Apricots must be the most desirable of all the fruit trees to grow and often appear as number 1 one of the wish list. But they are also unquestionably the least hardy of all the fruit trees that may be grown in the UK so planting Apricot trees requires some thought and planning. Which is not to say they don’t take frost, they most certainly do but severe conditions and prolonged winter cold will se them back or may even lead to death.
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Another important reason to afford your tree the most sheltered aspect you have is that of inscets and pollination. Apricots are very early flowering, infact they are the first of all the fruit trees to begin to open their blossoms, by far. The pretty pale pink flowers appear on the naked branches often at the end of February or early March and of course the weather is far too unpredictable then to offer reliable pollination and this is the most common cause of poor fruit set or inadequate pollination or frost damage to the flowers, or both. There tends to be a dearth of flying insects around that early so be prepared to hand pollinate some flower trusses, go around from one flower to another dabbing pollen with a soft haired brush. And if possible protect the flowers from frosts with horticultural fleece.
So where to site your precious apricot tree? If you live in London or the South of the country or the west of Scotland probably you will be fortunate enough to grow your Apricot as a free standing bush tree. This is certainly the easiest method and the heaviest yields will be obtainable. But elsewhere you should be looking at a sunny south or west facing wall or fence [other aspects are unsuitable] or you can think about growing on in a container on a sunny patio or in a sheltered corner. You can of course all cultivate Apricots in a greenhouse. The good thing about container growing is that it often induces earlier fruiting as well!
Apricots aren’t troubled greatly by disease but they can sometimes succumb to unknown causes. They get dieback which becomes more progressive or they just suddenly ‘keel over’ and die. Which isn’t meant to be off putting to your dream of growing and harvesting your own apricots. But it should serve as a useful pointer in giving your trees the best possible start and the best possible position because this will make it much less likely to happen as if the trees are healthy, growing strongly and well looked after they will be better able to withstand attacks from unknown causes.
The apricot favours well drained soil but doesn’t like to be too dry especially in the summer. Providing a happy medium between the two will be key to success and it is up to you to judge the type of soil you already have and influence the structure as much as you can. Too light or sandy then pep it up with lots and lots of organic rich material. Too weighty or sluggish then alleviate it with lots of grit, sharp sand and leafmould.
The soil should be well cultivated and friable; double dig it over if it has not been cultivated before. Clear away all perennial weeds because the last thing you want is added competition from them when your trees are in settled, and growing. If possible prepare the soil in the late Summer or early Autumn before planting that Winter. This isn’t an essential and won’t be practical if you think of planting during the summer from container grown stock, but it is beneficial especially in eradicating weed growth because you can rid the first crop and then wait for the second growth phase [which so often happens] and remove those as well and then your area will be really nice and clean.Plus the soil you have dug over will have settled and become more firable. Add some fertilizer to get them off to a really good start – growmore is good and the trees also seem to favour a light dressing of nitro-chalk.
Prepare a hole large enough to take the roots. Apricots are vigorous growers and you may find the root system larger than that of other tress. Set the tree to the same depth as it was at the nursery previously – examination of the stem should reveal the soil mark still identifiable and this will tell you how deeply it was set in the ground before. In any event the grafting point should sit above the soil level and the roots buried in not less than 2” of soil. Firm in very well. Even if it is winter time water the tree in lightly. This settles the soil around the roots and the weight of the soil will then force out any air pockets that may have been around the roots; you want the soil to be in close contact with the roots below ground. You can at this point provide an additional mulch up to 2” deep around the trunk of the tree. Composted or finely ground bark chippings are good, as is sawdust or very well rotted manure. Mulching is good for all fruit trees but it is particularly valuable to Apricots because not only does it protect them from drying out in Spring [to which Apricots are more prone than other trees] it also helps insulate the roots from severe frost. So at whatever time you are planting your trees a good mulch is invaluable straight after planting.
It is wise to prune soon after planting; the main leader should be shortened by about a third of it’s current length and any side shoots reduced to 3”. This encourages a nice bushy tree. In subsequent seasons pruning is based on The aim of pruning should be to encourage a plentiful supply of new growth to fruit next year. On older trees make sure you remove a proportion of older growth to encourage strong new fruiting growths for the next year.
