruit.  Find out about the fascinating history and health benefits of apricots, and delicious ways they are used in the kitchen. Most importantly, find everything about planting, pruning, watering, feeding, potential pests and diseases etc. Read more below.

The apricot is a lovely deciduous tree with bright green leaves and beautiful blossoms, and today the fruits are grown all over the world.  The tree is lovely in the landscape and provides valuable shade in the summer, and if left unpruned can grow to a large size, between 8 and 12m tall, with a dense canopy and a trunk up to 40cm in diameter.  A healthy apricot tree is very vigorous and can also attain a great age, with a widely spreading root system, which will produce more and more substantial crops of fruit each year as the tree matures.

Apricot Blossoms - Image by bard13 from PixabayApricot Blossoms - Image by bard13 from PixabayThe beautiful white and rarely pink blossoms are produced in great profusion, either singly or in pairs. Most varieties are self-fruiting, which means you don’t need two trees to get fruit. However, growing two apricots may mean you get a higher yield.

Apricots, peaches, nectarines, and plums all come in clingstone and freestone varieties. Clingstone fruits have pits that cling to the flesh of the fruit. If you cut a clingstone peach in half, you will find it difficult to pull the two halves apart and separate the flesh from the stone.

The fruit of the apricot is round with a prominent rib on the side, varying in colour from yellow to orange, and often with a reddish ‘blush’. The pulp is usually yellow, but some cultivars may be white. Depending on climatic conditions, region, and cultivar grown, apricot season in South Africa takes place from November to March, with smaller volumes in April.

Because apricots are pollinated by insects, which may be a scarce commodity so early in spring, try to plant other very early spring flowering plants nearby to attract pollinators, or you may have to resort to hand pollinating the trees. This may take some time, but is easily done by with a soft horse-hair paint brush. Simply brush over the entire contents of the flower - getting both the pollen and the stigma.

Apricot tree in autumn. Image by Ajale from PixabayApricot tree in autumn. Image by Ajale from PixabayApricots, Prunus armeniaca belongs to the stone fruits or Prunus genus. This genus also includes nectarines, peaches, plums, almonds and cherries, and today they are grown throughout the warmer temperate regions of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. They are part of the larger Rosaceae family, which as the name implies, includes roses, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears and cotoneasters.

The exact origin of apricots is uncertain, but the fruit is thought to have originated on the Russian-Chinese border, and it is known to have been in cultivation in China and Central Asia as early as 2000 B.C.  The Chinese associate the apricot with education and medicine, and Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher in the fourth century B.C.E re-told a story that Confucius, a Chinese philosopher considered to be the paragon of Chinese sages, taught his students sitting in a forum among a wood of apricot.

The story went something like this: In the second century, Tung Fung, a renowned medical doctor who lived in Lushan and cured many patients, asked those he cured to plant apricots in his backyard instead of paying consultation and medical fees. Those cured of serious illness planted five trees, and other patients planted just one. After several years, a hundred thousand apricot trees had been planted, and the wood of apricot become the symbol for doctors and medicine.

Apricot 'Bulida' Picture courtesy Giving TreesApricot 'Bulida' Picture courtesy Giving TreesThe tree probably migrated west with Chinese merchants, via the silk roads to Persia, where it was called “zardaloo“, meaning yellow plum. Apricots became widely dispersed, spreading throughout the Eurasian steppe by nomadic, horseback-riding tribesmen. The Silk Road extended trading to the Mideast, further enabling the spread of both peach trees and their seeds all the way into Europe.

The apricot is known botanically as Prunus armeniaca, which means ‘Armenian plum’. Armenia is a nation, and former Soviet republic, in the mountainous Caucasus region between Asia and Europe, and the ancient Greeks believed that apricots originated from this region, hence the scientific name. Apricots have been cultivated in the Ararat Valley in Armenia for centuries, and in Turkey and Armenia today the trees thrive as an escaped naturalized plant, growing in abundance alongside modern roads.

The conquering Arabs took the fruit from Central Asia to the Middle East, and the caliphs who ruled the vast Islamic empire stretching from the Gulf to Sicily between A.D. 750 and 1258, imported apricots from Tus in north-eastern Persia to their capital in Baghdad. Apricots flourished throughout the Islamic dominions, and the chefs of the courts created various dishes using apricots, and these recipes were adopted in the many Islamic dominions.

