How to Prune Cherry & Apricot Trees

pruning cherry trees

We’re well overdue to get back into the pruning articles. Last winters pruning articles are proving quite useful. I’ve re-read them and gone around and given the peaches, nectarines almonds, currantsapples and pears a good prune but I’ve been holding off on the cherries and apricots until after I’d met up with an expert.

Marlborough grows great cherries as you can see in the photo above that I took at Cherryland last spring. Now it’s autumn and I’ve just spent a morning wandering around another Marlborough orchard with John Eaton.  John has planted and pruned pretty much every crop that has been grown in the region in the last 30 years and now consults to orchard owners like Peter and Trish Taylor of Ryland Estate.

He showed me around Ryland Estate, one of only around half a dozen cherry orchards left in Marlborough. The cherries are grown in bags, buried in the ground. The bags restrict the root growth and vigour of the tree, channeling energy into fruit production and making the trees crop earlier than an open-ground grown trees.

The trees are planted close together and are still around 2.5m high at 10 years old which is a combination of the restricting affect of the bag and the shaping and pruning regime John has followed. This makes them easy to pick on short step ladders. Here at Ryland the whole orchard is enclosed in some serious bird netting but in a home orchard these little trees would be easier to net.

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How to Shape Cherry Trees

One of the first things you notice about the cherry trees is their open, multi-leader habit and that comes with some tough love up front. As soon as the trees are planted they are pruned to around 1m in height. For the home orchardist this seems very harsh.  You’ve just spent $35 on a nice little tree with a few leaves at the top, the last thing you think of doing is chopping it off to a 1m stick. But that is exactly what you should do. By taking the top out of your tree at this height after planting you will encourage a host of new side branches to grow that will form an open centered shape for your tree.

This open center keeps the air circulating around the fruit, reducing fungal disease and lets the light in to help develop fruit buds and evenly ripen the crop. If you plant your tree and don’t top the central trunk you will get an upright tree with dense growth and all the fruit at the top of the tree where you can’t reach it or cover it with bird netting.

The weight of the fruit will pull down these young branches naturally to ensure the open center and low height and you can also tuck branches under each other or prune to downward facing buds to encourage a less upright growth habit.

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If you didn’t chop the top out of your tree as soon as you planted it all is not lost. John has pruned an orchard of cherry trees that had been left un-pruned for 7 years. The trees were 12m tall and had no live fruiting wood for the first 2.5m. He took the chainsaw to them at the top of the pruning ladder, removing as much growth above him as there was ground below him. As soon as light and air was let back in the trees came away again and started cropping on new growth at lower, more harvestable levels.

Another trick to encourage new growth at lower levels if a cherry tree has got away on you is known as “syncturing”. This is where you cut a narrow incision with a pruning knife around 60% of the trunk and do the same an inch or so above the first incision on the oppopsite side of the trunk. This forces the tree into a state of shock and makes it put on new growth below the wound. Don’t cut completely around the trunk or you will stop sap flow to the upper growth of the tree.

Cherry trees are grafted onto different root stocks, the most common being Colt which produces a 3-5m tree and does well in a wide range of soils. You will see the graft on your new tree and you want to ensure you don’t shorten the central leader below this point when you chop the top out.

How to Prune Cherry Trees

One the main framework is established, John tends to work with the tree when pruning. Any growth going straight up gets removed. Likewise any growth in the middle of the tree that is going to restrict light and airflow.  Branches coming off leaders are thinned so they don’t overlap and shade adjoining leaders and branches. Each of the main leaders is kept quite clean and sparse. Any branches left on are well spaced, tend to be nearer the end of the leader and pointing outwards, leaving the middle of the tree nice and open.

A tree may have 5 or 6 main leaders that are tipped at around a meter and are eventually replaced with other leaders.  John looks 2-3 years ahead when pruning and selects  replacement leaders, tucking them under other branches and growing them on until required.

Cherry trees fruit best on 2nd and 3rd year wood. New growth doesn’t fruit and you will see the difference between fat clusters of fruiting buds on old wood and thin pointy leaf buds on new wood. Fruiting buds are a bit like spurs on apple trees, they will carry on fruiting for several years so care when harvesting your cherries can preserve these fruiting buds for next season.

pruning tips for cherry trees and apricots

John likes to prune at this time of year, after the harvest but while the leaves are still on the trees. His experience is that if you prune in winter when the tree is sparse you don’t see how the leaf canopy shades the branches and you can under-prune. He prunes as much as a third of the tree out each year without damaging the crop. This keeps it open and encourages new growth.

He will only prune if the forecast is for 24 hours of clear weather due to the risk of spores from diseases such as bacterial blast and silver blight being carried on damp air. And any cut over the size of a 50c piece is painted with an anti-bacterial pruning paste to seal it against infection.

What kind of yield will a well-pruned cherry tree give you?

These little trees, restricted to 2.5 m in height, are still capable of cropping 10 kilograms of fruit a year per tree. Left unrestricted a large tree may crop up to 20 kg of fruit but whether you can reach it to pick it is another question.

Sweet cherry trees come into full production around 6 years of age. In a home orchard they will crop well for 15-20 years before they need replacing. If you’ve got the space, I’d plant a new cherry tree every 10 years to ensure you’ve always got plenty of cherries. Left to their own devices cherry trees will live for a long time but perhaps not be as productive.

How to Prune Apricots

Apricots have a similar pruning regime to cherries. They like an open centered, multi-leader tree. The less vigorous branches tend to produce more fruit. Any vigorous branches going straight up should be removed and you should aim to take about 30% of the tree out each year.  Late summer pruning after harvest is also a good way of reducing the vigour of the tree.