And this is best achieved by shortening strong growths especially side shoots to 3 or 4” which will then ripen to produce good fruits the next year. Aim to produce a plentiful supply of new shotos that may be pruned for cropping the next year.
Nitrochalk and growmore can be applied annually and it is best applied in late Winter and gently raked in over the whole of the ground equivalent in space to the head of the tree.
Is always beneficial as Apricots hate being dry at the roots. If you can be prepared to undertake a regular watering regime during the growing season it will encourage healthy growth and strength in the tree which will make it less likely to succumb to illness and die back. Fruiting will also be encouraged and the size of the fruits will be greater as well as the weight of the crop. Soak the soil with a hose, applied at the roots, in early Morning. May to September is the key period to apply extra irrigation. You may wish to set up an automatic watering system that will ensure you can maintain a regular supply if water without giving yourself a lot of extra work.
Aside from the need for hand pollination all apricots are self compatible so there are no other pollination issues. Any variety can grow and fruit on it’s own without the need for a pollinating partner which is so often the case with other types of fruit tree.
Most apricot varieties are quite vigorous in growth but despite this they seem to take to containerisation quite well especially if you can invest in a half barrel sized container. It is important to treat them well with the aforementioned watering and it is actually easier to influence the conditions they are grown in if they are in a pot, more so than in the ground. So growing your Apricot trees can often be the best option of achieving good crops especially if you don’t have ideal conditions or garden in a cold part of the country. Cropping can be induced earlier with apricots in pots; 2 years is a common time to wait to sample your first delectable fruits. In the ground it is usually a 3 or 4 years wait. Pot grown apricots should ideally be situated in a sheltered sunny corner, or you can keep them in a cold greenhouse or conservatory. In any case it is easier to move them to protection in the winter if the forecast is very bad and thus keep them from severe frost damage.
Any variety is suitable for container growing. Use a hearty loam based compost [John Innes no 2 or similar] and raise the pot onto little feet to make sure drainage is good. Watering every day is almost a must-do as even if it has rained so much of it is lost and doesn’t reach the rootball especially if the foliage canopy is lush. Because the container will heat up more quickly in Spring, and remain warmer during the growing season, growth will be earlier and it will also dry out more readily.
Pruning for trees grown in containers is the same and after the first year or two you will probably need to prune less than you would normally as the tree will start to become naturally retarded.
Your apricot tree can stay in it’s pot for up to 5 years, after that I would recommend re potting it and this should take place in the Winter. Remove it from it’s container, tease out some roots and remove some of the old compost and re-pot it in the same container filling in with fresh compost. Some of the roots can be trimmed back a bit if need be and this type of root pruning usually encourages good new growth.
There isn’t a huge number of cultivars on offer but the selection is wide enough to suit most uses. Based on hardiness I would still go for the old Moorpark [also known as Early Moorpark] Goldcott [ a newer variety] and the European favourites Bredase and Royal Orange.
For flavour Alfred and Flavourcott are hard to beat.
And if you want really large apricots the French variety Tomcott is mightily impressive.
Other varieties of note include New Large Early and Isabelle.
The sought after des-res for Apricots is a good warm wall! It absolutely has to face South or West and you won’t need a huge area. 6 x 6’ is adequate although if you have more room you can train it out a bit. One of the most important considerations is that of soil; it is often quite dry by a wall and you must make sure this is not the case before planting because Apricots hate dry roots. Your aftercare regime for wall trained apricots must always include regular watering during the growing season.
To fan train an Apricot you must start with a young tree; older specimens will already have been pruned lower down or in any case will lack the rejuvenating vigour required to accept the hard pruning required to produce a good fan. When you receive your new young tree prune it back hard. If it has lower laterals at a suitable point then select two more or less opposite and remove the leader just above them. The height of the first two laterals can be to your own liking, there isn’t a hard and fast rule but 18” is about the norm. Higher or lower is fine too. These two laterals should be gently tied down more or less horizontal. They will form the basis of your fan because next summer lots of strongly growing upright stems will spring for and these will form the basis of your fan. During that summer they should be shortened back by about a third and this will encourage them to shoot again and also initiate fruiting for the following summer. Always prune apricots un the summer. Winter pruning can encourage die back or frost damage.