Apricots are also cultivated in Egypt, but because the season there is very short, Egyptians usually sweeten and dry the fruit, and use this to make a drink called "amar el deen." Syria was another bastion of the fruit, and the Moors, who conquered Spain, planted apricots in Granada, a city in southern Spain’s Andalusia region, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Apricot 'Cape Bebeco' Picture courtesy Giving TreesApricot 'Cape Bebeco' Picture courtesy Giving TreesIn the garden oasis outside Damascus, the 19th century English naturalist Canon Henry Baker Tristram wrote, "The great apricot-trees were laden and bent down under strings of ripe, golden fruit. The lanes were strewn with apricots. Asses, mules, and camels in long strings carried heaped panniers of these 'golden apples."

The Romans learned of the apricot in the first century A.D. and transported the plant to European countries to see how this beautiful tree would fare there. They nicknamed it “praecocum” which means the precocious one, because they observed that although this deciduous tree was very hardy, the early spring blossoms and leaves were sensitive and easily injured by frost, or cold, strong winds.

In Europe the delicate fruit was a favourite of royals and aristocrats, and the apricot's beauty captivated poets like English writer John Ruskin, who described it as "shining in a sweet brightness of golden velvet." Apricots were also long considered to be an aphrodisiac and were used in this context in William Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream”.

While English settlers brought the apricot to the English colonies in the New World, most modern American production of apricots comes from the seedlings carried to the west coast by Spanish missionaries, and today almost 94% of all U.S. production is in California.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Iran are the top three producers of apricots. Large volumes are also produced in Italy and Algeria, and South Africa is known internationally for the quality of its apricots and is the largest exporter of canned apricots in the world.

Apricot 'Palsteyn' Picture courtesy Giving TreesApricot 'Palsteyn' Picture courtesy Giving TreesApricots also are cultivated in Australia, particularly South Australia, where they are commonly grown in the region known as the Riverland, and in a small town called Mypolonga in the Lower Murray region of the state.

While apricots are grown in gardens throughout South Africa, the main commercial production region is in the Western Cape’s Mediterranean climate of dry hot summers and cold wet winters, which is ideal for apricot cultivation, and accounts for about 76% of all apricots produced in South Africa.

In 2018 the Klein Karoo accounted for more than 75% of the area under apricot production. Piketberg, Ceres, and Worcester were the other three big producers, while Langkloof, Villiersdorp and Southern Cape, Paarl, Wolseley and Tulbagh were made up of smaller plantations. Very small production areas of less than ten hectares can be found in the Northern Province, Upper Orange River, Mpumalanga, Cape Town, Eastern Cape, Free State, and Stellenbosch.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, apricots were brought to South Africa in the 17th century, and were exclusively planted in the Western Cape under winter rainfall conditions. Until the 1900's, what was simply called the "Cape Apricot", which is probably a descendant of an original Chinese variety, was the most important variety grown in South Africa. Thereafter, varieties such as 'Old Cape', 'Early Cape' and 'Late Cape', also known as 'Sweetstone' were cultivated.

Numerous other varieties were also trialled, like the 'Cape Bebeco' which comes from Greece, and 'Bulida' which was brought in from Spain in the 1940's for the purposes of canning. The cultivar 'Royal' was introduced in the early 1900s for drying, and the 'Imperial' or 'Palsteyn', a South African apricot, was released in 1978. 'Super Gold', another South African variety, was released to farmers in 1986 as a cross between Palsteyn and Peeka.

Apricot 'Peeka' Picture courtesy Giving TreesApricot 'Peeka' Picture courtesy Giving TreesA variety of new cultivars are now grown commercially, including those with rosy cheeks, as the European market has been moving away from traditional yellow apricots in favour of apricots with more blush. Many of these new varieties are also available to gardeners, so visit your local garden centre to select those most suitable to your region.

Here are some mouth-watering cultivars grown by Giving Trees, click here or on the photographs to find a list of garden centres who stock their trees.

Apricot ‘Bulida’

In 1940 Apricot Bulida was released in Spain, where it is called “Canina”. This freestone cultivar ripens in late November to early December, producing a good crop of medium to large apricots with a faint red blush. The light yellow flesh is firm with a non-melting texture which makes it excellent for canning and making jams.

Bulida remains a popular choice for its vigorous growth, which is kept at +-4m x 4m in gardens and orchards, and its medium to low chilling requirements make it good for areas with slightly warmer winters. It is well adapted too summer rainfall regions and has a good resistance against splitting.

