What could be better than sweet juicy stone fruit picked straight from the tree at their peak of ripeness? Stone fruit are perfect for home gardens; they look beautiful in spring blossom and in summer provide the most mouth-watering crop. They’re not for the lazy gardener though. Stone fruit need close attention to feeding, watering and pruning and there are lots of pests and diseases that can upset your crop. But if you’ve got the right climate and you’re prepared to put a little effort in, you will enjoy the most satisfying home harvests.
By
Phil Dudman

6 Sep 2012 - 3:33 PM  UPDATED 6 Jul 2017 - 1:41 PM

At a glance

Ease of Culture: Demanding
Best climate: Cool, temperate, subtropical
When to plant: Winter
First harvest: After 2-3 years
pH: 6 - 7
Size: 2.5-4m
Chilling: 150-1400 hrs. (depending on variety)
Prune: Winter

 

Climate

• Stone fruit (apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums and cherries) like cold winters and warm dry summers.
• Cool temperate regions are ideal.
• Different varieties of stone fruit need exposure to a certain number of 'chill hours’ (i.e. hours below 7ºC) to produce flowers and fruit.
• Gardeners in cool areas can grow both 'high chill’ and 'low chill’ varieties, but those in warmer areas must choose low chill varieties.
• Cherries require the highest chill hours (700-1400 hours).
• Trees are frost tolerant, but late frosts will destroy blooms. If so, choose late flowering varieties and avoid planting in frosty gullies.

 

Position

• Stone fruit need plenty of sun and good air circulation to minimise disease. A gentle slope facing north or northeast is ideal.
• Trees need protection from strong winds that can bruise fruit and make it difficult for pollinating bees.

 

Soil

• Stone fruit like a deep, well-drained soil rich in humus.
• Heavy soils can be improved by incorporating gypsum and organic matter and mounding the soil before planting.
• The preferred pH is 6 - 7. If your soil is below this range, add dolomite lime to the soil – if it’s higher, add powdered sulphur to lower the pH.

 

Planting

• The best time to plant stone fruit is in winter when they are dormant.
• This is when nurseries stock the widest selection of bare rooted trees.
• Potted and bagged trees are available at other times of year and can be planted then, as long as the roots are not disturbed.

 

Feeding and watering

• Regular light feeding in the first few years will encourage strong healthy root and canopy development.
• When trees start cropping, fertilise in winter, spring and summer.
• Use a well-balanced organic fertiliser applying a good handful per square metre from the trunk to one metre beyond the drip line (the line directly beneath the outer canopy).
• Keep them well watered for maximum health and fruit production. When there’s no rain, give trees a good soak once a week and keep trees well mulched.

 

Early training

• Stone fruit need early training to establish a good framework for fruit production.
• The aim is to create a vase shape with an open centre and evenly spaced branches. This allows good airflow within the tree and easy maintenance.
• In the initial stages, each winter, cut the main leaders back by half to outward facing buds. This will encourage branching.
• During summer, pinch out any inward facing growth.
• After 3 years, retain 12 main leading limbs that are evenly spaced around the tree. These will be your fruiting branches.

 

Pruning established trees

• The purpose of ongoing pruning is to maintain the trees framework and keep it to a manageable size. It also encourages fruit bearing wood.
• Stone fruit form on the lateral growth that developed during the previous season. They only fruit once, so prune them off immediately after harvest otherwise they will become branches.
• In the following winter, thin new laterals to around 20cm apart.
• Remove any crowded or crossing branches too and trim main leaders where necessary to keep the height down.

Note: Some varieties of stone fruit are prone to bacterial canker disease. If so, reduce the risk of infection by delaying their pruning until spring, just before leaf development.

 

Fruit thinning

• Stone fruit produce lots of flowers and fruit which need to be thinned to produce quality fruit of a decent size.
• Thinning is best carried out in late spring. Thin clusters of fruit to reduce the chance of fruit rubbing together.

 

Harvesting

• Most trees produce their first decent crops after 3-4 years.
• Ripening occurs from November to March.
• For best flavour, pick fruit at their peak ripeness.
• Trees need to be covered with a net to protect fruit from birds, bats and possums. Precautions need to be taken to protect fruit from fruit fly.

 

Choosing a tree
• Peaches, nectarines and apricots are self-pollinating, so you will only need one tree, but plums and most cherries require pollination from another variety. 
• Grafted trees are best. A variety of root stocks are available, some that resistant to waterlogging, other resistant to bacterial canker.
• Speak with your local nursery person to choose the best root stock for your conditions. It’s also important to choose cultivars with the right 'chill hour’ rating for your area.

 

Stone fruit varieties

Note: The terms 'freestone’ and 'clingstone’ describe how readily the flesh breaks away from the stone.