Shaping and repairing fruit trees

With winter on the way and our minds turning towards tree pruning and maintenance, here’s two simple techniques to help look after the structure of your trees. 

Tree training with baling twine
Tree training with baling twine

The first one is a trick we use in the orchard to help trees shape up – literally!

We often use baling twine (some people call it hayband) to hold limbs in the right place, or to offer support to a young limb while it strengthens up. 

A peach tree being encouraged into the right shape
A peach tree being encouraged into the right shape

There are a couple of things to be aware of if you’re tying branches together: 

  • Never tie the twine tight around the branch, because it can quickly become too tight and strangle the branch. Instead, use one big loop of twine or rope that goes around two limbs that are opposite each other (the weak one that needs holding up, and a strong one on the other side of the tree) – think of it like a big rubber band.
  • Review it next year, and remove if the weak branch has become strong enough to hold itself upright.
  • Be careful when you’re working on branches that have been tied together, e.g. pruning, thinning or picking, because they won’t be as ‘stretchy’ as usual and it’s actually easier to break them if they’re tied together. 

A similar technique can also be used to help hold a broken branch in place after you’ve applied a ‘splint’ to help it heal, which is the second technique we want to show you today.

A broken branch can often be put back together, as long as there’s still enough wood and bark in place to have maintained the flow of water and nutrient from the roots to the broken piece, and if the two broken pieces will fit neatly back together.

In much the same way as wood heals when we do a graft, broken branches can be encouraged to heal by holding the two pieces together and binding firmly in place – you may need to prune away some jagged pieces first to get a neat fit. We’ve used grafting tape in the photo above to hold the split firmly in place.

If you don’t discover the break immediately, it may have already started to heal in the broken position, in which case it can be a bit harder to get a really tight seal (as you can see in the photo above). In this case it’s a good idea to bind them as close as you can get them to start with, then come back in a month or so, remove the bandage and see if you can get the two pieces to fit together more tightly, then bandage again. 

Here’s another example of the same technique, used to repair a trunk that has split in half.

Tree repair using cable ties
Tree repair using cable ties

Cable ties have been used in this case, to get a really tight seal between the two broken pieces.

As with grafting, it’s important to remove the bandage when the wound has healed so it doesn’t provide a strangulation point as the diameter of the branch naturally expands as it grows.

Now is also the right time to be getting ready for the regular winter maintenance pruning (if this topic is confusing take our Pruning Mature Fruit Trees online short course to get a handle on it), so this is the perfect time to do any shaping or repair any breaks you missed during the summer.


Almond harvest time

Green almonds pre-harvest before the husks have opened
Green almonds pre-harvest before the husks have opened

Apart from all the fruits that are grown commercially in the orchards on our farm, we also have a pretty big garden, with a wide variety of fruit and nut trees, including 8 almonds (2 each of 4 different varieties) under net.

We’re big fans of nut trees in gardens, particularly if you’re trying to build a permaculture (which stands for “permanent agriculture”) system. We’ve written about them before here and you can find out more about how to create a permaculture system here.

Almonds ready to harvest - the husks have opened and started to dry
Almonds ready to harvest – the husks have opened and started to dry

You can tell when they’re ripe because the husks open up, as you can see above, exposing the shell underneath (and the almond nut is inside the shell).

This week we started picking them, because some of them had started opening up. The other indication they’re ready is that some are on the ground, but we don’t want too many on the ground because in past years we’ve found they’re a pain to find in the grass, because we usually let it grow quite long underneath the almond trees.

Long grass under the trees can hamper the harvest!
Long grass under the trees can hamper the harvest!

This year we learned from previous year’s pain, and cut the grass a few weeks before harvest, which made the process much easier!

After we’ve picked, we remove the husks before we store the nuts, and then we shell them as we need them through the year as they stay much fresher in the shell.

Mowed grass under almond trees makes it easier to find the fallen nuts
Mowed grass under almond trees makes it easier to find the fallen nuts

Now that the trees are mature, 8 trees supply us with enough nuts for eating all year, plus we grind some into meal and use them in cooking as well.