Apricot ‘Cape Bebeco’

Apricot 'Royal' Picture courtesy  Giving TreesApricot 'Royal' Picture courtesy Giving TreesCape Bebeco’ was developed in Greece and released in 1990. This freestone cultivar ripens from early December, producing a good crop of large fruits with dark yellow skin which is slightly blushed with red. The dark yellow flesh has a good taste and a melting texture.  It is excellent for eating fresh, canning and drying.

Cape Bebeco has moderately vigorous growth, which is kept at +-4m x 4m in gardens and orchards, and its medium to low chilling requirements make it good for areas with slightly warmer winters. The trees need minimal pruning but fruit thinning is recommended.

Apricot ‘Palsteyn’

Palsteyn was developed and released in South Africa in 1978, and is also known as “Imperial”. This freestone cultivar ripens from late November to early December, producing a good crop of medium to large round fruits with flat sides. The flesh is orange-yellow with an excellent taste with a non-melting texture. If the fruit is left to ripen properly the taste is sweeter than if it is picked early. This top export variety is excellent for multi-purposes.

Palsteyn has a strong and vigorous, spreading growth habit which is kept at +-4m x 4m in gardens and orchards, and its medium to low chilling requirements makes it suitable for most regions.

Apricot ‘Peeka’

Apricot 'Soldonne' Picture courtesy Giving TreesApricot 'Soldonne' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPeeka was developed and released in South Africa in 1966, by crossing ‘Bulida’ and ‘Royal’ varieties. This freestone cultivar produces good crops and ripens from mid to late December, and the small to medium sized fruit has yellow to orange skin and flesh, with a melting texture and excellent aroma. It remains a firm favourite for gardens because it is an excellent multipurpose variety which is excellent to eat fresh, or for canning and making jam, as well as drying.

Peeka has a strong and vigorous, spreading growth habit which is kept at +-4m x 4m in gardens and orchards. Its medium to low chilling requirements makes it suitable for most regions.

Apricot ‘Super Gold’

Super Gold is a popular freestone which was developed and released in South Africa in 1986 by crossing Peeka and Palsteyn. It is considered the best sized early apricot which is exported fresh but is also sometimes used for canning. The large fruit ripens from early November and has a dark yellow to orange skin, and dark yellow flesh with a firm, melting texture, and a good taste.

The fruit may crack during rainy conditions, especially prior to harvesting. It is semi-upright with good production and is easily kept at 4m x 4m in the garden and orchard.

Apricot ‘Royal’

Royal is one of the best tasting apricots but its origin is unknown. It was first grown on a large scale in the 1920’s in California, USA, and it was introduced in South Africa in the early 1900s for drying.
The medium to large freestone ripens from mid-December and has a yellow-orange skin which is blushed slightly with red when ripe. The yellow-orange flesh has a soft, melting texture with a complex sweet taste with just a hint of tartness.  It is an excellent multipurpose variety which is great to eat fresh, or for canning and making jam, as well as drying.

It remains a favourite with gardeners because it is not as vigorous as most other apricots and can easily be kept at +-3m x 3m, or grown in a large pot. Because it flowers early, do not plant in regions which experience late spring frosts. It has low chilling requirements, making it suitable for warmer areas.

Apricot ‘Soldonne’

Soldonne is a popular freestone,  fresh export variety which was developed in South Africa by crossing Royal, Bulida, and Alpha, and released in 1987. The medium sized fruit ripens in late November and has orange-yellow skin and flesh. The flesh is firm, semi-melting, and very good tasting. It is an excellent multipurpose variety which is great to eat fresh, or for canning and making jam, as well as drying.

It remains a favourite with gardeners because it has moderate vigour with an upright growth habit, and is easily kept 4m x 4m or less. It has low chilling requirements and will do well in warmer areas.

June and July are also great times to plant peaches & nectarines.  Click here for information on growing them. 

Apricot Liqueur - Image by klmalone60 from PixabayApricot Liqueur - Image by klmalone60 from PixabayUses:

The seeds or kernels of the apricot pits, which are poisonous until roasted, are used in confections and to flavour liqueurs. The kernels from trees grown in central Asia and around the Mediterranean are so sweet that they may be substituted for almonds. The Italian liqueur Amaretto, and Amaretti Biscotti biscuits are flavoured with extract of apricot kernels rather than almonds. Oil pressed from these cultivars has also been used as cooking oil.

