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Jane's Garden 6/8/14: Pruning stone fruits during the summer

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Delicious nectarines, peaches, and plums ripen in May and June. Called stone fruit, their seed is a large, hard pit containing an embryo. A few species have been developed to tolerate Florida’s hot, wet summers and mild winters, including the white-fleshed ‘Tropic Snow’ peach and ‘Sun Raycer’ nectarine.

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Central Florida’s winter is short, with few days below 40 degrees Farenheit, only 10 to 15 frosty mornings and a hard freeze or two. Varieties bred for Florida conditions need less chill-hours than those grown further north.

Stone fruit is usually pruned while dormant and leafless in winter. In Florida, November and December are still warm. Stone fruit trees can be sprayed with zinc sulphate to induce defoliation. On a leafless tree, it is easier to see the branch structure and crotches where insects, like scale, and disease dwell. Dormant oils can smother insects, eggs and larvae.

The reasons for pruning are to create a main scaffold framework of up to six branches and keep the tree short enough for easy picking. Dead and diseased wood should be removed as soon as it is noticed to curtail its spread.

Up to 60 percent of annual growth may be winter pruned to reduce the amount of fruit buds and promote larger, better quality fruit. Peaches and nectarines flower in February locally and set fruit on one-year-old twigs, called spurs. Less-productive spurs more than three or four years old are usually removed.

The young trees I planted three years ago in my edible garden had a bumper crop of small fruit this year. They had never been pruned. The dry months of April and May require growers to irrigate to produce quality, large fruit.

I visited Don Skiles at Cross Bayou Farms at 7601 Whippoorwill Terrace, north off County Road 491, east of Holder. He has a fruit grove and blueberry plantation along with a large wholesale nursery. (Hours are 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and 9 to 2 on Saturday. Call Jackie at 352-287-2796 for an appointment or email sales@crossbayou.com.)

Skiles advised me to do a light “summer pruning.” Normally this should be a secondary pruning during the growing season and after harvest. He said to first remove any suckers at the base of the trunk. Next, snip off all twigs and branches pointing into the center or crossing a scaffold branch.

He warned to prune cleanly next to the thickened branch collar, which should quickly heal over to minimize infestation. Leaving a stub lets disease and pests into the tree. Third, remove some of the vigorous new growth to let light into the canopy.

The pruned stone tree should be open in the center and vase-shaped, with a spreading, upright structure. Optimizing light within the canopy promotes the development of fruit buds for next season. It can also stimulate vigorous new growth, which may need pruning in winter to not compete with the main scaffold growth.

Skiles owns a big tree spade machine which attaches to his heavy machinery. This summer he plans to remove every other stone fruit tree and put them in huge nursery pots. After recovery, the peaches and nectarines will be offered for sale as mature trees ready to bear next spring.

For more information on stone fruit pruning, visit the University of Florida’s website at www.edis.ifas.ufl.edu, and look up publications HS1111 and HS365. 

Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Visitors are welcome to her Dunnellon, Marion County, garden. For an appointment, call 352-249-6899 or contact JWeber12385@gmail.com.