Essential Orchard Work for Early Summer

Apprentice House Orchard, National Trust Quarry Bank, 2nd June 2024

Early summer in the orchard can seem like a deceptively quiet time. After blossom season’s burst of life and colour has faded, and before the earliest fruits begin to ripen towards the middle to end of August, all is peaceful. The trees are ticking over, just doing their thing, with apples, pears, plums, medlars, cherries and many more fruits gently swelling and sweetening in the summer sunshine.

It’s very tempting for the orchardist to assume that they can get away with having a quite time of it too. But the summer months should still be a busy time with plenty to do. Putting your feet up – or, more likely, getting on with the weeding and mowing elsewhere in the garden – all summer would mean missing out on some all-important orchard jobs.

So whether you’re lucky enough, like me, to be responsible for an entire orchard or three, or if you just have a few fruit trees to care for, here are the most important tasks for your summer to-do list:

Thinning Fruitlets

Depending on a whole range of factors – everything from the age of the trees, to the quality of the soil they’re growing in, to the intensity and quality of light levels they receive, to how big a harvest there was last year – there’s a good chance that your fruit trees will be laden with small but growing fruitlets; pollinated flowers that are slowly developing into mature, edible fruits.

However, if the conditions have been right then there’s also a good chance that the tree is actually carrying far too many fruitlets for its own good. Too many mature fruits later in the year can lead to snapped branches, small average fruit size, under-ripe and tasteless fruit, and can have the knock-on effect of reducing the number of viable fruit buds that the tree can produce next year as well.

To reduce the risks of all of the above, do schedule in as many thinning sessions as you can, for as many fruit tree canopies as you can safely access. I’ve written a couple of articles in the past about the method and benefits of fruit thinning; please see the following for details:

Checking Grafted or Newly Planted Trees for Signs of Rootstock Regrowth

If you grafted any new trees earlier in the year, or of you have any recently-planted, young trees, then now is definitely the time to check them for rootstock regrowth. If new leaves are growing from buds on the scion – the top-growth of the variety you want – that’s a good sign. However, if they’re growing from below the graft union – the join between scion and rootstock – that means the rootstock is trying to develop its own shoots.

If rootstock regrowth is allowed to happen then those new rootstock shoots will divert resources away from the scion. The scion’s growth will most likely be stunted, and it could even die off as a result. So it’s vitally important to remove any new rootstock growth, either by rubbing off buds, or snipping off new stems, as soon as you see them start to develop.

Again, I’ve written about this in more detail in the past; please see the following for more on the reasons for removing any rootstock regrowth, and how to go about it:

Clearing Tree Circles

This is a decent tree circle but it could do with being extended a bit and well-weeded

Keeping a clear, weed-free, well-mulched tree circle around the base of fruit trees is particularly important during the first few years of a ground-planted tree’s life. Ideally the area underneath the canopy of the tree should be cleared of all weeds and grass, and now is a great time of year to do it, before said weeds and grass can get a firm foothold. The cleared ground should then be well-watered, and well-mulched with organic matter, to help seal the moisture into the soil.

You probably don’t want to mulch with something that’s too nitrogen-rich, because that could encourage the tree to put on far more green, leafy growth than it really needs to. If so, avoid using something too rich, like well-rotted horse muck. I find composted bark is an ideal material to use; it has a good balance of carbon and nitrogen and will hold its structure for a couple of years before it needs to be renewed, although a fresh layer of mulch on an annual basis seldom hurts. If you don’t have a source of composted bark to hand you could use grass cuttings, although depending on the state of the grass that was cut they might contain more weed seeds, and they will probably need to be raked away at the end of the season in case they harbour hibernating pest larvae over-winter.

If you don’t keep the tree-circles clear, then the grass and weeds will intercept and take up vital rainwater and soil-borne nutrients from the fruit tree’s root-zone. Most fruit trees tend to be relatively shallow-rooted, and so any weeds that are growing in the same space will inevitably reduce the availability of those key nutrients and essential water supplies, at a time of year when the tree really needs a steady supply to keep its leaves healthy, ripen its fruit, and set fruit buds for next year. Tall grass around the base of a young tree can also hide the development of rootstock suckers and make them harder to remove, which again can be to the detriment of the tree in the first few years of its development.

Once a fruit tree is well-established and fruiting regularly then the maintenance of a tree circle becomes less essential. The trees in the photo at the very top of this post were all planted in the mid-1980s; they’ve grown to their maximum extent by now and are fruiting nicely, so the grass has been allowed to grow right up to their trunks, and is left long for most of the summer, to encourage wildlife into the orchard, which helps to make it an even lovelier place to walk through and spend time in.

Watering and Feeding Potted Trees

Apple trees growing in pots are unable to easily access water and nutrients

Growing a fruit tree in a large pot or container, providing it’s on suitably dwarfing rootstock, is a great way to fit a small tree into a garden space, or to grow a range of different types, or a selection of cultivars of one particular fruit, if you don’t have access to enough land for larger sized trees.

However, potted fruit trees are extremely limited in terms of their access to nutrients and water. Once they’ve exhausted the growing medium in the pot you’ll need to ensure they stay topped up with enough nutrient-rich feed to help their fruits to develop and ripen. That means feeding them, with a high-potassium liquid feed, such as tomato feed, at regular intervals through the summer months.

A liquid seaweed tonic is also a good idea, as this will provide additional micronutrients, although do bear in mind that not all liquid seaweed provides the basic NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) that a more general feed contains. Always check the label of the plant food in question for details, and if you are using a seaweed tonic that lacks NPK, you can always dilute it into a tomato feed solution to help cover all the nutrient bases.

