June – a peach of a month!
Having just passed the longest day, 21st June, I think it's fair to say that summer is here and so far it's proving pretty good, fingers crossed! That combined with a mild and moist Spring means that West Dean Gardens is probably looking as good as it ever has in my 23 years as Gardens Manager, so if you haven't yet paid us a visit then make sure you do so soon. If you come in the next few weeks you might well be able to buy a punnet of our fabulous peaches and nectarines that are just starting to be picked.
The production of top quality fruit for the "big" house was an important part of the Walled Gardens historic role and within that, overall brief glasshouse fruit production was the highest demonstration of the fruit gardeners art. In the restoration of the Walled Garden in the mid 1990's we decided that we would try to revive that tradition and as a consequence still have two fig houses, three vineries, a dedicated nectarine house and a further 4four fan trained peach trees on the rear wall of what had originally been two orchard houses, but that now grow tomatoes in the summer and protect plants needing a frost free environment overwinter.
Our peaches and nectarines are all grown as fan trained trees and, as with all trained wall fruit, rely on having a robust wire support system of tensioned 12.5 gauge (2.5mm) galvanised wire, approximately 3mm of the wall and at 23cm spacings, on which to train and tie the branch framework. Again, as with all plant training, the most important stages are the formative ones and these can't be skimped or hurried, suffice it to say that to produce a decent fan you need to start with a feathered maiden and then follow the steps as described beautifully in Harry Baker's "Fruit", publisher Mitchell Beazley, out of print but is the best guide to fruit pruning for the novice, well worth seeking secondhand. Alternatively Michael Pollock's "Fruit and Vegetable Gardening" is also good and in print. Whatever your guide you are looking at, it takes four years to get the thing established and ideally you should not let it fruit at all in the first couple of years so that it's energy is focused on establishing a strong framework. Despite that it's well worth the wait because there is nothing more sensuous than eating a perfectly ripened, sun warmed white peach fresh from the tree. The old story was that they should only be eaten in the bath because they are so full of nectar like juice that you can't avoid getting drenched eating them! However, they are awkward to harvest as they bruise as soon as you look at them. The secret is to gently cup them in the hand and give a slight twist and if it doesn't come off in the hand it isn't ready. But having gone over the trees early in the morning it is frustrating to go back a couple of hours later to find half a dozen of those fruits that seemed so firmly attached earlier now lying pulped on the floor two hours later! But the pro's certainly outweigh the con's so have a go or at least come and have a look at ours (but do not handle the goods!!)