This post is a record of my attempt to fan-train a peach tree on the brick wall of my unheated greenhouse. The post is updated each year to show how the project is going.
How it all started
I purchased my peach tree (‘Duke of York) as a bare-root, part-trained fan, on February 23rd 2020 to grow against the south-east facing wall of my unheated lean-to greenhouse.
I had left it rather late to order online finding most suppliers had sold out. But after a bit more internet digging, I came across Southern Fruit Trees. Turns out, they are a fantastic trained-fruit tree nursery: a small two man team, growing all of their own stock; knowledgable and dedicated. What’s more they are only a 40 minute drive away from me at Liss, West Sussex. As it happens, they are just a stone’s throw from Blackmore nurseries where many of my original fruit trees came from. Southern Fruit Trees, it turns out, actually supply Blackmore! I highly recommend this nursery: they are knowledgeable and helpful.
I drove over to Liss and was delighted to find Southern Fruit Trees packed with well grown, and very reasonably priced, fruit trees. A couple of hours later and I was back home with this lithe young fan-trained peach. As you can see it has had excellent initial training with lots of whip branches all laying in a neat fan-shaped plane, ready to plant, prune and tie in.
I dug a good hole, added some Rootgrow mycorrhizal fungi and backfilled with soil enriched with bone meal.
Once in, I cut back each shoot by one third. This stimulates new growth and ensures the framework stays dense. Left unpruned, the new growth would come mainly from the terminal buds leading to a lot of extension growth from the tips of the tree with only weak growth lower down each stem.
Next, I tied in each shoot to an initial framework of canes. Bending down the branches like this encourages buds to break all along the shoot and ultimately will lead to a bushy and fruitful tree. This early training will set the shape of the tree for years to come.
Three weeks later: bud break, and the first flowers appear. If I’m wise I won’t let these form fruit this year. But I am tempted to leave a couple.
MAy 2020 [update]
By early May, there were many shoots emerging from the side branches. As expected the strongest shoots come from buds closest to the main trunk and closest to the top. Later, these will need cutting back and/or tying in.
June 2020 [Update]
By mid-June the new shoots were pushing forwards into the greenhouse and the whole thing looked more like a shrub than a wall-trained tree. I cut out most of the long vigorous shoots that emerged close to the trunk, including the new ‘central leader’ which was trying to take over. It was 3ft long and had many strong side branches! I should have taken a ‘before’ photo so you could see what I mean, but I didn’t think of it at the time, so here is the ‘after’ photo…
I then tied in the new extension growth that had sprouted from the tips of the shoots that I had previously trained on the canes. Looking at how the fan is developing it is obvious that the bulk of the energy has gone into the top branches, and the lower ones have grown the least. This is why traditional fans start with just two branches — one either side — to prevent the upper branches dominating. Whether this will actually be a problem in the long run, I don’t know. To some extent, fruit training is always an experiment, so watch this space!
Peach Fan — pruning plan
Establishing the framework
(first few years)
As explained above, I started with a partly trained fan, which already had several side shoots. I had to make a decision whether to cut this down to just two side branches (one on each side) or to retain more. I opted for the latter, and trained in five branches on either side. This may not have been a good idea – time will tell – as the upper branches will tend to be the more vigorous and in time the lower ones may decline in vigour, potentially leaving unfruitful areas of wall lower down. I tend to counter this possibility by keeping all shoots at a low angle for the first few years to reduce the vigour.
At this stage my aim is to create a well-balanced framework of permanent branches which spread as far to each side as possible. This involves the following steps:
- In summer remove any shoots that are growing from the main trunk or from the lower part of side branches close to the main trunk. (These can be cut back to two leaves or taken right back to their base)
- Remove any shoots that are growing towards the wall.
- Tie in extension growth (shoots that have grown from the ends of the main branches) to the canes.
As the main branches get longer there will be space to create additional framework branches which fork off above and below to use the extra wall space:
- Choose strong shoots (e.g. one above and one below the main branch) and tie these in to new canes so that they continue the framework, filling in space between main branches. Aim to keep their angle below 45degrees if possible.
- Any remaining side shoots can be tied in as fruiting branches for next year. They can be shortened by one third.
Renewal / Replacement Pruning for fruit
Once the main framework is established pruning will switch to ‘replacement pruning’ which is the method used for peaches. Peaches fruit on last year’s shoots, i.e. on one year old wood. Therefore, once a shoot has produced fruit, it is unlikely to do so again. The requirement, therefore, is to remove shoots that have produced fruit and tie in new fresh shoots to replace them.
So the routine will become:
- After harvesting, cut out shoots that have produced peaches, cutting them back close to a new vigorous shoot.
- Tie the young shoot into the framework in place of the one that had fruited. It will fruit next year.
Late JUne 2020
Well that was a surprise! I was checking the leaves to make sure they didn’t have any insect pests… and they didn’t… when I spotted this little fella…
How did I not notice this a couple of weeks ago when I did the summer pruning?