Pruning back to downward facing buds also reduces the vigour. The same rules for pruning cherries apply. You’re aiming to have a mixture of old wood with new growth coming on. Apricots will start producing after 4 years and will happily go on producing for 30 -40 years.

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Getting the Right Apricot for Your Garden

A lot of people struggle to grow apricot trees in the home garden. But it’s just a case of getting the right variety and rootstock for your situation. Good apricots for warmer climates include Sundrop, Katycot, Tomcot, Royal Rosa, Robada, Trevatt, Newcastle and Clutha Gold. Moorpark, a traditional favourite, needs good winter frosts to produce well.

Apricots are most commonly grafted onto golden queen peach rootstocks which don’t like heavy soils or wet soils. Apricots grafted onto plum rootstock myroballum are harder to come by but produce a more vigorous tree in heavy or wet soil. Individual varieties of apricot are also vigorous or not. Sundrop and Newcastle are, Katycot and Tomcot aren’t.

I planted 5 apricot trees around 10 years ago in heavy clay soil. One was grafted on plum rootstock the photo on the left below shows it has thrived. The other 4 were grafted on peach root stock and just sat there not growing despite getting exactly the same treatment and being right next to each other.  The middle photo below shows you how they looked at 6 years when I pulled them out. The lesson is – if you’re on heavy soil don’t plant non-vigorous apricot varieties grafted on peach root stock!

apricot rootstocks

Pests, Diseases and Weather.

There are a couple of nasty diseases and a pest to watch out for on your cherry and apricot trees. The first is bacterial blast which you can identify by gummy globs of goo and cracking of bark. Don’t confuse cicada damage with bacterial blast. Cicadas can chew the bark and it looks similar. If you find it on a tree cut out the affected branch and burn it or remove it from the orchard. A copper spray in early winter will clean it up.

The next bacterial disease is silver leaf which spreads in damp conditions through an orchard. Which is why you only prune in warm dry weather. Leaves will show a silvery white sheen, fruit doesn’t colour up and it eventually kills the tree if left untreated. To get rid of silver leaf you must go back a foot past the last symptoms and cut the branch off. Remove the wood from the orchard.  Spraying the tree with Jeyes fluid and meths is a traditional method of cleaning up any silver leaf remaining.

Always wipe your pruning blades with meths between trees to reduce the chance of carrying disease to another tree. Here are some photos of blast and silver leaf from my orchard.

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The final pest that can bother your cherry trees is the black aphid which can really damage the tree. Spraying a winter oil on trees at the end of winter before bud burst is a good way of suffocating any of these sucky pests that are wintering over on your trees.

Top 3 Pickled Onion Recipes & How to Grow Pickling Onions

Blog Post Photo

As we head into autumn our annual preserving season comes to an end with the pickled onions and quinces being two last additions to the pantry. I’m something of a pickled onion connoisseur, always on the lookout for the best pickled onion recipe.

A few years ago I found Thanks Shallot, a Blenheim company run by Stephen and Sally Harnett. Stephen grows perfect pickling onions – tight, small and round, not large, soft and oblong. He sells them at the Blenheim Farmers Market each Sunday. He also comes across to the Nelson Saturday market every second week. We used to sell them and one year we gave away a copy of his Great Gran’s recipe with each little 2 kg. sack of onions.

Pickling onions

The recipe started heated discussions among customers about the best recipe for pickled onions so we asked for copies of their favourite recipe and were amazed at how many different ones came out of the woodwork. We shortlisted 8 different pickled onion recipes that covered the main themes and set to work putting down a few jars of each for a great taste off.

One Saturday we lined up the jars, printed the tasting forms and let the onions loose on customers in the store. Thirty-five customers, mostly blokes, took the challenge to eat each of the 8 pickled onions on offer, write their comments and vote for their favourite. They took it seriously. Some brave souls had to go back for seconds just to confirm the winner before they cast their votes. More recipes came forth during the day, rum and balsamic vinegar and also a golden syrup one that sounded nice.

Here are the great taste-off results, followed by the top 3 recipes and some tips on making and growing perfect pickled onions.

Pickled Onion Recipe Votes Overall Verdict
Cider Vinegar, Chillies, no sugar, no boiling brine 1 Takes the enamel off your teeth
Red Wine Vinegar, Coriander, Cumin, White Peppercorns, Honey 1 Too posh nosh and fancy – real pickled onions don’t have coriander seeds.
Malt Vinegar, Brown Sugar, Black Peppercorns (Heather’s Mum’s Recipe) 10 The Classic.  Overall winner.  Good balance.  Many wanted to vote for this one twice.  Everything a pickled onion should be.  Mum will be pleased.
White Wine Vinegar, Sherry, Brown Sugar & Honey – MCT customer CarolJane 9 The inoffensive favourite.  Softened by a bit of sherry and honey, with milder cider instead of malt vinegar.  The sociable pickled onion.  A close second.
Pickled Onions in Curry Sauce from Roy & Dawn Ennor – Richmond 6 Either love them or loathe them – pickled onions in curry sauce are polarising. If you love them apparently you use the sauce on your baked chops – hmmm – a real Aunty Daisy frugal tip if ever there was.
Cider Vinegar, Honey & Black Peppercorns – Alma’s Recipe 5 A bit of both, sweetness of honey and spice of black peppercorns.
Malt Vinegar, Cloves, Chillies, Black Peppercorns – Nan Harnett’s 1 From a time when pickles were pickles. Go, Nan Harnett. 12 whole cloves, 6 whole dried chilies, black peppercorns, no sweet stuff and full-on malt vinegar.
Curry Sauce 1941 Truth Recipe Cook Book – but no flour. 2 Nope – you need the flour to make a good wallpaper paste of a sauce if you’re going the curried route.
Total Votes 35

NZ’s Top 3 Pickled Onion Recipes

1st Place – Heather’s Mum’s Pickled Onions
Soak peeled onions overnight in a brine of 1 1/2 cups of common salt and 4 pints of water. Next day drain and dry onions. Pack them into clean jars and add 6-8 peppercorns per large jar. Warm 750mls of malt vinegar and melt 500gms of brown sugar or honey into it. Cool, and pour over the onions in the jars. Seal and leave at least 14 days before eating.