Health Benefits:

Apricots are extremely nutritious and contain many essential vitamins and minerals - from Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin C, and Niacin, to the minerals Manganese, Phosphorus, Potassium, Calcium, Iron and Zinc. Apricots also contain catechins that have a potent antioxidant activity, and which have helped earn green tea its positive reputation. The many health benefits of apricots include improved digestion and eye health.

Apricots are a great source of insoluble fibre which can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and some cancers. As well as aiding the digestive system, insoluble fibre is linked with reducing bowel cancer risk. Soluble fibre combines with cholesterol, prevents it from being absorbed and carries it out of the body.

It is the beta carotene in apricots that makes them such a notable source of the carotenoid benefits which helps to protect the eyes from age-related damage.

Vitamin C cannot be stored in the body and we need to eat it every day, as it helps protect cells and is involved in the creation of collagen which maintains connective tissues which are vital for the maintenance of the skin, cartilage and bones. Vitamin C is also an important antioxidant and also helps with the absorption of iron into the body. Vitamin A is essential for maintaining the structure and function of the skin and mucous membranes.

The notable potassium levels in apricots help supply a mineral that is critical to our health. Potassium not only controls the balance of fluids in the body but also the proper functioning of the heart and brain, and it may also help control blood pressure

Apricot 'Quark Tart' - Image by RitaE from PixabayApricot 'Quark Tart' - Image by RitaE from PixabayIn the Kitchen:

Apricots can be used fresh or dried and are so versatile in both sweet and savoury dishes, and an important food in many international cuisines. There is a world of mouth-watering recipes out there which are sure to inspire you to use more apricots.

This flavoursome fruit is often used to add sweetness to savoury stuffing’s, couscous, or spicy Middle Eastern and North African dishes.

From the Persians, the Arabs had picked up the technique of adding tangy fruit, such as apricots and cherries, to liven up their meat dishes, and one of the cookbooks of the empire called for apricots in a delicacy called “mishmishiya” (Apricot Lamb Tagine), where the lamb slowly braises in the oven with spices like cinnamon, cumin and garlic. The recipe results in tender meat with a delicious flavour combination of savoury, sweet and spicy. 

Parsi cuisine is an eclectic mix of hot and sweet, nice and spicy. 'Parsis' or 'parsees' are descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Iran during the Arab invasion in the 17th century. They eventually settled along the west coast of India and it's during that time they developed a distinct cuisine, one that proudly boasts of Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Iranian and British flavours. From their Irani roots they borrowed a flare for extravagant feasts. One dish, “Curried Lamb with Apricots and Almonds” is a sweet and aromatic curry based on the traditional sali boti of Parsi cuisine in western India. For the best flavour, Turkish apricots are recommended, which will provide a sweet, smooth finish to balance the many spices.

“Sweet Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Caramelized Walnuts” is a perfect example of the sweet chicken tagines of Fez. Fez or Fes is a city in northern inland Morocco and the second largest city in Morocco after Casablanca. In this delectable dish you will experience a glorious blend of sweet and savoury, with the apricots’ chewy texture and sweet-tart flavour offsetting the savoury saffron, garlic, fresh herbs, and tender chicken. Lightly caramelized walnuts in honey, gives the dish an added decorative touch and a welcome crunch.

Lentils and salmon is a French bistro classic, and “North African Spiced Salmon over French Lentils” is a version which includes dried apricots, finely diced, and a Moroccan-inspired spice rub on the salmon – delicious!

In desserts, apricots lend themselves particularly well to roasting, grilling, or poaching, paired with honey ice cream. In dried form, apricots are often used in baking and breakfasts to add texture and flavour, and pair particularly well with almonds and pistachios.

Passionate about sweets, the Arabs used apricots for their sugary confections, and made apricot syrup that blended its juice with sweet almonds, and was a forerunner of the apricot drinks later hawked in the Middle East by vendors or sold in cafés. The apricot also fitted neatly into the repertoire of Arabic desserts - stuffed with almonds or almond paste, the fruit complemented its nutty relative perfectly. Topped with chopped pistachios or almonds, one rich treat of pureed apricots and whipped cream was perfumed with either rose or orange blossom.

“Macerated Apricots with Amaretto and Toasted Almonds” is a wonderful recipe from Theo Randall's “My Simple Italian Cookbook” combines macerated apricots with Amaretto and toasted almonds. Served with vanilla ice cream, this makes a sophisticated dinner party dessert.