July 7th: it’s ready. So proud… had to take lots of photos…
It proved to be every bit as delicious as it looked. It was very juicy and overall delicious – as good as any shop bought peach. The only negative was that it was a bit uneven with one side being rather over-ripe and the other side being a bit under ripe. I think next year I need to cut or tie back foliage that shades the fruit so the sun can get to it more evenly.
SPRING 2021 [Update]
One year after planting it, here’s how it’s doing…
Over the next six weeks the peach put on a huge amount of growth, with shoots projecting forwards up to 3 ft from the wall. You couldn’t see the structure and the young peaches were totally hidden.
MAY 2021 – belated pruning
The diagram above aims to explain the pruning logic. The orange branches are what I am planning to keep as the permanent framework. Each year, after harvest, all fruiting branches will be cut back to this framework. The green branches are this year’s shoots which were selected in the spring pruning session (all other shoots were removed at that point). These green replacement shoots will produce next year’s fruit benefitting from the space created when I remove this year’s fruiting branches (ie. the branches not coloured green or orange int he diagram)
July 2021 – Summer Pruning
By July there were many short side shoots that had developed along the framework (orange) and especially on the replacement shoots (green). I reviewed the structure, tied in the main replacement shoots (the green ones in the previous diagram) and cut back all the secondary side shoots to one or two leaves.
July 2021 – HARVEST
The peaches are coming up to harvest. I need to keep checking them every day or two. When they are ready they will separate from the branch easily. (That’s the theory anyway!)
SPRING 2022 [Update]
Two year’s after planting…
March 11th. When the new shoots started to emerge I set about spring pruning last years branches. This involved tying in longer shoots flat against the wall, adding canes where necessary. Any remaining shoots which could not be accommodated were pruned off:
Peach flowers are very pretty (especially close up), but they emerge very early. Fortunately, the unheated greenhouse is enough to ensure they do not get frost damaged. Surprisingly there were sufficient pollinators around in early March that I didn’t need to hand pollinate.
The peach puts on a lot of growth in the eight weeks between March and May. The job today was to prune and tie in branches to take it back flat against the wall. It’s a good time to do this as the fruit is now the size of apricots. Allowing the sun to get to them will help with the ripening.
My approach was to remove any shoots growing straight out, or growing towards the wall. Shoots in the right direction or those that could easily bent into the plane of the wall, were tied in to wires or new short canes. Where there was no space the strongest or best placed shoot was given the space and all others cut back to three leaves (typically 4-5in long).
I thinned some of the fruit where it was growing in clusters so that each has space to develop fully. You can see some of the young green fruit in the photo above. You can also see sachets of biological control which I placed in early April. I used Amblyseius andersoni which is a low temperature red spider mite predator that can be started early in the year (as soon as greenhouse temperatures are over 10C). The leaves are much healthier this year. so it’s working!
You can better see how much was removed in these side-shots:
It’s worth looking back to May 2021 to see how much the tree has grown in one year.
July 2022 – Harvest!
By early July the peaches were looking good…
Peaches started ripening in early July. We were eating them for the following three weeks.
A NEW START
By late August 2022, we had experienced two heatwaves with temperatures in the thirties and two months without rain. I had watered the peach deeply a couple of times during the drought, but the heat and sun had made it put on LOTS of growth. It needed another pruning, but the more I looked at it, the more I regretted my decision to train it as a fan with so many permanent branches.
All of this growth needed removing and/or training. But where would I tie it in? I had already used most of the available wall space. The problem was that next year’s fruit will form on new growth (i.e. on these new shoots), but not on the branches that have flowered and fruited this year. As I looked at the structure, I realised that I had tied in too many young branches last year, leaving no space for this year’s growth to be tied in. Ideally, one would remove the branches that had born fruit this year, and replace them with new shoots which would fruit next year.
In the last two years I have simply tied in the new growth to create an ever-larger fan. But now I have run out of space. If I just cut off all of this excess growth, I will be left for the most part with branches that have already fruited. I can tie in a few short shoots here and there, but my crop is being pushed to the periphery. What to do?
So, I decided to do something drastic. Something that will take several years to fully realise. I decided to cut almost everything off: a serious reworking of the whole structure…
So what have I done and why have I done it? In short, I’ve come up with a sustainable management protocol based on a simple pair of permanent horizontal branches.
the new plan
To achieve the new structure I cut back all of the diagonal framework branches that I had previously trained in. Removing the fan shaped pattern of branches, I only allowed two roughly horizontal ones to remain, almost like a step-over apple. These will be my permanent framework (orange). Biennial shoots will be trained from here (blue and green) which are roughly 12-16inches apart..
Peach Fan — pruning plan vs.2
Establishing the framework (ORANGE)
ORANGE FRAMEWORK BRANCHES
If I was starting from scratch*, I would train two horizontal branches out from the main trunk at about 18inches above the ground. When these reach the ends of the wall they should be cut off to prevent further growth.
In the spring, buds are identified that are pointing upwards (approximately in the plane of the wall). All other buds are rubbed or pinched out.
Of the upward-pointing buds, only sufficient are retained to produce the vertical shoots required. These should be spaced approximately 12 -16 inches apart.
*In my case, as I was starting from a fan, I removed (pruned off) all of the other existing branches leaving just two horizontal ones.
