Summer's stone age

Owen Pidgeon
Peaches: Difficult but rewarding in the Canberra climate.
Peaches: Difficult but rewarding in the Canberra climate. 

We have just had visitors from Sydney in search of early apples and sun-ripened peaches - which have such luscious, sweet flesh when left on the tree to ripen.

They're quick-growing fruit trees. New fruit is produced on last year's wood so you can expect to begin harvesting a small crop in two or three years from planting. Peaches are also generally self fertile, so this is one of the few fruit trees that can be grown alone in the backyard.

Because of the fast growth, you must prune peach trees quite rigorously each winter. In addition, they don't live as long as many other fruit trees. We are replanting most of our peach trees, now 10 to 12 years old.

If you have a tree overladen with small fruit now, remember next year to thin the fruit in October. All that extra fruit drains the growing energy from the tree.

The best seasons for peaches are hot and dry. Rain and humidity close to harvest cause problems with brown rot.

Depending on variety, the harvest spans the three months of summer, with the canning peaches, such as golden queen and taylor queen, ripening last. Most peach varieties need 800 to 1200 chill hours over winter. If they don't get it, many of the flower buds will not set fruit, dropping off before budburst or remaining non-fertile. So lots of cold days are needed over winter, but as the peach tree flowers in late August, the buds must then survive late frosts.

This makes Canberra marginal for peach growing. When you add the matter of soil and drainage, you begin to understand why there are no major peach orchards in the district. Peach trees really need free-draining soils. If you want to be successful in your backyard, prepare the ground on a gentle slope or create a small mound. Lighten up clay-based soil for better drainage. Good backyard varieties to grow include the early maturing white-fleshed peaches. You will hardly ever see them in the shops because they have a really delicate soft flesh that bruises easily. Anzac, Bendigo beauty, briggs early May and fragar are the best known white-flesh varieties. I am waiting for my French lady peach trees to produce their first crop of white-fleshed peaches. These came originally from Bergerac, east of Bordeaux.

Early yellow flesh varieties include cardinal and coronet, both high yielding with good flavour. Redhaven and Regina are good mid-season varieties with good skin colour and sweet, firm flesh.

Store peaches (and nectarines) at about two degrees. Quality deteriorates much faster if they are stored above five degrees and the fruit will ripen further above eight degrees. So place in the coldest part of your refrigerator.


In the garden

■ Plant coriander and basil in pots or directly into garden beds. Prepare your beds for transplanting any winter vegetables that you've been growing inside, or buy seedlings and plant out.

■ Apply extra mulch where the grass is growing through (weed first), always leaving a small space around plants to avoid stem rot.

■ Keep tying up tomato plants at 25-30cm distances to their stakes.

■ Harvest carrots carefully and replace the soil so the remaining carrots can continue growing.

■ Consider inserting raised mesh support under ripening pumpkins and melons, to prevent skin damage from lying on damp soil. A thick layer of sugar cane mulch is an alternative as it drains well.

■ Keep collecting fallen stone fruit, apples and pears from under your fruit trees. Windfalls with no bruising can be cooked, if collected soon afterwards.

Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.