There are far too many great recipes to document here so we will end with Nigella Lawson’s famous “Apricot Almond Cake with Rosewater and Cardamom” which has to be experienced before it can be described.

Be inspired by apricots and find your families favourite recipes online, they will love you for it!

Chives - Picture courtesy Kirchoffs SeedsChives - Picture courtesy Kirchoffs SeedsCompanion Planting:

In orchards the corridors between the trees are often planted with clovers and other legumes which contribute to the fertility of the soil by fixing nitrogen in their roots, as well as attracting vital pollinators to the orchards. In the garden companion plants for apricot trees will not only improve the look of your garden, but also help to protect the trees.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is so strong smelling, that it naturally repels damaging insects like fruit flies that would otherwise feed on apricots. Insects which feed on the sap of plants also spread viruses, so plant Basil close to apricot trees to keep these virus spreaders at bay. Members can click here to read more about Basil.

The Allium family which includes onions, garlic, leeks, and chives, are great to plant underneath the tree to help keep borer insects away. These bore into the tree causing disease and eventually can cause the death of the tree. Chives are probably the best to use as they flower prolifically and therefore attract pollinating insects. Members can click here to read more about chives

Strawberries are traditionally woodland plants and will grow well under Apricot trees. Click here to read my free strawberry article.

The perennial herb Wormwood or Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) is a sun-loving, semi-evergreen shrub that tolerates drought-like conditions. It produces unimpressive blooms in the summer months and is typically grown for its silvery, lemon-scented foliage which repels fruit flies, and although it prefers full sun, it can be planted at the base of the trees or between the rows of trees.  When planting wormwood or southernwood, consider planting several individual root balls around the tree in a clumping manner.

Tansy repels ants which can often be seen climbing up apricots searching for sugars. One plant won’t do the trick, as a companion, you need to plant a number right round the tree. Members can click here to read more about tansy. 

Several species of plants can actually harm apricot trees, and especially peppers and chillies, which should never be planted close to apricots, as they are prone to a fungus that can infect apricot trees, causing a weakening of the tree, and in serious cases even death. Tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes should also be avoided for the same reason.

Apricot 'Super Gold' Picture courtesy Giving TreesApricot 'Super Gold' Picture courtesy Giving Trees Cultivation:

To bear well, apricots need some winter chilling for proper dormancy and bud development, with at least 400 to 600 hours where the temperatures fall below 7.2°C. For this reason, apricots are generally thought of as being only suitable to grow in warm temperate and cool temperate climates. However, there are some varieties with low chill requirements that grow in subtropical areas. In humid climates apricots often develop problems with fungal diseases like brown rot, and preventative spraying is required on a regular basis in order to grow good quality fruit.

For cold regions it is important to bear in mind that although the tree itself is very hardy, and slightly more cold-hardy than the peach, and tolerating very low winter temperatures, the limiting factor in apricot culture is spring frosts. Apricots tend to flower very early, around the time of the vernal equinox, and these early spring frosts often decimate the flowers, resulting in poor crops. For this reason, if they can be irrigated in summer, apricots do extremely well in Mediterranean climates, since spring frosts are less severe in these climates, but there is sufficient cold winter weather to allow for a proper dormancy. The dry summer climate of these areas is also best for good fruit production, as excessive summer rains can cause the fruit to split.

Apricot cultivars are most often grafted on plum or peach rootstocks. A cutting of an existing apricot plant provides the fruit characteristics such as flavour, size, and so forth, but the rootstock provides the growth characteristics of the plant. Most apricots are self-fertile and will produce fruit if planted alone. However, planting two cultivars near one another to allow for cross-pollination will increase the yield of each tree.

In June and July garden centres around South Africa sell deciduous fruit trees, either bare rooted or planted in nursery bags. Planting in winter when the trees are dormant gives them a chance to settle in and to start developing roots before they put their energy into spring growth. Visit an accredited garden centre for advice on the best varieties for your region, and budget to purchase some essential preventative sprays for fruit fly etc. at the same time.

To produce high quality fruit and to limit diseases they should be grown in full sun, and where there is ample air movement around the leaves. Trees will still produce fruits in areas which are sunny for most of the day, but too much shade is no good. If you are planting in rows, for good airflow, space the trees 5 to 6m apart, with 4m between the rows. 

