It's bloom or bust

Owen Pidgeon
French intern Marie Roqueta inspects blossoms of pear at Loriendale.
French intern Marie Roqueta inspects blossoms of pear at Loriendale. Photo: Owen Pidgeon

As the flowers have bloomed at Floriade in a grand array, the blossoms are also greeting us in early spring. It's beautiful but if you have backyard trees - or an orchard - early spring is quite an anxious time.

On a clear, sunny, calm day it is a delight, but when the weather turns the planning and hard work of days and months and years can be overturned in hours.

We are so dependent on the weather. You wonder, could I have done anything else to prepare? You think back to last summer and remember that you left too many fruits hanging on a tree, causing it to become biennial and not carry any crop this season.

We finished pruning on schedule this year, thanks in large part to our internee from Lille, Marie Roqueta, who removed the branches growing inwards to let light in to colour the fruit. We also completed fertilising the orchard trees just before the welcome mid-September rain. We applied three kilograms of certified organic fertiliser around the perimeter drip line of the larger trees, 1.5 kilograms for smaller trees and we mulched around all of the small trees newly planted this winter.

So now we wait and watch. Frosts are the first big concern, especially for the trees that flower earliest. This is why Canberra is marginal for growing beautiful stone fruits. I persist with some but the fact that apricots burst into blossom from mid-August and peaches and nectarines in late August means there can be many evenings of frost to follow.

Fruit trees are resilient and the forming fruit buds can make it through a night with light frost, but if the temperatures fall too much they are ''nipped in the bud'' for another season.

The plum and pear trees started blossoming in mid-September. These delicate white blossoms can be so thick along the branches they could be used as a bouquet, and the pear blossoms have a lovely scent. The delicate cherry blossoms follow quickly. This is such a transient event, with the cherry blossoms out for such a short time that you wonder if they can produce a harvest at all.

Rain and wind create real problems with pollination and fruit setting. If the winds are strong, the bees and other insects can't do their vital job of pollination. If the daytime temperatures remain below 16 degrees it's too cold for the bees to be out and about. Rain also keeps the bees in their hives.

On top of all this uncertainty with the weather, we've had a total fire ban declared. Can anyone recall a total fire ban in September before? I cannot. Our land is one of extremes.

Apples have four different blossom times so, given the need for cross-pollination, you don't want high temperatures to be followed by a very cool period, as it will push the early flowering varieties to launch early, then delay the later-blossoming ones. Granny Smith is a good pollinator but this spring it bloomed very early, as did the pink lady and French-origin ''new gold'' apples. The question is whether the Granny Smith apple blossoms will hang long enough to help set fruit for later-flowering varieties.

For the curious, we have one apple variety that flowers weeks ahead of the rest - even earlier than normal this year because of the lack of a really cold winter. This is a variety developed in Israel called Anna. Our three Anna apple trees launched into bloom before the end of August and we have been checking ever since to see whether the apples would set - they have.

So we're waiting anxiously to get through the last of the frost-prone days and preparing also for the departure of Roqueta, who has been one of those few students with real commitment and care, keen to learn about growing organically, and also to think about better management and marketing.

Owen Pidgeon owns the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.

This week

  • Sow follow-on rows of beans and sweetcorn. Sow silverbeet, beetroot and baby carrots for a Christmas harvest.
  • Prepare mounds with lots of compost and sow pumpkin, zucchini and rockmelon seeds, or transplant seedlings. Cover them overnight when the temperature is forecast to dip below four degrees.
  • Continue planting potatoes for a mid-season harvest. Remember to make a hill around the emerging shoots.
  • Apply a preventative spray for apple scab. I recommend a light contact spray of lime sulphur, at 1.5 per cent solution, every 10 to 14 days, or more frequently if rain is imminent.
  • Check your irrigation and lay pipes and sprays to new garden beds before the hot days arrive.