Peach

Fresh tree ripe peaches are best.

Of all the stone fruit trees like apricot, plum and cherry, none need more aggressive and specialized pruning while dormant in winter than peach, Prunus persica. The distinctively fuzzy fruit is so big and heavy that the weight of too much fruit tears limbs down. Pruning not only limits fruit production, but improves structural integrity, fruit weight distribution, fruit quality, and tree health. Mature trees should be kept less than ten feet tall, but often get twice as tall with much of the fruit out of reach.

Squirrels Fear The Unknown Too

Pierre Francois dutifully protects ripening fruit.

It is embarrassing when my mother teaches me a practical gardening technique that I should have known about, especially if the particular technique is as simple and downright silly as what my mother does to protect ripening fruit from squirrels. A friend of hers suggested it; and it seems to be significantly more effective than the few fancier ideas that I recommended.

I should first mention that there is nothing new about repelling animal pests with effigies of other animals that they are afraid of. Scarecrows and stuffed snakes and owls have been around for centuries. As the name implies, scarecrows scare crows who perceive them to be potentially troublesome people. Rats and terrestrial rodents avoid snakes. Squirrels and some birds are afraid of owls.

When I was in about the fourth grade, I remember that National Geographic World magazine (which is now National Geographic Kids) featured a silhouette of a predatory bird that could be cut out and taped to windows to deter birds that might otherwise break their necks as they tried to fly through the clear glass. The associated article explained that the cut-out silhouette was effective because birds instinctively knew what to fear. A silhouette of a harmless seagull would not have been as effective.

However, some deterrents are not so specific, but instead rely on the fear of the unknown. Beach balls outfitted with decals of huge eyes look weird in the garden, but work because so many birds have bird brains that think such contraptions are big, scary and possibly predatory animals. Flash tape and old compact discs work simply because birds do not know what the reflected flashes are.

Scarecrows and other inanimate effigies should be relocated occasionally so they seem to be alive. They should stay near what they are in the garden to protect, and not loiter when it is gone. For example, if protecting ripening fruit, they should leave after the last of the fruit is gone. Otherwise, the target pest animals realize that they are fake or dead. Beach balls, flash tape and compact discs are more animated, so need not be moved so much, if at all, but are too tacky to stay all year.

All this may seem complicated, but can be simple enough for my mother to master with . . . well, allow me to explain.

Pierre Francois is a cute, fuzzy and seemingly French plush toy bunny made in China, who knows all about protecting ripening fruit from squirrels. (‘Stuffed animal’ is no longer politically correct.) After seeing how expensive a fake owl would be, my mother put Mr. Francois in the peach tree. He and his sort are free if borrowed (stolen) from the grandchildren, or very cheap at garage sales or thrift stores. Although cute and soft to us, Mr. Francois is big, intimidating and unfamiliar to squirrels. Before the squirrels get acquainted with him, the peaches will have been harvested, and Pierre Francois will have been reassigned to an apple tree.

Red Passion Flower Vine

Red passion flower seems quite exotic.

Compared to the common passion flower, the three inch wide red passion flower, Passiflora manicata, is more colorful with cherry red flowers, but does not so prominently display the weirdly distended floral parts that passion flowers are known for. Bloom is not as profuse either, particularly among vigorous vines.

However, red passion flower vine has the advantages of somewhat more resilient and greener foliage, and sturdier vines that can climb almost to thirty feet high. It grows so vigorously that it can be surprisingly overwhelming, even if pruned severely or cut to the ground at the end of each winter. It is not so rampant in light shade.

Copies (new vines) are easy to propagate by layering, which involves merely burying a section of vine while still attached to the parent vine until it develops enough roots to be separated. The buried section should be at least a few inches long. At least a few inches of the tip of the vine should extend beyond the buried section.

The fruit of red passion flower vine is considered to be toxic, but often gets eaten anyway. Fortunately, fruit rarely develops.

Red Passion Flower Vine

Red is simpler but more colorful.

The mostly white and blue common passion flower likely remains the most popular. After all, it is the weirdest. Elaborate and disproportionate floral parts imply that it is of another planet. Red passion flower, Passiflora racemosa, although less peculiar, is perhaps a bit more colorful. Its brick red flowers bloom randomly for as long as weather remains warm. 

Flowers are about three or four inches wide. They develop in open racemes that seem to spread out somewhat evenly over the exterior of their foliage. Bloom is not profuse, but is somewhat continuous until autumn. Newer flowers replace older flowers within the same racemes. Leaves are as wide as their flowers, with three blunt lobes and axillary tendrils. 