The advice pages on the Orchard Project website suggest a fortnightly feed is required, and I quite agree that that sounds like a good interval to aim for.

In between doses of liquid feed, it’s vitally important to keep an eye on the moisture levels in the pot, especially if temperatures – and therefore the rate of evaporation from the soil, and the tree’s own rate of transpiration from its leaves – rise when the weather is warmer. If a fruit tree doesn’t have enough water it will be quick to shed leaves and fruitlets to compensate, and once those fruitlets have dropped there’s no chance of them re-growing until next year.

It’s generally considered best to water the soil in the pot thoroughly every few days, rather than to sprinkle water on the surface more often; that surface water will evaporate quickly, and if the water doesn’t reach the tree’s roots then it isn’t going to be any use.

A Note on Summer Pruning

General gardening books, and even some fruit pruning manuals, sometimes contain instructions to prune fruit trees in summer in order to “control growth”, “promote fruiting”, or to “help fruits ripen”. I have an extremely strong suspicion that this advice is often a misinterpretation of a pruning method that, whilst it can be applied in some circumstances, definitely shouldn’t be used as a one-size-fits-all schedule for pruning all types of fruit trees.

In all honesty, I’ve been meaning to look into the subject properly for a few years now, and it’s still very much a work in progress. But suffice to say that so far I’ve come across much more scientific research that has concluded summer pruning to be a bad idea – potentially harmful to the trees being pruned – than I have research that highlights the benefits of the process. As I say though, further research will be forthcoming. But in the meantime, I’d suggest holding off.

Having said that, two exceptions might be: 1) if you’re managing a highly-trained form of fruit tree – such as an espalier, fan, or one of the more complex wall-training systems – that’s part of a prescribed garden design and therefore needs to be kept as tightly clipped and controlled as possible; in other words a tree that has has a primarily aesthetic and only secondarily productive purpose. In that case, pruning new growth should be an ongoing process, with young stems being removed at intervals throughout the tree’s active growth phase.

Case 2) is all species of Prunus – plums, apricots, peaches, nectarines, cherries, etc. – which should not be pruned in the winter months, to help reduce the risk of silver leaf disease. This fungal condition can have a devastating effect on an infected tree, and its spores are more active in cooler, wetter weather, which is why the general thinking is that you should prune younger Prunus trees in April and more established trees in July, as per the RHS advice on pruning plums.

If you’re interested in the science of summer pruning, you can read some of my initial thoughts on the topic in my series of posts on winter-only pruning stepover trees:

And please do consider signing up to my email mailing list, which means you’ll receive a weekly update when I post new content, so when I do start posting articles on the subject of summer pruning, and the science of fruit tree growth more generally, you’ll be one of those in the know.

Anything Else?

What do you think? Have I missed anything obvious or essential? What work do you like to get done on your fruit trees over the summer months? Do let me know, via the comments.

4 comments

  1. Hi Darren, thank you for the summer to do list, very helpful that is. I’ve grafted my apple trees this spring (three of four has taken, yey!) and kept in pots. Should I plant them out now or is it ok for them to stay in pots until autumn/ winter? They are on dwarf rootstock and might even go into bigger pots to stay. Also, if I may ask, when do I take the grafting tape off? Thank you.

    1. Hi Liena – If the pots are large enough to allow for some root development, and as long as you water and feed them regularly, then I’d say they should be fine to stay potted until they’re dormant in the winter, yes. Then you can decide whether to plant them in the ground, or pot them up into a larger size, as you say. Opinions vary as to when the best time to take the tape off is. Some folks prefer to remove it after only a few weeks, but I tend to leave it on until the following spring. Sometimes a graft union can be a bit fragile when it’s new-set and keeping the tape on can provide a bit of extra support until the scion and rootstock have fully fused.

      1. Perfect, thank you. Will be watching them in pots carefully, somewhat attached I am now to them.
        May I ask another question, please? I’ve decided to train another apple tree into a u cordon. I have now two shoots nicely developing – one more vigorous than the other. When do I start bending them towards the desired shape? Can I bend the more vigorous one to, say, 45 degree angle now to give the other one a better chance? Or can I go fully 90 degrees (the vigorous one has grown about two feet now)

        Thank you

        1. Hi Liena – U-cordons are a lovely tree form to have, if you can get them to work well. There are a couple of training options: cutting back to a suitable bud, or bending the stems.

          The cutting back method would involve trimming the leader to about where the side-stem has already grown, making sure there’s another side-stem, or another well-placed bud, roughly opposite the first stem. These two side-stems will form the short horizontals, and when they reach the desired length they’ll need to be cut back again, to an upward-facing bud or side-stem. These two stems can then be allowed to grow into the vertical stem that forms the main upright, one on each side. The bending method is similar – again, the leader needs to be removed, to allow two side-stems to grow out at around 45°. Then, when they’re still flexible enough, they can be gently bent and tied in to the support structure to form the U shape, and allowed to grow upright in subsequent years.

          It sounds like your tree already has a strong leader (main stem), and then a side-stem? In which case, you could try bending the leader into shape, to see if it is flexible enough, but there’s a good chance it will always be stronger than the second stem and the U-shape will grow unevenly. In which case, it’s probably best to cut the leader back as soon as you can to give the tree enough of the remaining growing season to develop that second side-shoot. Then you can train both shoots evenly next year.

          Good luck!

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