2nd Place – Sherried Pickled Onions – Carol Jane MCT Customer
Soak 4.5kg of onions in 1 cup of common salt and 10 cups of water overnight (I peeled them and sprinkled salt over them in a crockery bowl overnight) Boil 450g honey 450g brown sugar and 2ltrs of white vinegar. Let it cool completely then add 500mls sherry. Rinse salt of onions and let them drain then pack in clean jars and pour the liquid over. Leave for one month before eating.

3rd Place – Pickled Onions in Curry Sauce – Roy & Dawn Ennor, Richmond.
5lbs Onions
1lb caster sugar
1 tablespoon all spice
1 teaspoon mustard
2 teaspoons tumeric
1 quart vinegar
1 tablespoon ground cloves
3 large teaspoons flour
1 tablespoon curry

Sprinkle onions with salt and leave overnight and then dry. Bring vinegar and sugar to the boil add other ingredients mixed with some of the vinegar and bring to the boil. Fill the jars. Ready in 5 weeks.

Tips on Preparing the Perfect Pickled Onion

  • Preparation is key to achieving the perfect crunchy pickled onion. Customers had theories on whether you soaked your peeled onions in salty brine or dry salted by sprinkling with salt. Sprinklers claimed their method only extracted the juices and didn’t load the onions up with water. I am a sprinkler.
  • Other tips include close peeling at the base and top to hold your onion together and everyone was in agreement on the need to cool the brine completely before adding to the onions so as not to get a soft onion – which no one likes.
  • Theories on peeling them without tears abounded. Light a candle, soak them in warm water (don’t do this – see soft onion above), peel them underwater (the onions, not you), wear goggles (probably the most foolproof).
  • Finally the great question of how long to leave them before you eat them – some say 2 weeks, some 3 and some 5.  I can vouch for the fact that well prepared pickled onions get better with age – up to two years after one exuberant pickling season in our house.

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Growing the Perfect Pickling Onion

And when it comes to growing the perfect pickling onion, we managed to get Stephen to share some of his tips with us. Here’s me growing fancy little pickling darlings like “Purpelette”, the Italian flat “Borretanna” and the wee cutie “Pearl Drop” for my pickled onions but what does Stephen grow? Nothing but big old Pukekohe Long Keepers. He tells me he’s shied away from the little dainty varieties that are supposed to grow pickler’s because they often end up with oblong egg-shaped onions.

Stephen plants a late variety and he reckons he is pushing the boundaries of how they should be grown. His regime is treat ‘em mean, he plants them a full two months later than you should (October), gives them no water or rich soil and harvests them in mid to late March. If your soil is too rich they tend to develop thick necks, (as we all do with too much good food), and the bulb doesn’t tend to develop. Deprive them of nutrients and they’ll put all their effort into the bulb and not the tops.

So there you have it, folks, how to grow and make the perfect pickled onion. Visit Thanks Shallot at the Nelson market and see if you can hit Stephen up for his wife Sally’s recipe. I couldn’t manage to get that out of him. She does several thousand jars a year and you can buy those from him too if you’ve done your dash pickling this year. We’d love to hear your recipes and variations too.

Tomato Trial – Part 3

Heirloom Tomatoes

I know how Peter Jackson feels now. A trilogy sounds like a good idea when you pitch it, but the last part is always the hardest. Here is the last installment in our tomato trilogy. Part one seems such a long time ago now. And that’s because it is. 184 days to be precise.  Our elation at the germination of our little seedlings 6 months ago was unbridled. But oh so much pasta sauce under the bridge since then.

We coooed and aaaahed as we pricked them out into pots and molly coddled them on inside until those warm summer nights arrived and we could plant them out .  Then we staked them (too short), we tied them (too tight), we watered them (too much), we lateraled them (a bit wrongly), and we de-leafed them (too vigorously).

And if we didn’t kill them with kindness, every other pest and disease got a bit part in a scene to give us a helping hand. We covered blossom end rot, leaf cupping, lack of fruit set, caterpillar invasions, skin cracking and blight. Yep as far as a trilogy goes the second part was a predictably poor showing with a lot of pointless diversions for our heroes.

tomato pests and diseases

But if you do want to know how not to grow tomatoes click here to read the second episode.

As any good director knows, it is easy to lose sight of the plot in a trilogy. We were supposed to be trialing 5 different heirloom tomato varieties rated the best by American heritage gardening gurus and at the same time test different spray regimes against the dreaded pysillid bug that has been decimating tomato crops across the nation.

So a whopping six months on from the beginning – how are we doing? Well you’ll be pleased to know for all our farting around in the middle episode, we are now back on track and have some results to share with you.

The Varieties…

We’ve grown five different varieties that were all new to us, so we were excited to see how they performed.