MANAGING FRUITING SHOOTS (BLUE/GREEN)
In a given year the older (blue) shoots will flower and fruit. Any side shoots or extension growth that appears along these during the season will be pruned or pinched out promptly, so that the shoot contains only leaves, flowers and, later, fruit. After harvest, in late autumn, these can be cut back close to their base, leaving a short stump from which buds will form in the spring.
At the start of the year, buds that form along the base of the stumps from the previous year will be examined. A good strong bud* pointing in a favourable direction will be identified and the other buds from that stump will be rubbed or pinched out. The strong shoot emerging from here will be trained vertically up to the eves at which point it will be pruned off. Any side shoots will be removed as they form, so that a single vertical shoot is created, ready to fruit next year.
*Where there is uncertainty, or simply as an insurance policy, two buds can be kept initially. Once they start growing and their respective shoots can be evaluated, one can be removed, leaving the better of the two.
In this way the role of green and blue shoots alternate over a two year cycle, with one set producing fruit each year and the other set producing strong replacement shoots.
Well, that’s the theory. I’ve taken drastic steps, but in the end, I think I made the right decision. Come back next year to see if it worked!
LATE MARCH — Considering how hard I pruned it last year, I was surprised at the amount of flowers that appeared on the stems this spring. Despite looking quite spindly at this time of the year, over the next six weeks, the tree will put on a lot of growth… See!…
MID-MAY — Look how quickly it has grown! The new shoots are sticking out in all directions. Time to get in there and get it back in shape.
In future years, once I have got my routine worked out, I will remove misaligned buds and shoots throughout April, tying in as I go, which will avoid this kind of chaos, but this year, while I am getting the hang of things, I wanted it to develop some long shoots that I could tie in.
First, I located the tall one year old shoots that I had in place at the end of last year. The young fruits developing along these stems only need a few leaves above or beyond them, so long side shoots are a waste of space. So, I cut back these side shoots to one or two leaves. I also took out the tips at the greenhouse eves to stop them growing taller.
Next, working from left to right, I selected and tied in long, new shoots, to create a series of verticals parallel to the existing one-year-old fruiting shoots, with an approximate spacing of 8 inches. As I did this, I cut out shoots that were too small, of didn’t fit into the scheme, and especially any that were growing towards the wall:
This filled in approximately one third to half of the wall space. As you can see, the main horizontal branch to the left and right are still rather immature and have not produced long enough growth to create new uprights on the parts of the greenhouse wall yet. The plan is to repeat the process above next year, and gradually fill in the remaining wall space.
I had been somewhat confused about how to progress this stage in my management plan, as my aim is to end up with an alternating series of vertical canes: new…old…new…old…new…old…, but how does one get there? Currently I have this:
MAY 2023 — So, here is the situation: The main framework (orange) is in place, and the beginning of alternating vertical shoots. Currently, there are three fruiting shoots (last year’s growth – blue) and eight new shoots (this year’s growth – green)
Normally, all the green shoots would be left to flower and fruit next year (becoming next year’s blue shoots). The blue shoots will be cut down to a few inches from their base, so that they will grow replacement shoots next year which can be trained in their places (these will become next year’s green shoots). However, to produce the alternating pattern I want with half blue and half green shoots, at the end of this year, I will cut out some of the green shoots — treating them as if they were blue. If all goes to plan, then by this time next year, I should have the proper alternating pattern.
July 2023 — The tree fruited very well this year. After thinning, I had approximately 35 peaches which grew to harvest. The photo above was taken shortly after pruning back the excess growth which was shading the peaches. I think I need to do this earlier to enable the peaches to get more sunlight earlier. As you can see many of the peaches are rather green/anaemic.
A few weeks later and some of the peaches were ready for eating. This year’s peach harvest was the best so far (in terms of quantity). Their flavour varied from just OK to quite good. The flesh was generally tender, occasionally melt-in-the-mouth. Sometimes the sweetness was lacking, other times the acid-tang or fragrance was lacking. A few of the peaches were exceptionally good. Generally, these were ones that were less crowded, larger and in full sun.
Fuller’s Earth as an organic spider-mite treatment
In the photo above, you can see that the older leaves have a white bloom on them. This is due to a spray of Fuller’s Earth (also known as Diatomaceous Cretaceous Earth). This white powder is used to treat mites and fleas on pets, and treat ant colonies, woodlice and other insect pests. It consists of the fossil remains of microscopic sea creatures. These tiny shell-fragments are inherently sharp — almost like microscopic shards of glass — which can puncture the carapaces of tiny insects, leading them to die by dehydration. Fuller’s earth, is however, harmless to larger insects, pets and children. It is only effective when dry, however, and is usually applied by sprinkling or dusting around ant nests or in pet/hen housing. I recently learned that it can be mixed with water and applied to plants using standard pump sprays. I sprayed the leaves of the peach in an attempt to prevent spider-mites which are always a problem in the dry atmosphere of a greenhouse. It certainly seems to have worked.
More to come…
This post will be regularly updated as the peach tree develops and I train it further. Check back regularly!