How to Prune a Peach Tree

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Ignacio Becerra, Chiles Peach Orchard

When you live around Crozet, it just seems fitting to have a peach tree in your yard. It’s heritage here in Virginia’s old Peach Capital. Nothing tops a fresh peach for taste.

But to actually get peaches to eat, you have to manage your tree toward sun and air and keep it feeling young.

It’s pruning time in the sprawling Chiles Peach Orchard in Greenwood. Ignacio Becerra bosses two crews of workers there, each crew with a foreman who has worked under Becerra for years. Becerra is also the master pruner and instructs every worker on how it’s properly done.

Born in Mexico, Becerra first worked on the Chiles peach orchard in 1975 at age 20. “I learned [how to prune] here,” said Becerra. “When I first came, I came to pick fruit. I went back to Florida for four years and then came back in 1979 and worked for Joe Henley.” In 1981 he came to Chiles’s.

Twenty to 30 men work in the orchards year round. These days, with so much pruning to do, 30 men are clipping with shears. Each was working his way down a row of trees, steadily judging and snipping. In their wake stand trees as graceful and elegant as ballerinas on their toes, their fingertips extended. Occasionally men chatted with men in adjoining rows, but mainly there was silence as each observed the tree he was shaping. Each man is expected to prune at least 50 trees a day.

“We begin pruning apples in November and then stop and move to peaches in January,” said Becerra. Apples are more forgiving and can be pruned later. The time for peaches is January, February and into March. Peaches must be pruned every year to produce well, he said emphatically.

“I prune trees every day to show the guys how I want it done.”

Chiles’s has about a dozen varieties of peaches and about 10 percent of the orchard is being replanted in each year to rejuvenate the orchard, he said.

Freshly pruned peach trees in Chiles Orchard.

“I planted all these orchards, said Becerra, looking around at the many acres of rows. The trees are planted nine feet apart and the rows are 18 feet apart. He did a quick calculation. If 30 men prune 50 trees per day and you start in January and it takes you more than two months with men working six days a week, then there must be at least 75,000 trees in the orchard.

Becerra pointed out a leaf bud, which has a rather pointy shape and is higher on the branch, and a fruit bud, which appeared rounder and plumper and nearer the older part of the tree. Leaf buds are expendable.

“You leave more wood on a variety that has naturally fewer buds,” he explained. Some varieties with denser branching require heavier pruning.

Pruned branches are gathered together when the tree is finished and placed down the aisle between the trees. Once a row is done, the clippings are bush-hogged and chopped up. Every row has an irrigation line down it. Without that, peaches on a commercial scale wouldn’t work.

Becerra approached a young tree. “At the end of one year you prune the main stem at knee height, about two foot high,” he said. “When you make that cut the tree shoots out branches and then the next year you shape it the way you want.

“You want to open it up. And have forks. Cut right at the top of a bud with the angle you want the tree to grow in. You make forks. You don’t want branches to touch. More forks will hold the fruit up good.

A peach tree after it has been fully pruned.

“There are two reasons to have it open. One is the tree gets so big. The second is that it needs sun and air in the middle. The fruit looks for the sun. The tree needs light in order  not to have dead limbs in shaded areas.” He pointed out some small, weak dead branches and then clipped them off. They had tried to grow in shade.

“Most fruit comes off new wood on the tree because it gives better fruit at a better size. Every time you make a cut, it will cause new wood to shoot up next year.” He smartly removed some stunted limbs on main branches.

“Don’t let trees shade each other,” he said.

Deer love the orchard, said Becerra, and they are something of a problem. “Deer damage trees and they eat the fruit. They enjoy being in the orchard.” Becerra knows that feeling, so he grinned. “I love being outside.” He has worked this particular land for more than 30 years. His policy towards the deer these days is peaceful coexistence. “There’s not a whole lot you can do but fence the orchard.” That would be a very big job.

Becerra said they give no consideration to what deer may do in making pruning decisions. “They’re gonna eat,” he shrugged.

“The tree has to sort of go around,” said Becerra as he seemed to make dance steps around branches. He studied for where to force the next fork to emerge.

A small tree, say four years old, should produce 75 to 90 peaches a year. A mature tree will produce 450 to 500. “The future of the orchard is strong,” he said confidently.

“The tree likes being cut,” said Becerra reassuringly. “Every time you cut it, it gets younger. You give it strength. If you don’t prune a tree it will last 10 years. Pruning gives it longer life.

“Try to leave the fruit all on the same level,” he said. Becerra sharpens his clippers every day. He winced at the idea of carrying a tool that does not have a keen edge.

“People in cities do not know where their fruit comes from. If we don’t work the land, where will peaches come from?” Yes, in the end the fate of civilization gets down to farming and how we do it.

“The men here are happy to be working, but if their family is in Mexico, they are distressed over that.”

He looked over his job and touched it up with a few second cuts. He inspected the tree in the next row to see how it had been left. When the fruit gets thumb size, they will pass through the rows again and pluck off peaches so as to leave them six inches apart.

Becerra has 10 children. He’s glad about that, but he doesn’t want to tell the story. Nine of them live in Crozet, two still at home. One is in Mexico. His wife Maria operates Las Cabanas, the Mexican food and grocery store on Rt. 250. The store is named in honor of a cabin they have in Mexico that they hope to visit again. They’ve lived in Orchard Acres for the last six years.

“I still feel I don’t speak English well,” Becerra said. “It took years for me to feel comfortable talking to somebody.” He prefers to read in Spanish. “I passed the citizenship exam,” he said. “That was hard for me. You have to know the answers to 100 questions and they ask ten of them. You don’t know which. I studied for month. I took off that last week. I told Huff [Chiles] I had to.” His look became worried at the memory. “A lot of people are trying to do it. If they have the opportunity they work at it.”

Prune now so your peaches will be ready in June.

1 COMMENT

  1. In days passed, many in the local population utilized the skills that Mr. Becerra has honed. God bless him and the others who labor to keep our orchard heritage alive and thriving!
    Thank you, Crozet Gazette, for reminding us of our agricultural roots.

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