Paul Robeson has been outstanding across all three tests – the spray-free plant has lasted best against the pysillids and the plants are all producing good crops of large tomatoes. The second variety to ripen, the fruit were a bit prone to cracking around the shoulders but not as much blossom end rot as the others. Tastes as good as it looks. Beautiful rich flavour and very meaty.

paul robeson heirloom tomato

Aunt Ruby’s German Green has been a little slower to ripen with a lot of fruit still coming on. It has been a favourite with the caterpillars and we’ve lost quite a few to blossom end rot. But all this aside, it is a lovely flavoured fleshy tomato. It has a sweetness and nuttiness to it that all green tomatoes seem to have. If you close your eyes you wouldn’t know it was green. You can tell when they ripen as they get a little orange blush along the shoulders and go slightly softer.

Aunt Rubys German Green Heirloom Tomato-01

Black Krim has had some fruit that ripened quite early and is taking a wee break at present with a lot of fruit still to ripen. The fruit has been mostly large and lovely funky shapes. A little cracking around the shoulders after the rain but the fruit still ripened. It hasn’t held up as well to the pests and diseases as I would have hoped with the “no-spray” plant succumbing pretty much overnight to the psyllids when they showed up. It does live up to its reputation for flavour with lovely smokey deep taste that is not as sweet as some other tomatoes but well worth trying.

Black Krim Heirloom Tomato-01

Mortgage Lifter is a large beefsteak type tomato which we had high hopes for as a good sauce and soup variety. It certainly lives up to its reputation for setting large meaty fruit and out of all the varieties it ripened first. I’ve heard from some of our customers that they prefer it for flavour over beefsteak and I can see why. It has a gorgeous sweet old fashioned tomato flavour. It has succumbed to cracking quite badly after the rain but I think some of that may be down to the drainage in the bags.

Mortgage Lifter heirloom tomato-01

 Cherokee Purple  has been slow out of the blocks and only the sprayed plant is producing fruit. The no-spray one I lateraled the top out of and it sulked and the organic spray plant with the pyretherum had an early set back and hasn’t produced either. I might reserve judgement on this variety until the rest of the fruit ripen. We have some plants in the main garden too that are looking promising. The fruit we have had has a lovely rich flavour.

Cherokee purple heirloom tomato-01

The Pysillids …

The baddie showed up right on cue. For a while there I thought we were going to have a pysillid free summer – just because I wanted them to appear so I could test the different protection methods and resilience of these varieties.

Sadly the “we’re so healthy” un-sprayed tomatoes succumbed to the psyllid in less time than it took me to look up how to spell it. I went away for a weekend and when I came back boom, all the non-sprayed tomatoes had started yellowing at the top and leaf curling and a close inspection showed the little jumping culprits. They are very hard to spot but here is a useful guide to identification.

Out of all of the non-sprayed varieties, Paul Robeson and Aunt Ruby’s German Green are resisting the pysillid the best at this point.

How to beat pysillids

The Organic Sprays…

A roundup of organic sprays and protection methods (that is a literal roundup, not a Monsanto Roundup®) shows that the neem granules have proven effective at holding off the pysillid so far but the caterpillars were undeterred by it and munched through quite a few of the leaves and fruit before we exercised some digit control (fingers) on them.

The neem oil spray has worked a treat at keeping both caterpillars and pysillids at bay but the plant we’re trialing it on had a bit of a set back early on so it hasn’t produced fruit yet.  The same goes for the pyretherum spray so I am really encouraged by these results. I’ll update it later in the season to see if it holds as the psyillid population increases in their non-sprayed neighbours.

The soapy water spray has so far successfully controlled the aphids and any pysillids but it hasn’t stopped the caterpillars, more digit control was required. I also under-planted this one with basil as a companion plant and although the tomato plant seems healthy, the fruit is small and not ripening yet. Maybe the basil is robbing a bit of goodness from the grow-bag.Crop protection fabric for tomatoes-01

The surprise of the organic methods has been the crop protection mesh from Lincoln University’s biological husbandry unit that we’re trialing. I found it really faffy and annoying to begin with and had my doubts about how effective it would be but it has turned out to be brilliant on a number of levels.

Not only has it made a nice little micro-climate away from too much sun and wind for our plant, it has also stopped any pysillids and caterpillars and the rain does seem to get through it. The foliage is in great condition and the fruit has set evenly up the whole plant.

I have been poking the hose in to water it and I have seen some other insects inside the mesh but its been hard to secure it around the grow bag. If you were using it in the garden I could see how it would be easier to set up a more permanent frame over your crops that you dug into the earth at the edges.  The crop does seem to be taking quite a bit longer to ripen though than the same variety with no mesh on it.

The Chemical Spray …

As much as it pains me to say it, the chemical spray tomatoes are now faring the best. Not by a million miles though and I will update this as things progress over the final weeks of the harvest. The plants are not as healthy looking as the organic spray plants but the fruit is coming on more consistently and the plants are free of caterpillars and psyillids.

Tomatoes on toast …

One last very important bit of research that I’m enjoying is determining the best variety for tomatoes on toast. It’s a tough call. More research required I think. At present it is a tie for first place between Mortgage Lifter and Black Krim.

heirloom tomatoes on toast

I also have to say – I’m not sold on this growing in bags idea. I think if you’re going to grow in bags you need good shade so the roots don’t cook. The yield is going to be low because of a poor fruit set in the plants grown in bags.

