Summer is almost officially here! It seems that as the climate warms, more people are getting a jump start on the season much earlier. I saw lots of summer squash already at the farmers market last week and some people are picking cherry tomatoes already! But I was happy with my harvest a few days ago of several small cabbages, (which went into a batch of sauerkraut). I love to watch how fast the warm season crops grow now and trust that they will be giving crops soon.
Many fruit trees are loaded this year. We had close to “normal” winter chill and some much-needed rain, resulting in good fruit set. Unfortunately, this can lead to breaking branches and stressed trees too. Thinning crops – whether on trees or in the ground – is one of the hardest tasks for gardeners. You invest in a crop, so may feel that you deserve all the fruit. Or it may seem like the fruit/plants are your babies that you cannot bear to eliminate before they are mature. But too much fruit on a tree, (or plants too close together), can actually be harmful.
Broken branches can destroy the tree’s structure, expose the bark and fruit to sunburn, and make it more vulnerable to pests and diseases. It can take years to repair this damage. And even if branches don’t break, when branches are bent with heavy fruit for too long, they can stay in that position and start to look more like a weeping than an upright tree. This is especially problematic with younger trees that have not reached full height. The strongest angle for main tree branches is around 45 degrees, so if a branch becomes more horizontal, it becomes more vulnerable to breaking.
In addition, it takes a lot of the tree’s energy to ripen fruit. If too much fruit is on a tree it will have less energy for growth. And, if energy is limited, the tree won’t have reserves to have much fruit next year. Fruit bud potential for many trees is determined the prior June, so now is the time to make sure your trees are not stressed or overloaded with fruit.
How much is too much fruit? Like the answers to most gardening questions, it depends on many factors, including the overall health of the tree and your goals eg, growth vs. fruit production, or total yield vs. larger size individual fruit. But some general guidelines include:
Apples – No more than 2 per spur; one per spur if total load is high and more growth is needed.
Pears – As per apples if heavy load; can be 3 per spur if light load and plenty of vigor.
Peaches & nectarines – Should not be touching when full size; a hand span apart is best.
Plums – Can be closer than peaches but reduce crowding to lighten load and increase fruit size.
Persimmons – Take off every other fruit if heavy load; lighten branch ends.
Even if fruit is thinned, you may need to prop branches for support. Use 2×2 or 2×4 lumber, old broom handles or other sturdy supports and pad the spot that meets the tree with rags, old sponges, etc. Lift the branch gently to position the support and make sure that it won’t trip someone or get bumped by machinery.
A very different crop that may need some extra attention at this time is peppers. I like to grow plenty of peppers so I can preserve some to add color and that special flavor to winter and spring greens. I’ve found that peppers do not do well unless temperatures are warm and there are plenty of nutrients and moisture in the soil, especially when plants are young. I often add a little extra organic nitrogen-containing fertilizer when peppers are planted and/or water with diluted fish emulsion a few times. Especially for types with larger size fruit, it’s important to build a large plant with big leaves to support the peppers and shade them from sunburn. All peppers will ripen to red, orange or yellow, but leaving them on the plants long enough to ripen often leads to sunburn. Since ripe peppers taste so much better and are higher in nutrients, I let my peppers turn color before picking.
May your gardens thrive this summer!