Concerning soils, peaches are quite forgiving and tolerate most garden soils as long as they are fertile and water retentive, yet still light and well-drained. They thrive in neutral or slightly alkaline soil with a pH range of 6.7 to 7.5, and do not prefer acidic soils. 

Because apricots can produce fruit for 12 years or more, it is well worth preparing the planting holes extremely well before you purchase your plants, and rather than digging a small very deep hole, prepare a shallower, wider hole, at least 3 to 4 times wider than the container and about 50cm deep.  The hole should also have slightly sloping sides like a saucer to allow for proper root growth. Break down the soil well and remove any big stones etc., then and add generous quantities of compost or other well-rotted organic matter to the soil. Do not use fertilisers or chemicals on newly planted trees as such products can damage young trees.

The first step to growing a small fruit tree is to buy small specimens with a stem that’s about as big around as your thumb. These young saplings are usually up to 1m tall, and the trick to keeping them smaller and more manageable is to cut the main stem right back when the tree is still totally dormant.

The first cut is the most important and is called a “hard heading cut”. This cut removes the growing tip, and can be done before, or immediately after planting your tree. While such a cut may seem extreme, as you will need to prune off about the top two-thirds of your new tree, this pruning cut is critical because it will create a low scaffold of branches and keep the canopy of the mature tree within reach.

Here’s how to handle the first cut for deciduous, stone fruit trees. Choose a bud at knee-height, but be very careful that you leave several buds between where you want to cut and the graft. The graft is that knobby place low down on the trunk where the scion (the graft that determines fruit variety) meets the rootstock. Make a clean 45-degree cut that angles away from the bud, cutting close enough to the bud so it can heal cleanly, but not so close that you cut into the bud itself.

If the tree you bought has a stem thicker than 2cm it may have a harder time pushing out buds if you cut it down too low, so in this case make the first dormant hard header cut where the ‘caliper’ (width of the stem) is thumb-sized. As soon as the buds begin to develop, and after the sprouts get going, you can cut the scaffold as low as you prefer.

This hard heading cut will encourage the tree to quickly put down roots, and vigorous growth and branching will occur in spring when the plant directs its energy to the remaining buds, and they will eventually develop into new limbs, each with a growing tip of its own. The resulting open-centred tree will be shorter, stronger, easier to care for, and most fruitful.

In the first spring of growth, after the first buds start to break, take a good look at the spacing of the branches and if you do not like the arrangement of the top buds, simply prune down a bit more on the main stem until the configuration of leafing buds suits you. This place will eventually become the crotch of the tree, and the lower down the crotch is, the easier it will be to keep the tree small. And, the earlier in the season you make this cut the more vigorously new limbs will grow.

If you wish to keep your tree as small as possible by employing the art of espalier and various other pruning techniques to grow fruit trees in small spaces, click here to read our article “So you say you don’t have space to plant fruit trees?”  so-you-say-you-don-t-have-space-to-plant-fruit-trees

With the first cut done, it’s time to plant. Add some soil to the hole and plant a sturdy stake into the ground before setting your tree down. Avoid planting the tree too deeply by ensuring that the “root collar” sits above the top of the hole. Look for the “root flare” at the base of the trunk and ensure it is slightly above ground level. Using some soil, secure the tree in a straight position, then fill and firmly pack the hole with the original soil, making sure there aren't any air pockets. Tie the tree securely to its stake.

Young trees are vulnerable to borer insects which bore into the main trunk, so after tying the tree securely to its stake, wrap a slit piece of plastic piping, a plastic kitchen place mat, or similar material around bottom of the stem to prevent the borers from reaching it.

Re-shape your hole with its sloping sides as this also acts as a basin to hold water, and mulch the ground around the base of the tree with something like bark chips to help to keep weeds down and to retain moisture. When mulching or feeding any plant it is important to keep the mulch or fertiliser well away from the stem. Lastly, water your tree thoroughly, and because the tree is still dormant a light watering every 10 to 12 days thereafter should suffice.

The volume and frequency of irrigation depends on many factors: soil type, climate, age and size of trees, growth phase of the trees, type of irrigation system used, etc. Sandy soil has a low water-holding capacity, so if your trees are planted in this soil type, apply smaller volumes of water relatively often. Clay soil has a higher water-holding capacity, so apply more water at a time, but less often.