Overall I have a nasty feeling that box office returns for this trilogy may not cover production costs and it may end up getting a fairly high score on “rotten tomatoes”. Not to worry, the leftover seedlings that he planted in the main garden have quietly grown into a mighty crop which are shaping up to be soup and sauce for winter if the psyillids or a bad case of sour grapes don’t get them first. Don’t you hate that.

main crop tomatoes

And a PS.  We thought it was all over but the tomatoes had other ideas.  The photo below is at the end of March a whopping 8 months after we planted the seeds and as you can see we have a swag of tomatoes still coming on.  As soon as the weather cooled down a little the plants got another lease of life and kept on setting fruit. The only trouble now is – will we have enough late summer heat left to ripen them?

We have about 8 plants left of the original 15. We haven’t sprayed them for the last month and the varieties that survived the bugs the best have been Black Krim, Paul Robeson and Aunt Ruby’s German Green.  We’ve moved them all together in the most sheltered spot in the garden and removed any mildewy leaves.

tomato trial at 8 months

…and a pps – yes we did get enough late summer warmth to ripen them and I was still picking tomatoes in mid April – 9 months after planting the seeds.  These late toms were so rich and full of flavour. Just as I was losing patience with them they really started to deliver.  I think the key to growing these big beefy heirloom varieties is get them in early and then plant some quick little cherry toms to give you some tomatoes during early summer while you wait.

Heirloom Tomato Harvest

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Ricotta Stuffed Battered Zucchini Blossoms & New Zucchini Recipes

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Looking for new zucchini recipes? This season deep fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese are one of my new favourites. I’m also enjoying zucchini noodles (“zoodles”) and dehydrating zucchini slices for use during winter.

It stuns me how one plant in the garden can be so prolific. The good old courgette, or zucchini, produces a steady stream of veg from Christmas right through to late February in our garden and while the first few are much awaited and delicious, after a while you do tend to dread their arrival on the kitchen bench.

One plant is plenty for most gardeners. I’ve tried different varieties over the years, yellow, stripey, round and even two tone.  But I keep coming back to the Italian heirloom variety Fiorentino which produces beautifully flavoured, firm zucchini and is consistently prolific. Costasta Romanesco is another good Italian one that Kings Seeds stock.

deep fried zucchini flowers-01

They are easy to grow, need a bit of room, they don’t run like pumpkins but keep sprouting leaves from a central crown that can end up taking up a good square meter in the garden. Plant in rich soil and keep them well watered at the base. Try and keep the leaves dry to avoid fungal diseases. To keep them fruiting keep picking them.

For stuffing zucchini flowers, pick the blossoms in the morning or the evening when they have closed up. The flowers kind of twist themselves closed which makes them easier to stuff as they hold the filling in. Evening is good if you’re having them for dinner because freshness is all with this dish. Once picked the flowers really need to be used on the same day.

You can pick little flowers where the zucchini hasn’t formed and flowers with small zucchini’s attached that you can chop off to use later. Don’t pick any flowers that are brown on the end or in the center.

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Mix up some ricotta cheese with chopped basil, mint and some lemon zest. Put about a teaspoon of the mix in each flower, not ripping the flowers, so they’re not over stuffed, and fold the ends of the flowers together. Set aside while you make a bowl of batter.

Mix 1/2 a cup of white flour with a teaspoon of baking powder and enough beer or water to make a medium-thick batter, too thin and it will run off, too thick and they don’t go crispy. Heat an inch of oil in a small saucepan with straight sides until it is hot but not smoking. Dunk the stuffed flowers into the batter one at a time until well coated and cook them one at a time in the oil until they’re golden and crispy. Put them on a paper towel in a warm oven to drain while you cook the rest.

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To make your own homemade ricotta like this check out our Soft Cheese Kit. I made this batch 30 minutes before stuffing the flowers. It is such an easy cheese to make. Serve them up with wedges of lemon and a green salad. Stuffed Zucchini blossoms are one of those special recipes that you’ll cook once a year when you’ve got a rampant courgette plant in the garden that you want to slow down. It is well worth trying.

ricotta stuffed zucchini flowers-01

Drying courgettes in an electric dehydrator is also a handy way of processing a glut for use later in the winter months. They don’t take long to dry and are beautiful added into risottos with mint and parmesan cheese or in casseroles and soups.

Dried Zucchini

You can also make zucchini noodles or “zoodles” by slicing your zucchinis through a mandolin. You only need to put them in a colander and pour boiling water over them to blanch them and then dress them with a mix of mint and sesame oil or a dressing of your choice. A bit of chilli is nice too.

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And if all else fails … feed them to the sheep.

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Hope ewe are more amused than her 🙂






Free Home Orchard Journal

I’m not what you’d call a crafty girl. If I’m totally honest, which maybe I shouldn’t be, I’d say I’ve never seen the point of patch-working and scrap-booking (sorry). I can knit – but my real talent and inclination lies in the garden and the kitchen.

But give a girl 4 DAYS OFF IN A ROW over the New Year and she has time to think up all sorts of schemes and projects and one of them has definite crafty leanings. For the past ten years we’ve been planting fruit trees around the property and I’ve kept a little notebook with various drawings and scribbles to remind me what was planted where and when.

It’s a nice notebook, hand bound and bought for just this important purpose. The trouble is that my plot is bigger than my page. And as we all know, us gardeners are buggers for planting more trees, moving them and even on occasion, killing them. So much so in my case that the poor wee notebook now resembles a crossword puzzle in a doctors waiting room, completed by 10 different people.

I know I’m not alone in this dilemma. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t contact Country Trading Co. to ask us for help identifying a tree, or with a query that could be answered by just the kind of info a Home Orchard Journal would contain.