The lushly evergreen foliage can get shabby through winter, or completely ruined by just mild frost. It regenerates vigorously though. Aggressive pruning as winter finishes delays bloom, but promotes vigorous growth. Vines can potentially reach more than twenty feet. Fruit is rare without manual pollination. Fruit flavor can be bland without tropical warmth.

Citrus Trees Are Dutifully Fruitful

Citrus are most abundant through winter.

Winter is the primary season for citrus fruits. Some ripen significantly earlier. Some ripen significantly later. Many citrus trees continue to produce a few fruits randomly throughout the year. Nonetheless, citrus fruits are collectively most abundant during winter. It seems odd that trees that are vulnerable to frost are so productive during the coolest of weather.

Citrus trees are fortunately only marginally susceptible to frost in only the cooler climates here. They mostly recover from minor damage where they get a bit too much chill. Those in coastal climates may never experience damaging frost. Some types of citrus are more resilient to frost than others. Vulnerable citrus trees may need frost protection when new.

Home garden citrus trees are different from orchard trees. Most orchard trees, particularly older trees, are ‘standard’ trees. They grow on standard rootstock that allows them to get larger, and therefore produce more fruit than ‘dwarf’ trees. Most home garden citrus trees are ‘dwarf’ trees. They grown on dwarfing rootstock that keeps them dense and compact. 

Furthermore, the many cultivars of citrus that are available for home gardening are more diverse than those that commonly grow in orchards. ‘Lisbon’ lemon is very profuse within season, so is preferable for orchards. ‘Eureka’ lemon, although a bit less productive, may be a preferable option for home gardens because it produces a few random fruit all year.

Now that citrus are in season, some last longer than others. Grapefruit can hang on their trees for months. They actually develop richer flavor with mellowing tartness as they age. Conversely, Mandarin orange and tangerine are the most perishable citrus. Because the rind is loose, their pulp within begins to oxidize after ripening. Lime eventually gets pithy. 

Although this is the time of year to enjoy fresh citrus fruits, it is not the season to do much else with citrus trees. Pruning and application of fertilizer will be more timely after winter. Premature pruning or use of fertilizer is likely to stimulate premature growth. Such growth either languishes through cool weather, or succumbs to mild frost.

Pitahaya

White pitaya looks almost otherworldly.

This weird tropical cactus gets mixed reviews. Pitahaya fruit, or dragon fruit, is abundant in favorable conditions, but develops potentially bland flavor. The green succulent stems may be vigorous, but develop distinctly pendulous form that resembles Sigmund the sea monster. Bloom lasts from summer to autumn, but individual flowers open for just a night. 

Selenicereus undatas is the most popular pitahaya. Its fruit weighs between half a pound and a pound, and has white flesh. Selenicereus costaricensis fruit is similar, but with red flesh, and perhaps slightly more flavor. Selenicereus megalanthus fruit is smaller, thorny and yellow, with white flesh and richer flavor. Home grown fruit is superior to market fruit.

Pitahaya grows very easily from cuttings or pruning scraps. Young stems climb with wiry aerial roots, so need substantial support. Fruiting stems hang downward from the tops of such support. Most modern cultivars need no pollinator. Some old cultivars need another of its same species for pollination. Pitahaya is vulnerable to frost where winters are cool.

Pomegranate

Pomegranates are autumn and winter fruit.

As for fig, date, avocado, grape and olive, the esteemed pomegranate, Punica granatum, has been in cultivation for a very long time. Several thousands of years of domestication have generated countless cultivars. They are now popular in many regions and cultures throughout the World. They produce very well here and in other Mediterranean climates.

Most locally popular pomegranate fruits are brownish red, and about three to four inches wide. Each fruit contains hundreds of seed, which are surrounded by juicy and delicately succulent flesh. They separate easily, like many tiny and tender berries. Most are garnet red. Some cultivars produce fruit with darker purplish, lighter pink or even colorless flesh. 

Without dormant pruning, pomegranate trees can get taller than fifteen feet, and develop dense thicket growth. Fruit is easier to collect from well groomed shorter trees. Individual trees may develop a few trunks, and live for two centuries. Orangish red flowers bloom in spring. Leaves turn yellow prior to defoliation in autumn. Fruit ripens in autumn or winter.

Persimmon

Ripe persimmon is surprisingly sweet.

Most other deciduous fruit trees provide delightfully profuse spring bloom as well as fruit. Persimmon, Diospyros kaki, does not. It compensates though, with brilliant orange foliar color for autumn. Defoliation reveals comparably bright orange ripe fruit. The awkwardly bulky fruit may look silly on lanky limbs of otherwise bare trees, but they sure are yummy! 

Persimmon trees will not require a pollinator to generate an abundance of fruit. However, according to some experts, paired trees of different cultivars produce more abundant fruit of slightly better quality. Abundance is not necessarily an asset though. Unfortunately, all that very perishable fruit ripens at the same time. Fruit is inedible before completely ripe.

