As first-time gardeners, we often plant with enthusiasm. The drive to create a 'food forest' has led many to plant a small orchard in the hopes of the gorgeous fruit they may offer in the coming decade. When the first harvest rolls around, one can be forgiven for hastening to pick the first fruit. Unfortunately, this may lead to you biting into an astringent fruit.
Here are some tips on gauging the right time to harvest and how it affects your trees.
Picking with purpose
You may set out to plant a tree purely for eating fruit ripe off the tree, but it is not always that easy. Take apples as an example. You have cider apples, eating apples, pie apples and juice apples. They ripen at different times and serve different purposes. Consider what you would like to use your fruits for.
Are you picking to:
- Make jams
- For a pie
- Make ciders or,
- To lessen the load on the tree?
The purpose will dictate when to pick and how many. If you pick apples for ciders, it is best to wait till they ripen to their fullest potential. This principle applies to jams as well as ciders because ripe fruit contains the most sugar (but you do not want burst skins or actual dropped fruit). Another consideration is when to thin the fruit to keep the trees healthy.
Thinning fruits early in the season will lessen the load on the tree and provide richer fruit.
Thinning a tree is the first thing new fruit tree owners tend to miss. It is not compulsory, but it helps maintain a healthy tree that produces better quality fruit. The process involves removing unripe fruit early in the season.
Guidelines by fruit type:
Apricots: Thin when the fruit is 2cm in diameter, with 8cm between fruit.
Plums: Thin when the fruit is 2cm in diameter, with 10-15cm between fruit.
Apples: Thin after November drop, 1 per spur or 10cm apart.
Asian pears: 1 fruit per spur.
Citrus: Thin in December or just after the first natural fruit drop. Remove exposed fruit in varieties sensitive to sunburn (e.g. Murcott mandarins).
Note that a second thinning (later in the season) will provide you with larger unripe fruit like peaches or apricots that can be used for chutneys.
Fruit drop is a process whereby the tree drops unripe fruit early in the season. Not to be confused with natural ripe fruit dropping off the tree.
What happens if you are late
If you miss the early thinning process, the tree may prematurely drop a portion of its unripe fruit (a natural occurrence in some, but also a symptom of other problems during the growing season). If it fails to drop the fruit and can bring them all to maturity, the branch may crack under the weight.
Thinning may not always be necessary. Following an abundant harvest, a tree may produce less the following year. Take note of the condition of the trees following spring blooming to keep on top of this.
When to pick
There seems to always be confusion as to when to pick fruit. And it largely depends on the purpose, as discussed at the start of the article. If you plan to eat the fruit right off the tree, then you pick them ripe. If you want them to stay on the kitchen counter for a few days, then you pick them mature and let them ripen.
Note: Not all fruit ripen after being picked. Some fruit can ripen more quickly when exposed to ethylene gas (fruit naturally all emit it) hence the trick of placing fruit in a bag to ripen.
Fruits that will ripen when picked mature:
Fruits that do not ripen after picking (just soften):
In general, the fruit texture (feel), colour and smell will change when it is ripe. There are several tricks of the trade that will help you gauge the timing, so to speak. Some slightly tilt the fruit and if it breaks off easily, it tends to be ripe (ex. pears). Others prefer a twisting motion (ex. some nectarines cultivars). In the case of vining crops, they will often wait for the vine to die back (ex. watermelon). Remember the cultivar you buy, so you can look up the best time to harvest.
Share your harvesting tips in the comments below!
Bruch, M. L., & Ernst, M. D. (2012). PB1802 A Farmer's Guide to a Pick-Your-Own Operation.
Falivene, S. & Hardy, S. (2008). Hand thinning citrus. NSW Department of Primary Industries. https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/242814/Hand-thinning-citrus.pdf
Gilbert, Z. (1978). Fruit growing in Southern Africa. Purnell and Sons (PTY) Ltd, Cape Town.
Starey, R. (2000). Farmers' guide to picking stone fruit. Deciduous Fruit Grower (South Africa).