So as the New Year is time for taking stock of things and everything else in my life has been taken stock of to my smug, (I’ll say it before you do), satisfaction – it is time to deal to the orchard notebook. You see it is only going to get worse as I fully intend to keep planting and one day, when I’m compost, some other gardener will thank the earth I walked on for writing it down legibly.

If if I knew 10 years ago what I know now, I’d have approached my orchard notebook differently. I wouldn’t set it out in chronological entries – that is a diary which is handy for general garden records but hopeless to find key info in from years past.  No, what I should have done is organised it around the stars of the show, the fruit trees themselves.  It is the history, successes and failures of each member that interests me now.

And as I’ve had plenty of time to think on it, I’ve made a list of the info I’ll have in my ultimate Home Orchard Journal. Each fruit tree will have it’s couple of pages of fame, recording:

  • Name
  • Where I got it
  • History of the variety
  • Pollinator
  • Rootstock
  • Location (GPS coordinates via smart phone woo hoo)
  • Date planted
  • Date it flowers
  • Date it ripens
  • Date of first harvest
  • Description of tree and fruit
  • Pruning & Pests
  • Photos
  • Harvest Records
  • Recipes & Notes

In the spirit of new years resolutions I’ve started my new Home Orchard Journal off and put it in a folder with alphabetical dividers. You can arrange it how you want, put it in a clear flip file or make it into a fancy scrapbook if you are that way inclined. I am not and I’m just chuffed to finally have my muddled notebook on it’s way to a more decipherable form before it all got forgotten.

I’ve made a list of all the fruit trees to fill out a record for and my new Home Orchard Journal will have 130 entries on the first pass!  It may take some time. Here is a look at the entry I’ve done for the Casimoira Tree. Such a good feeling putting all that info together in one place. There I go sounding smug again.

But seriously – won’t it be satisfying in 20 or 30 years to look back at a photo of that bright little thing full of energy and purpose that has now turned into a graceful old lady of the orchard. I’m talking about the tree not the gardener!

Home Orchard Journal Template


Here is the template so you can sort your orchard records out too, or print it out and put it in a folder to give to a friend who you know would appreciate it.  Apart from the cover I’ve tried to keep pages plain so it doesn’t drink the ink from your printer. Files may take a few minutes to download. Take a read of the “What to Record” one while you wait. Enjoy!

What to Recordclick to download  Ideas on what to write down and why.

Cover Templateclick to download

Tree Template – Print Double Sided

Extra Pages Templateclick to download

Let us know how you get on with it. Perhaps if enough of us fill it in we could put the entries together into some form of book about home orchards across NZ? Or better still if we all publish the GPS coordinates of our orchards we could have an interactive map of home orchard journals across the world!  –  yep definitely time for me to go back to work before I have too many more bright ideas.

Happy New Year everyone.  Here’s hoping its a good one.




Edible Pinenut Christmas Trees

pinenut christmas tree

The other evening I took a wander down to a corner of the property I don’t visit very often.  It is a boggy shady spot that we planted out around 6 or 7 years ago, I wanted fig leaves to wrap some cheeses in but while I was getting them I was really excited to spy the first pine cones on the lone pine nut tree that we planted in among the natives and other edibles. Pine nut trees take 6 years before they set nuts so the timing was bang on.

It sounds like a long time to wait when you’re thinking about planting edibles but if you just plant it and forget about it, it’s like getting an unexpected pressie when you find them suddenly producing. I couldn’t have been more chuffed. With Christmas bearing down on us it got me thinking about how you could make use of this tree for the first 6 years of its life before it starts nutting and I thought it would make an excellent Christmas tree.

It is a bit of a kiwi tradition to cut down a pine tree for Christmas. Wayward roadside seedling pines that have been minding their own business all year suddenly start vanishing and cars are seen driving around with pine trees draped on the roof like bad toupees.  Rural kids, like these two enterprising locals below, take to the hills with the pruning saw and make a bit of pocket money selling Christmas Trees.

christmas trees

When you get the tree home the rituals continue, it is usually too big for the available space and then you have your choice of strategies for trying to keep its needles intact until the 25th. My favourite is putting a disprin in the water, like you’re curing it of a hangover.

The smell of pine needles makes the house feel like Christmas, unless you are allergic in which case they make the house feel like one big sneeze. But instead of chucking the tree out after the big day, how about a living pine tree that could go on to produce edible pine nuts for years to come? Any pesto maker who has over zealously filled a bag of pine nuts from the bulk bins knows the horrendous price they are per kilo.

pinenut christmas tree

Pine nuts trees are as tough as old boots and grow pretty much everywhere a radiata pine tree will grow and they get to the same size too. They are not quite so straggly looking and I think their tidy, upright branches make them the perfect Christmas tree. Obviously they are going to get a bit big for keeping in a pot and bringing inside each Christmas, but for the first 10 years of their life they would be small enough to decorate in the garden.

They don’t need a pollinator so you can get away with having one tree if space is an issue. When they are mature you’ll get approximately 5kg of shelled nuts from each tree. Getting them out of the shell is tricky, you can see why they’re so expensive but when you try fresh ones they’re so sweet and yummy you won’t go back to shop ones.

The photo below is another group of pine nut trees we planted a few years later and they aren’t producing cones yet (I ran over and checked!) but you can see what I mean about the compact branches. Who else thinks these would be better than a plastic tree, or a live one that you just throw away?  Think about the pesto!

pine nut tree

Tomato Trial – Part 2

growing tomatoes from seed

How to grow tomatoes part 2. Those of you who have been following our little tomato trial will be pleased to know that the seedlings have made it through their first 3 months of life. If you haven’t been following it you can catch up here. 