I am sometimes asked if you can fan train an apricot in a pot against a wall if the soil isn’t very good or it isn’t possible to plant into the ground. I’m afraid my answer is always the same – this isn’t a good idea. For a start the container would be too restrictive because you don’t want to contain growth in a pot for fan training it has to be actively encouraged [the opposite to a bush tree in a pot] to produce lots of new growth or you can’t get a good fan shape out of it. And secondly placing containers against sunny walls is always a bad idea because they overheat drastically in warmer weather. Adequate watering is next to impossible and the roots will get far too hot.
This isn’t a growing application that is normally applied to Apricots. Alas they just don’t appreciate such hard pruning and usually die back results. They may succeed for a limited period if you want to give it a go; certainly it’s a tempting proposition because for other fruit trees you only need a 24” space for a cordon. If you do want to experiment with cordon growing these fruits I would suggest growing the tree in a container because this naturally limits the growth and may make heavy pruning less of a stress to the tree. But it is not something I have tried myself.
Bacterial canker is the most significant disease for Apricot trees. It is identifiable by gum oozing from the nark and dark sunken lesions appearing on main stems and trunk. If it is possible to cut out the affected area to healthy wood this is the best course of action but isn’t always practical if it is lower on the main stem. Most active sprays have been removed from sale.
Bacterial infections can also take hold with no prior warning or symptoms; the tree suddenly wilts as if it short of water but no amount of watering brings it around and alas the tree usually dies for there is no magic cure. Occasionally if cut back hard the tree may shoot again from lower down.
Die back occurs over winter through frost damage and is often confined to thinner new growth at the top of the tree. This is less of a problem and the dead shoots can simply be pruned back. Wait until Spring when new shoots are beginning to emerge and trim back to the new growths. If the tree is growing in a position too exposed or the winter has been particularly harsh then die back may be more severe and may actually result in death of the tree. But if you have to cut it back really hard to a little above the join [rootstock] then it may still shoot again and as long as this growth is above the graft then it will be true. Apricots can have quite strong rejuvenating instincts so this growth can still be vigorous and useful and although the tree will be majorly set back it can still make a good tree again given time.
Trees grown under glass can sometimes suffer from an infestation of spider mite and this should be cleared with a suitable systemic insecticide. Biological controls are also available. Red spider causes the leaves to turn orange and will then start to fall. Although the individual mites are almost impossible to see, when the infestation is advanced webbing can be see enclosing the shoots and leaves. Red spider is a mite, not a true ‘spider’. They are encouraged by warm and dry conditions so maintaining a humid atmospehere discourages this insect.
Like all fruit trees, Apricots are grafted onto a rootstock in the early stages. This controls the height of the tree and encourages earlier fruiting than a tree grown on it’s own roots.
By far the most common rootstock is St Julien ‘A’ This isn’t a dwarfing stock so trees will grow to 10’ or more with pruning but it is controllable with regular pruning or if it is grown in a large pot. It is the preferred choice for fan training.
Torinal is a newer stock that encourages less growth but couldn’t be called actually dwarfing and trees aren’t as hardy as those grown on St Julien which remains the most satisfactory for trees grown in this country.
I am often asked for trees grown on Pixy stock which is truly dwarfing and often used to make small Plum and Gage trees which are related. St julien is used for plum, gage and damson so why is Pixy not used for Apricots? Some nurseries have tried grafting apricots onto Pixy and initially the grafts or buds may be successful but long-term incompatibilities have arisen and the trees die after 2-4 years. Quite simply despite initially encouraging signs, the Apricot hasn’t been found to be compatible long term with the Pixy rootstock.
Sometimes Apricots are offered on what is known as ‘seedling rootstock’ and these are to be avoided. These make rather large trees that take several years to reach productivity. They are too big for the average garden and difficult to site where shelter might be available. Similarly Apricots grown on their own roots can sometimes be sold. These are often worse with considerable growth capacity and they take a ver long time to fruit.
That’s why if you grow an apricot from a stone you can wait 20 years or more for it to fruit by which time it be about as big as your house probably. An enjoyable experiment maybe but not exactly practical if your first priority is for a good productive tree in a reasonable time frame.