Our small almond block is planted in 2 rows, with 2 trees each of 4 different varieties. Like so many other well-meaning but vague gardeners, we lost the tags, so we don’t know which variety is which! (This is one of the things we caution against in our Grow Great Fruit program — so do as we say, not as we do!)

Variety 1 in our almond block

Normally we pick the whole crop together, but this year we’ve kept the different varieties separate, and will attempt to identify them. As you can see from the photos of the first 3 varieties we’ve picked, they’re all quite different. Variety 1 has a very papery shell (which suggests it might be Canadian Papershell).

Variety 2 in our almond block

We planted pollinisers together, so variety 2 must be either Ne Plus Ultra, Mission or IXL. Ne Plus Ultra has very large kernels, and as you can see from the photo (the sunnies are there to give a size comparison between varieties), #2 is much smaller than #1, so that rules out Ne Plus Ultra. It’s more likely to be Mission, which yields relatively small kernels. Other options include Johnsons Prolific or IXL.

Variety 3 in our almond block

Varieties #3 and #4 were also pollinisers for each other, so the likelihood is that they are Brandes Jordan and Chellaston, but we have no idea which is which! Oh well, they’re all delicious, so it doesn’t really matter, though it’s going to leave me forever curious…

A beautiful almond flower at sunset
A beautiful almond flower at sunset

Four reasons for yellow leaves on fruit trees

Welcome to autumn! Though we’re having quite a warm summery week here in central Vic, we’ve had the first few cool, crisp mornings, and there’s a definite shift in the air.

Leaves on Angelina plum trees (on the LHS) starting to turn yellow in autumn
Leaves on Angelina plum trees (on the LHS) starting to turn yellow in autumn

Even if it still feels quite summery at your place, you can expect to start seeing some typical autumn features in your fruit trees soon.

For example you might start to see the leaves on your fruit trees start to turn yellow (if they haven’t already), especially if you’ve already picked the crop. The typical pattern is that the leaves will stay green and continue doing their job as long as the tree is bearing fruit, but once the fruit is off, it will quickly start go into senescence, or winter dormancy.

Close-up of yellowing leaves on plum tree
Close-up of yellowing leaves on plum tree

At that time, the tree starts to withdraw all the useful nutrients from the leaves back into the buds and bark — the first sign of this happening is the leaves changing colour. This type of yellowing is completely normal, and you see it every year.

Another reason for yellowing leaves that is of more concern is caused by lack of water, as you can see on this cherry tree.

A cherry tree that has turned yellow from lack of water
A cherry tree that has turned yellow from lack of water

It’s all too easy for this to happen when you have an automatic irrigation system, because drippers can easily block up, and unless you’re checking them regularly (which is a really good idea), you might not realise you have a problem until the tree starts telling you loud and clear by the leaves turning unseasonally yellow (you can see all the other trees nearby are still green).

Another common reason for leaves to turn yellow is from nutritional deficiencies.

Iron deficiency (chlorosis) on peach leaves
Iron deficiency (chlorosis) on peach leaves

A number of nutritional deficiencies can cause yellow leaves as one of their symptoms, including iron (as you can see above), manganese and zinc.

The fourth reason for yellow leaves is because of a virus disease, such as apple mosaic virus as you can see in this leaf.

Apple mosaic virus on leaf
Apple mosaic virus on leaf

Viral diseases are not good news, but unfortunately are not really treatable, so the best bet is to look after the tree as well as you can, and try to avoid the virus spreading by not planting other trees of the same type nearby.

So if the leaves on your fruit tree are turning yellow it’s probably a perfectly normal seasonal response, but your tree might also be trying to tell you something! If you feel like you need more detailed help diagnosing what your fruit tree is trying to tell you, please download a copy of Keep Your Fruit Trees Free From Disease short course.

Apricot leaves showing beautiful autumn yellow and orange colours
Apricot leaves showing beautiful autumn yellow and orange colours