Apricots-not as difficult as you think

There are many fruits that taste considerably better off the tree than their equivalent shop bought. Most commercial fruits are picked too young, and after shipping, storage and display can only be a poor substitute for what they could have been. But a fresh home grown apricot rises above such mere distinction, the texture as well as the taste becomes sublime. You have not lived till you have eaten a sun warmed apricot fresh plucked from the branch. The sweet, tart and aromatic flesh can be so gorgeous you barely believe it is the same fruit as the supermarkets sell. And indeed it may not be. There is a large range of delectable apricots varying in season, size and even taste; all of which are far better fare than the commercially grown ones from hotter regions. Fruits grown on the margins of their viability usually develop far richer and fuller flavours than those romping away in warmer places. Apricots can be surprisingly easy and produce heavily like plums but have not been much planted because in the past they cropped less than reliably. The main reason is they flower so early the flowers and the small fruitlets get spoiled by frosts. But over the last few years the milder, even if wetter springs, have not had many or very hard frosts and my trees have cropped accordingly. If we continue with these milder springs then apricots as bush trees will become viable over much more of the country. Even with spring frosts they nearly always crop a few fruits most years where these miss damage and then occasionally throw immense crops in the years they escape. Over twenty years they have more than paid their way for me. Of course it is possible to protect free standing bushes against frost with a sheet covering it or similar. It is easy when the bush is small but as it gets bigger this becomes impractical. However as a bush gets bigger more fruits escape damage anyway being protected by the warmth rising from the soil getting held amongst them by the twiggy tops. Thus I’ve found that unpruned trees can usually give a few fruits whereas the neatly pruned ones have too open a framework and so all their blooms get frosted. This effect is fortunate as apricots prefer to be left to grow as small bushy trees and resent much pruning and training. If they do need pruning, say to remove diseased or damaged branches then it is awkward as they can get Silver Leaf Disease. This means to avoid infection they should only be pruned in midsummer. But with very brittle branches they are prone to winter damage and often need tidying up at the worst possible time when the disease is about. To ward off infection I sear all major saw and pruning wounds with a blowtorch and then seal them with a healing paste. Of course in many areas bush trees are not practical and it is traditional to have apricot trees fan trained on walls. This means very methodical summer pruning to build up the frame, with a lot of disbudding almost daily. Or rather inevitably it gets winter pruned at the wrong time risking disease. However on a wall the wounds do not get so wet and are less at risk, even so wounds need treating as for the bushes. Growing apricots fan trained on a wall with all it’s inconvenience does make crops achievable in even more places. The wall even helping pollination as well by stilling the winds and allowing more pollinators to work the blooms earlier in the year. A south facing wall is excellent, a west one will do, or an east one at a push (the pretty all white though pink in bud) flowers are exposed to the rising sun which is fatal if they have been at all touched by frost) but a north one will not do. In order to escape most frosts it is necessary to not only keep the growths fairly close to a wall but to have a curtain you can place in front on the coldest nights. If this is fixed to a coping directly above that protrudes from the top of the wall (like the eaves of a house) then it makes a very effective screen –but the curtain must be removed during the day so the bees can pollinate and so the new growths do not get soft or etiolated by the dim conditions. It does help if you use a soft brush, cotton wool ball or similar and hand pollinate. This ensures a good set, which should then be followed by a couple of thinnings. Ideally remove enough apricots so they will not touch each other when full grown and no more than three or four to the foot of leafy growth. If you leave more they will be smaller and exhaust the tree more as it will have formed more stones. Fortunately unripe apricots can be used with sugar to make excellent tarts and conserves. Although there are dozens of varieties you can get away with just one apricot as they are mostly self fertile. And although they can be grown on their own roots they are always grafted on dwarfing rootstocks. However it is possible to grow them from seed. They often come nearly true and can fruit in only a few years, though to be fair a decade or longer is more common. However varieties from seed may suffer more from dieback whilst those selected for the UK have some tolerance to this disease. This dying back is symptomatic of poor conditions but is aggravated by cool wet years. The ends of branches die back and need pruning out, this can weaken trees and even kill them if left to spread. Other than improving the conditions- more warmth, more feed, less wet at the roots, there is little you can do. They are not as enduring as apple and most other trees. In essence apricots are as peaches living on borrowed time and should be considered more like soft fruit with a given life. And like peaches they cannot be worked back or regrafted very easily. Even so you can get twenty or more years of sporadic cropping before the dieback and brittleness cause the tree to fail one winter. However occasionally a tree will make a venerable old age. It will be in a light sandy calcerous loam, warm in summer and dry in winter and well but not overfed. In clay they are shorter lived. There is one other problem with apricots, and other fruits, in the milder maritime regions such as the south west and west of the UK. Here the autumns and winters are too mild and the trees may not go dormant, especially if they are on a wall. Their growths tend to be weak and waste away and they do not break with vigour in the spring. This is for two reasons; firstly the wood needs a good ripening in autumn, hot and dry rather than mild and damp. And secondly the trees need a couple of months of really cold weather to chill them enough to go properly dormant. By putting them on walls to get freedom from frost and better ripening fruits we can help with the wood ripening, but we handicap the winter chilling. Apricots are worse than peaches under cover and really resent being permanently under glass or plastic. Thus in such regions the old ‘orchard house’ method is worth trying. The bushes are grown in large tubs. These live outdoors in winter in a cold place such as on the shady north side of a wall- but not so close to it they receive any protection from it. Then in spring these tubs are brought into the warm protection of a cold greenhouse or similar. They come into flower and leaf and crop very early indeed, then once the fruit has been picked they go outside again. Preferably to a warm sunny spot in front of a hot wall to ripen their wood till they are moved to the shade for winter again. Pruning is minimal as the tub controls the vigour and dieback rarely gets in. However the compost needs regular top dressing to keep the plants happy. Watering is crucial from bud burst to harvest, it can be reduced once the plants go outdoors to encourage harder wood. Be very careful never to drown the roots which can expire over night! Tub growing apricots is a lot of labour moving them, plus watering and feeding, and hand pollination. But the extra early crops, and their reliability everywhere makes them really worthwhile. Thus although I have my main croppers planted outdoors I still go to the effort of having more in tubs. Go on try one yourself-you won’t regret it. Varieties- Moor Park – known sine 1760, one of the most commonly available and a very good sort, sweet orange flesh, some think this may be a Plumcot; a hybrid with a plum as the leaf and young shoots are slightly different to most others. Worth growing if only one can be chosen as it is fairly reliable. Bredase, not Breda, -my favourite, small very tart fruits with lovely flavour and making the most delicious golden jam. Thought to be an old Roman sort. Very heavy cropping in good years. Breda is ok but not as tasty as Bredase. Farmingdale- I find this a big bush and a shy cropper but then it gives huge extremely tasty fruits. Hemskerk- another shy cropper of big fruits with gorgeous flavour. Goldcot & Tomcot- vigorous and reliable and good substitutes for Moor Park but not quite as tasty. Shop bought- seeds such as these can produce somewhat random results, however most who have grown them to cropping size have been pleased with results. Hunza- these are small dried apricots from ‘health food stores’, the dried fruits are brown and their stone is small and almost spherical. If planted these make very twiggy bushes, very early to flower and rather prone to dieback. They only crop rarely but then the small fruits have sweet white flesh and are very tasty indeed.

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