The short version is we’re growing 5 favourite heirloom American varieties of tomatoes and trialing a range of crop protection methods against the dreaded tomato pysllid bugs. We’ve raised 15 plants in total, 3 of each, and we’re comparing organic protections, chemical spray and no sprays to see how the varieties and protection methods perform.

growing tomatoes

We’ve bought in some nice new bug free soil and we’re going to grow them in the bags, propped up in recycled supplement bins with the bottoms cut out.  The bins are lined up in strategic spots around the garden but I know the pysillids will find them as I’ve tried this method of growing in pots away from the main garden before and the crop still gets infested.

Labour weekend is the traditional time to plant out your tomatoes across much of the country but the night time temperatures are still too cool in Nelson to reliably plant out then.   A couple of weeks later is a safer bet, but even now we still have snow on the ranges and an overnight temp of just 3° C last night!  Just as well they were well hardened off.   Ideally you’re looking for a regular night time temperature of around 12°C before planting out.

Plant your tomatoes deeply, up the stalk to the first leaves, and they will grow roots along the planted stalk, giving you sturdier plants.  Give them some tomato fertiliser, rich in potassium, and some well rotted manure mixed through your planting soil.

chemical sprays

For our chemical weapon we’re using the only spray on the market approved for use on the tomato potato pysillid bug.  It is a spray called “Maverick” which is a Yates product containing the chemical tau-fluvalinate, a synthetic pyretheroid which is not as bad on bees as some chemical sprays, but still toxic to bees when wet.  The recommended spray program for pysillids is every  7-14 days.

spray free tomatoes

These five little members of our trial are going it alone, just lots of water, sun, good seaweed fertiliser and some tomato food from time to time. Can’t wait to see how they go compared with their pampered counterparts in the other bins.

organic sprays for tomatoes

For our organic protection we’re trying a range of options.  Neem granules, neem oil, pyretherum spray, soapy water (an old method for killing aphids), and a fancy new crop protection mesh.

crop protection mesh

This fine woven mesh cover is being evaluated by the Future Farming Center at Lincoln University.  It totally encloses the crop and is apparently effective against fine insects like carrot fly and my pysillids as well as birds and weather damage.

Rain and watering will penetrate the mesh and the only time you need to remove it is for harvesting and weeding.

You’re supposed to dig it in around the edges of the soil or pin it down but I’ve just trussed up one of the drums with tight twine.  If the mesh lasts for 10 years as claimed, it would be a cost effective, if cumbersome, organic protection method.

So we are all set for the next phase of the trial.  We’ll be spraying every week, watering well every couple of days and looking forward to seeing how each variety grows.


Update Month 4:

Well, the tomatoes have been planted out for nearly a month now and I’m somewhat surprised to inform you that the best performing ones are the “no spray” crew, closely followed by the ones sprayed with “Maverick” chemical spray.

Sadly, the organic spray tomatoes are showing variable results.  Of the 5 organic pest control tomatoes the neem granule, soapy water and crop protection mesh tomatoes are all flourishing but the neem oil and pyretherum spray tomatoes are really turning their toes up. I’ve checked that my spray dilutions are correct. I can’t see any psyllids on them but I can’t work out why these two are doing so poorly while their immediate neighbors are flourishing.

They really look as though the spray is burning them. I’m spraying in the early morning before the sun is up and I’ve gone and sprayed a non-trial tomato in the main garden to test my theory that it is the spray that is at fault so we shall see.

tomato pests and diseases

I haven’t seen many pests yet.  Last week we had an aphid infestation on the soapy water organic spray tomato but after spraying those have gone and not returned.  A few white fly on the neem granule tomato but nothing major yet.

Between the varieties, there seems to be no marked difference in growth.  Mortgage Lifter and Black Krim are marginally more vigorous than the other varieties at this stage. The plants sprayed with Maverick are the smallest while the ones sprayed with nothing are the largest. All of them are just starting to set their first flowers.

tomato flowers

I’m removing the laterals and tying the tomatoes up each week at the moment to keep the plants growing upright with not too much side foliage growth. removing laterals from tomato plantsI like to describe laterals as the bits that grow in the armpits of the leaves coming off the main stem – everyone seems to understand that.  You want to get rid of laterals on these upright staking tomatoes.  It is not so important on cherry tomatoes which can ramble all over the place, but on these larger fruited tomatoes, the weight of fruit on unsupported laterals can snap the plant and laterals also produce more leaves and less fruit.

I’ve also removed leaves below the first flowers and thinned dense upper foliage, leaving just enough to give a bit of shade to the developing fruit.  It seems sacrilegious to nurture a plant from seed for 4 months only to take to it with the secateurs and remove over half the leaves but now is the time the plant needs to put its energies into growing fruit and it also increases air flow around the plant which reduces the risk of fungal diseases. Always cut clean to the trunk or joint, leaving no stubs that can get infected with fungal diseases.

taking leaves off tomato plants and tying up-

Check the ties on your plants to make sure they’re not too tight as the trunk grows and keep adding ties so the wind doesn’t snap the top out of your plants. I use these adjustable rubber ties which are nice and soft on the trunk.  You can get several years use out of them too.

I’m watering evenly every couple of days. It is important not to let your tomato plants dry out as the fruit is forming or the skins thicken and then later on, they can crack as the fruit swells.

Update Month 5

We’re approaching mid-January and it is 5 months since the tomato seeds were sown.  Here is a round up of how each of the five varieties are faring.

heirloom tomato trial mortgage lifter

Mortgage Lifter continues to be a vigorous plant and is slightly ahead of the rest. It is setting reasonable amounts of fruit on all plants.

aunt rubys german green tomato plants

I don’t think I’ll get much off the Organic Aunt Ruby’s but the no spray and chemical spray plant seem to be doing well. Not as many fruit as the other varieties but what there is large.

