Well, it looks as though Spring is finally shaking off those winter coat-tails. At least, it is down here in Essex. There is now some strong sunshine when the clouds roll back and slowly, ever so slowly, the nights are becoming warmer.
With the increasing warmth and the lengthening daylight, plants (and fruit plants in particular), are beginning to start to move with both blossom and growth buds swelling up and in the case of the stone fruit, coming into flower. This is the most critical time of the year for the fruit grower, both amateur and professional, as the open flowers are at great risk from frosts which will damage the reproductive parts of the flower and kill off any chances of a fruit crop.
The stone fruit, peach, apricot, nectarine, cherry and plum are always the earliest fruits to blossom so if there is a chance of below freezing night-time temperatures, then any covering that you can drape over the tree will help. Horticultural fleece is ideal, but old net curtains, sheets of cardboard, or even sheets of brown paper can stop the damage.
It’s not always easy to protect those flowers, I know, but there is something that we can all do much earlier in the flowering cycle. Body Building! During late August and early September, apply some plant food to the soil around the tree. One of the proprietary brands (which are well balanced), do very well and if you have access to it, some pure sheep wool. Yep, that’s right - sheep wool! It contains about 5% nitrogen in a very usable form for fruit plants. If you can find the odd fleece lying about the place that a sheep doesn’t want any more (or has kindly donated to an all-wool carpet), then place them on the soil around the tree and the worms and the winter weather will do the rest. This idea is especially good for those fruit trees and plants that you have in pots where the reservoir of available nutrients is limited. If you are really stuck and can’t find a friendly sheep, then hair contains about the same amount of nitrogen. I will admit that asking your stylist (or in my case, barber), to please give back all of your freshly cut hair in a doggy bag can attract some odd looks, but needs must for the enthusiastic fruit grower.
So, what does all this feeding do? Well, it’s all down to the robustness of the sexual parts of the flower. The stronger the flower is (and that usually means bigger), then the more likely it is to survive a late frost at blossom time and set you some lovely fruit. In the case of fruit blossom, size really does matter!
Now we have all your flowers looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a tuxedo, we now need plenty of pollinating insects around the trees to forage around in the blossom and pollinate them for us. Even self-fertile varieties require some physical disturbance inside the flowers to move pollen around and for the fruit to set.
Attracting insects to the garden or window box, especially in the very early spring, is no easy matter. Although a fancy sign in the shape of a bumble bee pointing to your tree on bloom may look inviting, it’s very unlikely to do the business. It’s not just bees either, as a huge range of insects will pollinate flowers, and some of them are so tiny, that you hardly even see them.
I can only offer a few suggestions on bug attraction that I find work for us. Bright colours! That’s the best thing that we have found. Your brightest scarf or tea-towel draped over a chair near to the fruit tree attracts. Saucers of sugar water dotted around seem to help. A source of still water, like a pond, or even a bucket with a few small bits of wood floating on the top can help. Don’t empty and refill the bucket though, only top it up. Sorry, but the smellier the better for this job!
Best all though is to have other plants in the garden that flower early and attract the flying insects toward your little plot of paradise. Whatever you do though, just get out in that spring sunshine and enjoy yourselves. Will.