Winter in Melbourne is the time to attend to our fruit trees. It is important to invest time and effort into fruit trees during winter, to ensure that we have successful fruit crops in summer. Some fruit tree related tasks that are traditionally completed in winter are:
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Winter pruning of fruit trees
Neglecting to prune your fruit trees won’t stop production of fruit. However, I recommend you prune annually, to improve the quality of fruit, and to establish a strong framework of branches to support heavy fruit loads. Winter pruning is used to train a tree to a particular shape, or to encourage substantial growth. Winter pruning is recommended for newly planted trees until the tree has achieved the desired height and shape.
Ideally, established fruit trees are pruned in late summer. If your established tree missed out on its annual summer prune this year, then it may benefit from a prune during this winter.
I have an extensive blog post on fruit tree pruning, including all the tools you’ll need and how to go about it.
Planting Bare Rooted Fruit Trees
Fruit trees are dormant in winter. That means that it is the ideal time to plant out bare-rooted fruit trees. Bare rooted fruit trees have been grown in large propagating beds. The plants are lifted when they are dormant and all the soil is washed off the root system. The plants are then often kept in sawdust until they are sold. The savings in not using potting mix, a pot and reduced labour costs are passed onto the consumer in the form of cheaper fruit trees.
You’ll find them for sale at your local nursery. Before you buy any new fruit trees, it’s important that you understand the importance of buying fruit trees grafted onto the appropriate rootstock. As a general rule, we advise against buying fruit trees from the large hardware chains. They’re usually on rootstocks that are less than ideal and will mean that you’ll become a slave to their rampant growth habits. I can’t express how important it is to buy your fruit trees on the appropriate rootstocks.
Consider the timing of ripening for specific fruit varieties when planning a backyard orchard. Plant varieties that fruit at different times to each other to extend your harvest. Avoid buying varieties that will ripen when you are not there to pick them. For example, avoid January ripening varieties for school kitchen gardens. I’ve put together a detailed guide to variety ripening times to help you plan your own backyard orchards and to minimise gluts.
Other than rootstock selection, the second most important aspect of planting your bare rooted fruit tree is the hole in which you plant it.
If you pour water into the hole and it takes longer than 15 minutes to drain away, then the drainage needs improving. This is particularly important for citrus trees. In heavy, clay soils, consider planting the tree on top of the soil and building soil up around it.
Plant the tree to the same soil depth that it was originally growing at and water in well. You will need to trim the tree back to compensate for the damage that the root system received when being dug out of the ground at the tree farm.
Mulch the trees with straw to prevent water loss. This mulch will also help prevent weeds and grass from increasing humidity around the trunk of the tree which could lead to fungal diseases.
If you’re unsure of what sort of fruit trees to plant, or where or how to plant them, we offer many great workshops on backyard orchards. Check out our upcoming events to see when the next one is running.
Fruit Tree Espaliers
Don’t think that you have enough room to grow a fruit tree? Why not try an espalier or two?
“Espalier” refers to special practices for training fruiting trees onto trellises. Espaliers save space and are beautiful works of art. There are many styles and designs of espalier that can be grown against a wall, a building or on an existing fence or wires. Espalier can also be used as a screen in the garden, to create rooms or to hide unsightly areas.
Espaliers can use space along the drive that would be too small for a full tree. They provide interest in all seasons: stunning form in winter, flowers in spring, fruit in summer and autumn’s foliage. Most importantly, they provide healthy, home-grown fruit for your family.
Winter is a great time for planting, setting-up, pruning and maintaining espaliers. Established, potted, espalier trees are very expensive to buy. What’s more, they are often grown on the wrong rootstocks. This means that they’ll be a lot of work to maintain their established espalier shape.
For more information please see our comprehensive guide on setting up and maintaining fruit tree espaliers.
Citrus Gall Wasp Control
The presence of large swellings or bulges on the branches of citrus trees is quite common in Melbourne. These swellings indicate that Citrus Gall Wasp has infected the tree.
This tiny native Australian wasp lives for 3 to 4 days and lays its eggs in the branches of the citrus tree. It is the tree’s ‘reaction’ to this egg-laying which produces the next year’s Gall Wasp.
The traditional method used to control of Citrus Gall Wasp is cutting off the swollen branches. We don’t advocate for using this method. See our blog post on citrus gall wasp for our alternative views on this pesky Melbourne citrus pest.
Prevention of Curly Leaf in Peaches and Nectarines
Do you have stone fruit trees, such as peaches, nectarines or apricots? If so, it’s traditionally the time to treat them in winter for leaf curl.
Leaf curl is a fungus that loves cold and wet conditions and infects peach and nectarine trees. As the fruit tree buds swell, the fungus gets to work infecting the leaf cells. This stimulates the leaves to grow larger than normal and often with a reddish tinge. Usually infected leaves fall from the tree, leaving it weakened and less able to produce fruit.
Traditionally gardeners try to prevent curly leaf with one or two well-timed applications of a fungicide spray such as copper sulphate or Bordeaux spray. There are many commercially available fungicide sprays available at your local nursery or hardware store. If you’d like to have a go at making your own, try this recipe for Bordeaux spray
Spray the trees with your chosen fungicide in winter, while they are still dormant and just as the buds begin to swell. Consider a follow-up spray again when the flowers open. You need to spray enough to cover all the bare branches of the tree so that it’s dripping.
Leaf curl treatments burn leaves, which is why they must be applied during winter dormancy before flower buds or leaves open.
I advocate for not spraying trees for leaf curl as I don’t believe that it makes much of a difference to the outcome.
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