Paul Robeson Tomato plants-01

Possibly the most impressive of all the varieties at this stage, Paul Robeson plants are vigorous and are setting large fruit, but not that many of them.

Cherokee Chocolate tomato plants-01

The poorest of all the varieties in the trial. The organic one suffered “burn” from the early sprays, the no spray one I inadvertently lateraled the top out of it and it has gone into a major sulk, the chemical spray one is doing OK and has a couple of fruit on it.

Black Krim tomato plants-01

I have high hopes for Black Krim, having read so many great reviews of this tomato. All three plants are looking good and setting some fruit. The no-spray one is doing the best.

Pests and Diseases

On the pests and diseases front, we seem to be remarkably healthy. The earlier white fly and aphid infestations were dealt to on the organic spray plants.  The no-spray plants don’t have any sucky pests on them and there is no sign of the dreaded pysillid yet – despite the potato crop up near the top shed being riddled with them. Touch wood it stays up there.

I’ve removed a few lower leaves with rust on them and it is about time to give the leaves another thin out on some of them as they’re getting a bit overgrown and lush.

One thing that is puzzling me is that a lot of the flowers seem to be breaking off just above the neck of the blossom. I thought it was the birds eating them but a bit of research tells me that sometimes a plant will drop blossoms as a self self-regulating control mechanism for a variety of reasons including:

  • lack of nutrients and/or water
  • periods of high humidity
  • blossom not able to open for pollen transfer and pollination

tomato flowers breaking off

I’m feeding and watering well so I know that is not the issue. The blossoms seem to be opening just fine too so no encouragement required there. We did have a period of high humidity over a week around Christmas so that may have caused it although later blossoms are dropping also. The problem is the same across all varieties and spray programs.

I’m wondering if the plants know they’re in a bag rather than soil and feel like if they set a heavy crop they may topple over? The main garden tomatoes are a month behind the bag ones but there is no sign of this blossom drop on their early flowers.

Month 6 Update

Well after consulting with Miles from Garden Organics and my neighbour Brian, I think I’ve worked out why the blossoms are dropping and the leaves are cupping. The soil is getting too hot. I’ve positioned the bags in sunny areas of the garden and they seem to think the roots are overheating. This is putting the plants under stress which is why they’re not setting as much fruit. Miles says he gets leaf cupping in their tunnel house in hot weather when the roots get too warm.

Definitely spoke too soon on the lack of pests and diseases. Since then the marauding hordes of pests and diseases have arrived, all except the dreaded pysillid which thankfully still hasn’t put in an appearance.

We have had caterpillars on everything except the chemically sprayed tomatoes and the tomato with the crop protection mesh around it. After an entree of leaves they settle down in the tomato for their main course. All the organic sprayed plants have caterpillars too.

We had some rain (finally) which was great but the grow bags have a wetting agent in the mix to keep moisture in the soil and so they soaked it all up and we got a lot of splitting and cracking in the tomatoes that were nearly ripe. We also got a bit of blossom end rot (photo on the right below) which is also a sign of uneven watering or lack of calcium uptake. I put it down to the watering because they have been getting tomato fertiliser.

tomato pests and diseases

Now we are getting down to the business end of things I hope these pests and diseases can be kept at bay long enough for us to get some kind of harvest.

And yes we did. To read the final installment in our tomato trial trilogy click here.

Pruning Blackcurrants

how to grow and prune blackcurrants

how to grow and prune blackcurrant bushes

If you grow one berry in your garden, make it a blackcurrant.  They are easy to grow in gardens that get some winter chilling.  They grow very well here in Nelson, where our winters aren’t what I’d call harsh, but give just enough chill to suit blackcurrants.

A Blackcurrant bush can live for up to 50 years and will produce around 3kg of fruit per bush. They don’t take up much room, needing an area of roughly 1 m square and they don’t grow much taller than 1 m, so are easy to net for birds and easy to pick.

Pruning is a doddle. In winter you just go through and thin out older canes and dead canes at ground level to make room for the new canes and keep the vigour up in the bush. It is easy to spot the difference between the old and new growth.

how to prune blackcurrants

The bushes flower in October and a late frost can damage the blossoms.  We like the Magnus variety of black currant for its vigorous growth and prolific fruiting. Fruit ripens in December and January and freezes very well.  They like a rich well drained soil, but I grow them very well on clay with mulch and compost. They don’t like as much of an acidic soil as other berries and they don’t like to dry out.

They make lovely berry syrups and jams that we’ve shared on a previous blog but my current favourite currant recipe, if that makes sense, is this wonderfully rich blackcurrant chutney which goes so well with cheese and cold meat.  Classy.

how to grow and prune blackcurrants

  • 500 grams blackcurrants
  • 500 grams brown sugar
  • 125 grams chopped raisins
  • 2 tablespoons dry mustard
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 small onion grated
  • 1 cup malt vinegar
  1. Combine all ingredients in a large non-reactive pan.
  2. Bring to the boil and cook gently uncovered for 30-40 minutes until a thick pulp.
  3. Pour into hot clean jars and seal when cold
  4. Makes approximately 1 litre, keeps like a dream and it is so rich you only need the tiniest amount so it goes a long way.

The recipe comes from The Mighty Blackcurrant recipe book published as a fundraiser for our annual Sarau Blackcurrant festival here in the Moutere.

blackcurrant tea