As the weather warms up in spring root growth will commence, so start watering your young tree a bit more. Once summer arrives it is important to keep the young trees moist but not soggy. During dry weather, water generously every 7 to 10 days by watering slowly at the dripline. Avoid watering so much that you see standing water, as standing water can result in disease and rot, and is totally unsuitable for fruit trees.

Regularly check the plastic wrapping around the stem and any labels or ties which came with your tree as these can restrict the tree as it grows. Prune out any skew, broken or dead branches during the first year of growth.

About 6 weeks after planting, fertilise young trees with a balanced fertiliser for fruit, and once again 6 weeks later. Established apricots can be fed monthly during the growing season with any fertiliser for flowering and fruiting plants, but many gardeners only feed established trees twice a year, once in the early spring and again in late spring or early summer. A balanced fertiliser for apricot trees is one that has all three major nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and for this reason farmers use 2:3:4.

Because South African soils are low in nitrogen, an occasional high nitrogen feed will benefit the trees, and especially young trees. If you live in a very cold region, to help make the tree hardier, do not fertilise it within 2 months of your first frost date.

Every spring, if your mulch has not yet decomposed you can remove it by raking it aside, in order to add a top-dressing of well-rotted organic matter or compost, together with a dressing of fertiliser for fruit trees, Spread this evenly around the tree up to the drip line of the branches, avoiding the stem, and replace or renew your mulch before watering thoroughly.

Although most apricots are self-fertile and the flowers are pollinated by insects, if you are worried that not enough insects are visiting the blossoms, you can resort to hand pollination using a soft paintbrush. Pollination should not be a problem in the average garden which supplies sufficient flowers to attract pollinators.

The size and number of fruits is dependent upon a number of things. As a rule of thumb, the more apricots on a tree, the smaller the individual fruits will be. Some season’s mother-nature will produce abundant blooms, and in others unseasonal late frosts may destroy a portion of them. However, in a good year it is possible that so many apricots are on the tree, that the size of the fruit is small. Gardeners can compensate for this, by removing some of the baby fruits very early in the season. This may not be necessary for the first few seasons of growth, and you will quickly learn how to judge with experience. Remember to continually remove any fruits that are damaged by insects, leaving only good, healthy apricots to develop.

Reusable fruit protection bags and covers are available to cover ripening fruit and protect it from birds and other insect pests, and if you are growing at home, these are well worth the expense incurred.

Weed control around fruit trees is very important as they can harbour pesky insects and diseases, and they also absorb considerable quantities of nitrogen and water, to the detriment of the trees. As most of an apricot tree’s feeding roots are in its drip area, keep this area free of annual weeds and grasses.

Budget to purchase your sprays and spraying equipment like a high pressure sprayer along with your trees – there’s nothing worse than noticing that your fruit tree requires spraying and you have nothing to spray it with. Your local garden centre will be able to advise you on which sprays are essential, and whether you select to use organic sprays or not, the beauty of growing your own fruit is that you are in control. Be sure to read the section on pests & diseases below.

Harvesting:

A large grafted apricot tree may bear a few fruits in its first year, and these are usually removed to encourage branch and leaf growth, but most trees begin to bear when two years old. Some orchardists thin out the apricot fruits to every six inches to increase the individual fruit size, and harvesting of mature apricot trees begins in South Africa in November and continues into December.

Home grown apricots taste so good because they are only picked when their colour has fully developed and the flesh gives slightly when squeezed. The fruit should also pull easily away from the branch.

Pruning:

“Stone fruits,” including apricots, peaches, nectarines, cherries and plums, have a large, hard pit or “stone” in their fruit. The proper pruning method for the stone fruits is an “open vase” shape, which means opening up the middle of the tree to allow for greater light and air flow in the centre.

Stone fruits like apricots bear their fruits on the branches of the previous season’s growth and to encourage better fruiting pruning is traditionally done in winter when the trees are totally dormant. However, there are many innovative ways of shaping fruit trees to keep them smaller, and one of them is to do your hard pruning at the summer solstice, rather than in mid-winter. A recent article we published titled: “So you say you don’t have space to plant fruit trees?” will inspire you to take a fresh new look at pruning fruit trees, as well as your garden and the spaces available to you to grow your own fruit. Read this article here. 

Pruning begins with the right equipment, Sharp shears make for clean, easy cuts, and if you can’t sharpen your own, many hardware stores often offer the service for a small fee. As a measure of disease prevention, dip the blades of your pruning shears in a solution of isopropyl alcohol, or any other good disinfectant, for 30  seconds before pruning and when moving on to prune another tree.

