This can be a tricky time of year, when the spring is beginning but you can be sure there will be more bad weather to come. But in the shelter of our peach house things are really warming up and at the start of March our peach trees are in flower. We keep the ventilation open throughout the winter in this glass house as the cold air encourages the trees to develop their flower bud. But as these buds swell, and change from a silvery gray to bright pink they become very vulnerable and so the vents are closed down. During flowering we always hope for warm days and mild nights for the best fruit set. The warmer it is then the better chance of fertilisation and any hard frost can cause problems, even under glass.
At this time of year there are very few pollenating insects about, so we have to do this job for them, by hand. For this we use a rabbit’s tail on a cane, and go from flower to flower. Although this is a pleasant job you quickly realise what a monotonous life a bee must have. For the best chance of fertilisation we always do this at precisely 2.00pm, as this is when the day is at its warmest. By the end of the month we should be able to see what fruit set we have as the tiny embryo fruit become apparent. As these grow they will need to be thinned until we have a tree covered in beautiful evenly spaced fruit, about 6 inches apart.
This is an old fashion way of growing peaches, which was developed to the height of perfection by the Victorians. They would grow all kinds of exotic fruits in elaborate glass houses, which were commonplace on most estates. By the beginning of the twentieth centauy the advent of refrigerated transport made it possible to import any fruit we wanted. When this was combined by the loss of skilled labour after the Great War, most of these glass houses became neglected and redundant.
At Gravetye we are so lucky to have been able to restore one of these historic buildings, and use it as it was originally intended. This is certainly not the cheapest way to produce peaches. But there is a special value in keeping these skills and heritage alive to share with our guests. This is also the only way of producing the best-flavored peaches possible. Peaches are so fragile that commercially they must be harvested hard and under ripe for transport. This results in beautiful looking fruit, with a disappointing and underwhelming flavour. This can’t even be compared to the messy pleasure of biting into a peach fresh from the tree. If we protect our blossom well enough through this spring we should have a glass house full of this amazing fruit in time to celebrate the height of summer.