Apricots need to chill out

By Meg Liptrot

North Island gardeners need to take extra care choosing fruit trees, says Meg Liptrot.

A rigorous cutback uncovers the truth - but weta are opportunists and home in on the stump. Photo / Meg Liptrot
A rigorous cutback uncovers the truth - but weta are opportunists and home in on the stump. Photo / Meg Liptrot

We knew the tree wasn't right for Auckland, despite being told 25 years ago that it was a cultivar suited to our climate. My partner planted an apricot tree after being told this particular variety would do well here. In its entire life the tree fruited twice. A single fruit appeared the year I moved in. I thought it was a sign as the tree hadn't fruited before. It was up high so the birds reaped the benefit of that one.

Then five or so years later the tree blossomed and, lo and behold, we harvested a decent crop of fat juicy apricots which were the best I've tasted. Things seemed to be looking up. But that, unfortunately, was the only time it fruited. A second apricot tree which had been planted a few years later had to come out, too, being in the wrong spot for the small section. The lack of another tree for pollination was not the cause of our poor fruiting luck - apricots are supposed to be self-fertile. The tree never blossomed again, so climate must be the culprit. Apricot trees, like many stonefruit, need a decent period of winter chill to ensure blossom and fruiting success.

Our courtyard design featured our tree as a focal point, with a bubbling water feature in a large pot in the shade the tree provided. The tree provided a sculptural framework for the space and looked good with a spotlight directed up its shapely limbs at night. During extra cold winters I crossed my fingers, hoping the winter cold would help buds to set and it would blossom again in spring. But it never did. We had other fruit trees to enjoy - espaliered figs and a pear, feijoas, bananas and a productive cherimoya, but we still had a hopeful eye on the apricot.

The signs were there. A few blackened shoots one year, then large scallop-shaped fungus grew out of the trunk. One main limb was ailing, the new foliage withering before summer. The bark loosened and insects, including weta, began to carve out a home.

A few weeks ago, I decided to cut the limb off. The death knell rang as the cut revealed that rot had made it into the main trunk. So the decision was made to put the tree out of its misery. A gnarly limb was placed in nearby undergrowth as a weta hotel to keep its native occupants in lodgings.

Although there are several apricot varieties with low chill requirements, apricots do best in Central Otago where the summers are hot and the winters cold. Unless you have an ideal microclimate at your place I would forget choosing a borderline tree in the vain hope it will fruit. Disappointment will likely ensue. As a child, our family home beside the Manukau Harbour had a wonderful peacherine tree, and our pantry shelves heaved with bottles of the golden fruit. With fond memories of this tree, I planted a peacherine in our Grey Lynn garden. This, too, has been a casualty this year. The tree, no more than 8 years old, didn't even bother producing leaves.

Climate change is likely to be playing a part here. What might have been suitable in Auckland 30 or more years ago might not hold true today. I remember walking to primary school regularly crunching through frosts on a crisp winter's morning. Not so many these days. Having been to Rarotonga a few times, I've noticed some similar weather patterns happening in Auckland - hot, humid days, followed by rain in the evening. If you look at climate predictions for New Zealand, the west coast should become wetter, the east coast drier, and there will be more extremes. A 2009 report on climate change implications for the New Zealand summer fruit industry says that the warmer climate has affected apricots in Hungarian orchards where there was an 49-day difference between the blooming time of apricots over a two-year period.

A good plan when choosing fruit trees is to diversify your choices. By all means grow some old stonefruit and pipfruit favourites, but also try bananas and other exotics, particularly if you have a sheltered frost-free spot. Some locations may still suit stonefruit. At a Tree Crops Association meeting, a member bought in some healthy-looking peaches. I asked her what the secret was. She lived in Takapuna - the tree was growing in an exposed cliff top area with good air flow and free-draining soil. She grew her tree from a seedling which meant the tree was vigorous and strong. Always research the origins of the fruit tree and if you can emulate those conditions give it a go.

Look around your neighbourhood to see what is growing well and fruiting. Observe the microclimates at your property and do the research before you invest in a tree. Planning now will pay dividends when buying fruit trees next planting season.

- Herald on Sunday

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