The peach blossom has just started to emerge, so it is time to start hand pollinating to try and ensure a crop for the summer. We currently have three peaches: Early Rivers and Bellegarde being fan trained in one of the glasshouses and a Pêche de Vigne being grown as a small bush in the polytunnel. The first couple of flowers have just opened on the Early Rivers and quite a few now on the Pêche de Vigne. As the peach blossom tends to come at a time when there are few pollinating insects about, a helping hand really is needed to have a good chance of some fruit developing. Even though we keep bees, one cannot be sure they will be flying at this time of year – cold and poor conditions will keep them tucked up in their hives more often than not.
Peaches fruit on last year’s growth, so, aside from simply managing the size and health of the trees, pruning is focussed on developing a good amount of one year old wood from a minimal framework of permanent branches. Fan training is ideal for this purpose, although it is a challenge to do this on a relatively small wall – we have two growing against a wall of twenty feet in length and six and a half feet in height. Whilst this might sound like a large area, ideally one would like a wall of ten feet in height and perhaps twelve to fourteen feet in length, per tree. Keeping ours in order requires a great deal of pruning throughout the summer, as they are quite vigorous trees and the fruiting branches are relatively short. The pruning is quite ruthless, and all of the fruit bearing wood is trimmed out after harvest to make space for the new growth to be tied in. However, it is this pruning that provides, at this time of year, young wood laden with fruit buds.
At this stage, all flowers are retained to assist in the pollination even if they are not in suitable positions for fruiting. It is not until the fruitlets are about the size of a walnut that one should select which to keep. The traditional tool for hand pollination was a rabbit’s tail, but a soft sable artist’s brush is well suited to the task. Whilst the flowers are open, it is best undertaken at least once per day, simply brushing gently on the centre of the open flowers, transferring pollen from the male anthers – the pollen bearing ends of the stamen – to the female stigma at the end of the pistil, the central stalk of the flower. A fairly methodical approach is needed to make sure that each flower is visited. This task will continue for a few weeks, until all of the peaches have lost their blossom. Protection from harsh frosts is also needed; hopefully the cover afforded by the glasshouses and polytunnel will suffice. If in doubt, fleece or similar may help to protect the tender blossom.