Mature persimmon trees can get big enough to become moderate shade trees. If they do, their abundant fruit will be too high to reach, and will generate a horrendous mess when it falls. Although they are handsome trees, they should probably stay relatively short and compact. New trees should be planted while dormant during winter, preferably bare root.

The Fruits Of Our Labor

Quince and other fruit used to be much more common in home gardens.

The vast orchards of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys are there for a reason. California is one of the best place in the world to grow fruit trees. However, whether they are in vast orchards or compact urban gardens, even the happiest and healthiest of fruit trees need considerable and specialized attention.

Most of the classic deciduous fruit trees have been bred and selected and bred some more over the past many centuries to produce unnaturally large and abundant fruit. Consequently, most are unable to support the weight of all the fruit that they are capable of producing. This is why it is so important for them to be pruned while dormant through winter.

Pruning improves the structural integrity of fruit trees, and limits the abundance and weight of the fruit produced during the following season. With a bit of planning, pruning can keep much of the fruit within reasonable reach so that those picking it do not need to go dangerously high on ladders. Annual winter pruning also promotes vigorous spring and summer growth that is more resistant to disease.

Apricots, plums, prunes, nectarines, peaches and cherries are all related ‘stone’ fruits (of the genus Prunus), so need various degrees of similar pruning. Peaches need more aggressive pruning because the fruit is so heavy. Cherries and almonds need less pruning because the fruit is lighter. (Almonds can grow beyond reach because the nuts get shaken or knocked from the trees instead of picked.) Regardless of the extent of pruning, the ‘four D’s’, which are ‘dead, dying, damaged and diseased’ stems, should be pruned from all deciduous fruit trees.

Vigorous stems that grew last year need to be thinned and cut back but not removed completely since they are the stems that will bloom and develop fruit next year. The stems that grow from them this year will get pruned next winter to produce the following year. Apples, pears and quinces require similar pruning of their vigorous upper growth, but produce much of their fruit on lower ‘spur’ stems that do not elongate much and may never need pruning.

Fig trees are probably the most tolerant of pruning mistakes, since they produce fruit twice each year. Overly aggressive pruning may compromise their first phase of fruiting, but promotes the second phase. Light pruning does the opposite, compromising the second phase by allowing excessive production of the first phase.

Winter pruning of deciduous fruit trees will undoubtedly seem harsh to a beginner. Trees will need more pruning each year as they grow. Fortunately, pruning becomes more familiar with experience, and as the results of pruning can be observed over time. It is among the most important of gardening tasks for those who grow fruit trees, so is really worth studying more thoroughly.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

Healthy growth can overburden tree limbs.

It was probably the extra chill this last winter that made some deciduous fruit trees bloom more profusely early in spring than they typically do. Unusually busy bees in some regions improved pollination and subsequent fruit set, although some was dislodged by late rain. The sudden warmth this last spring not only improved the flavor of fruit, but also made some grow larger than typical.

More and better fruit is usually what those who grow fruit strive for. The problem with some trees now is excess. After pruning our fruit trees every winter for a few years, we get to know how much to prune them to maximize productions without overloading the trees. When the trees produce more than expected, they may not be able to support the weight of their own fruit.

Many plum and peach trees have already dropped limbs that were overburdened with the weight of fruit. Nectarine, apricot, pluot (and aprium, plumcot and all those weird hybrids), and prune trees can potentially drop limbs as well. Even without breaking, heavy limbs can get disfigured simply by sagging downward. Broken or sagging limbs expose inner bark to sun scald.

Broken limbs obviously can not be salvaged, so can only be removed. They should be cut cleanly away without leaving stubs. Sagging limbs can be propped with notched stakes tucked under side branches that will keep them from sliding upward. The notches keep such stakes from sliding off to either side. Much of the excessive fruit can be removed from severely sagging limbs. However, if the fruit is so ripe that it will not be getting any heavier, there is no advantage to removal.

Formerly shaded bark that suddenly becomes exposed to direct sunlight should be shaded. If partly shaded though much of the day, it should be safe. If expected to be shaded next year by new growth, bark can be protected temporarily with duct tape or stapled cardboard, or even foliated bits of the limb that broke, tied over the bark. Light colored paint is unsightly, but can be applied to reflect sunlight from bark that is expected to remain exposed permanently.

Excessive weight is not only a problem for fruit trees. Some sweetgum, fruitless mulberry and old fashioned Chinese elm trees can produce so much healthy foliage that limbs hang lower than they should. Some shade trees can even drop limbs ‘very’ unexpectedly, when the weather is warm and humid, but without wind.