If you want a good shape, the first three years of your trees life are the most important, and pruning can even be done in summer and will not harm the tree. Pruning is done to keep the centre open with the main branches angling upward at about 45 degrees. A 45 degree angle is the ideal angle for fruit bearing branches as it is the strongest. This open centre pruning method is recommended because it allows sunlight to penetrate throughout the branches. Trees which are not pruned in this way tend to grow so dense and thick that the fruit production tends to be limited to the outer perimeter of the tree.

Each one of these main branches will produce more branches which also need to be spaced as these are the branches which will bear the fruit. Start by removing all branches which are growing, vertical, horizontal, or downward, and any which may be crossing one another. Also remove any weak or diseased branches.

With all these ‘clean-up cuts’, it’s important to prune the branches back flush to the larger limb they’re growing from – don’t leave little stubs. If you have pruned any large thicker branches it is a good idea to seal them with tree seal, small branches do not require sealing. Remove any sprouts coming from the base of the trunk - technically they’re called ‘suckers’ and they originate from the rootstock rather than the fruiting variety grafted on top.

The last step is the easiest – you’re basically giving the tree a haircut. This practice is called “heading back the tree” and the idea is to prune back all the outermost growth of the tree. This shortening of the branches makes them grow thicker and more able to hold up the weight of the fruit; and Pomologists (fruit scientists) will tell you that it also causes the tree’s hormones to activate growth lower in the canopy, making for smaller, more fruitful trees.

Heading back the tree means cutting off 20 to 30 percent of last year’s growth. You can distinguish last year’s growth from two-year-old growth by the wrinkly ring of bark encircling each stem. Depending on the vigour of the tree, this may be anywhere from 50cm to 1m back from the tip of the branches. Unlike the previous steps, these cuts will be made part way into each branch, and where you make the cut is also important. Prune each branch back to a point about 1/2cm above a bud that faces in the direction you want that branch to grow in the coming year.

By keeping the tree low year after year, you’ll encourage it to send out side branches instead of tall branches that reach to the sky, making it much easier to harvest, prune and care for.

Good orchard hygiene is most important at all times and after pruning it is best to burn any diseased wood and to remove all the remaining cuttings. If you have a wood chipper, dispose of healthy cuttings by running them through – this makes great organic mulch for your garden. Once the area is thoroughly cleaned, using a high pressure sprayer, spray your deciduous fruit trees, and the soil around them, with 1 cup of lime sulphur to 10 cups of water. Remember that lime sulphur must only be used on dormant trees.

Propagation:

Although apricots grow easily from pips, the resulting fruit may not be true to the parent plant, and it can take 3 to 5 years to actually produce fruit, so for home gardeners it is really worthwhile to purchase a grafted specimen from a trusted garden centre.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Growing quality peaches in the home garden can be very rewarding, and starts with providing the proper growing conditions, and planting recommended varieties for your region. A rigid pest and disease control program also needs to be maintained throughout the year. Preventative spraying with fungicides and pesticides will help prevent problems. A well-rounded home spray program for peach trees includes dormant-season as well as growing-season sprays for pests and diseases. Research your location and learn about any pests or diseases that frequently occur on peach trees where you live. If you know peach tree diseases are common in your area, planting disease-resistant peach trees may give you an advantage.

Good sanitation practices must be used throughout the year. Remove all dead branches and mummified fruit from the trees and the ground, and keep the area around the trees free of weeds and plant debris, such as leaves and twigs. When pruning, sterilise pruning equipment thoroughly and often, especially when pruning several trees.

Apricots and other stone fruits like peaches and plums are sprayed regularly as a preventative measure against pests and diseases. To be most effective sprays must be applied at specific stages of crop development, and the terms used to describe the stages of fruit development in stone fruits:

Dormant: Late autumn to early spring.

Bud break: Buds begin to swell.

Bud swell: Buds are noticeably swollen, but no green tissue is present.

Pink: Just before the flower buds open.

Bloom: Flowers open.

Petal fall: Last petals are falling.

Shuck-split: Most of the developing fruits have split away from the remains of the dried flower.

For a lengthy list of pests & diseases affecting stone fruits, and the full spraying programme, click here to read more under peaches and nectarines. 

Warning:

The seeds or kernels of the apricot pips are poisonous until roasted