Visiting Stephen Jeffers – Persimmon Grower

by admin | April 2, 2020 1:42 am

I’ve been managing this orchard for 10 years and grow about 2,500 Persimmon and 1,200 Avocados.

Weather has badly affected the orchard this season which has taken the edge off the quality of the fruit so there’s a lot of skin damage though it doesn’t affect the internal quality. We may look into rain covers but that is a fairly intensive capital exercise. The orchard here is 10 years old. They’re a long lasting tree – not like Stonefruit or Citrus which have reached the end of their life after 10-15 years. The oldest orchards in Australia would be 25 years and they’re still producing commercially. My father put in a Persimmon orchard in 1985 – one of the first in Australia.

If you eat a green Astringent Persimmon, it’s like a green banana and very unpleasant and the Japanese discovered a few genetic mutations 200 years ago and they had lost their astringency.  So they started selecting varieties and 3-5% of their crosses actually had this non-astringent quality, so over that period they settled on two main varieties – Fuyu and Jiro.

Jiro has a couple of bud sport variations known as Maekawa Jiro and Ichikikei Jiro, and we grow Ichikikei Jiro which is the big square fruit and also a few Fuyu trees. Fuyu is probably the world standard – a nice sweet round fruit, a bit smaller than Jiro. The taste is very similar. The Fuyu is supposed to be a bit sweeter and Fuyu have a tougher skin, but if you eat the skin, then it’s not as pleasant as a Jiro, and Fuyu is a more vigorous tree.

We also have a handful of the Astringent Nightingale in the ground. The Italians are probably the biggest market for astringent persimmons. Anywhere in China, Japan, Korea are probably our biggest market, they don’t eat the soft astringent persimmon. They do grow a whole range of astringent varieties as well but they treat them with carbon dioxide while they are still crispy which removes the astringency. They put them in a carbon dioxide cool room for about 24 hours and that takes the astringency out.

The Israelis grow a small astringent variety called Triumph and sell it as Sharon fruit and the Spanish have developed a new astringent variety called Rojo Brilliante which is proving quite a hit in Europe where they have undertaken a major marketing campaign.

Sheryl:      Can you explain the difference between Fuyu and Jiro and why you grow Jiro?
Stephen:   I started to grow persimmons because I thought it was easy but unfortunately every year it seems to become more challenging for various reasons.  But when we planted Jiro there was an opening in the market because most of the Australian crop at the time was Fuyu picked in April. Unfortunately, a lot of people thought the same as me and there are very big orchards of Jiro at Gympie and Gatton so I wish I was growing Fuyu now and as Jiro get older, Jiro fruit tend to mark very badly as the trees get more crowded.

The DPI have conducted trials on various aspects on quality and production and one of the interesting things we have found is that if you look at the first row on the outside of my orchard, we have a NZ product called Extenday® plastic mulch which reflects light back into the tree.  It’s a mat you roll out on the ground. The fruit quality is better and earlier and the skin quality has held up to the rain a bit better. It gives colour and sweetness to the fruit so although we get enough light, we’re just trialling it. It’s available in 100mtr rolls and costs $300.00 from a Victorian agriculture wholesale company. They use it in Victoria on their Pink Lady apple orchards for 3 weeks just before harvest so the fruit gets a nice blush otherwise the fruit just gets red on parts of it and green on other parts.

The other difference between Jiro and Fuyu is (that) Jiro is less vigorous and this keeps our labour costs down while also being quite a productive tree. Fuyu tend to be more vigorous and can get 3mtr shoots, but we’re working on ways to control vigour, so commercial orchards look at plant growth regulators, but also getting fruit on the tree is the best way of controlling vigour. I’m trying to hang my Jiro late to get a sweeter fruit and colour but we got caught this year with the rain. To get seedless, plant a Fuyu or Jiro as they don’t produce male flowers. We get seed from most of the astringent types. A lot of persimmons produce male and female flowers. We graft most of the year, particularly in early spring through to summer, but the most successful is to put a side bud or a side graft on in February to early March (late summer).  I use a chip bud as a T bud doesn’t work as the bark is not flexible but I mostly wedge graft or you can use a side graft. Jiro is best done in early spring as it only gets one flush, whereas Fuyu will keep growing most of the summer so we do that later.

Planting Out
Best time to plant out is June or July (early winter). It’s best not to disturb their root system. Keep as much of it together as possible. Dig a hole a lot bigger than the tree, work in a lot of manure or organic matter, a few handfuls of Dynamic Lifter and a heap of lime and dig it all into the soil under the tree. Don’t plant the tree on top of any concentrated fertiliser, don’t ever pour a handful of fertiliser at the base of the persimmon as you will kill it, make a little basin to catch a little water. In spring water a couple of times a week and when you fertilise at this time, put a band out away from the tree and only a very small amount for the first couple of years until they are established – about a couple of handfuls of Dynamic Lifter at a time. If they are in a windy exposed site they won’t establish well. Best to plant in a sheltered position but not too sheltered. In Japan, they plant them bare rooted when they are dormant but if you disturb the roots in a growing time, the tree will 90% of the time, die.

Sheryl:    When I plant a tree, providing it is not root bound, I cut the base of the plastic bag away, place it in the hole then lift the side of the bag up so you are not disturbing the roots.

Member: What are the issues with grafting a Fuyu onto an astringent Nightingale?
Stephen:  You can pretty much graft anything on to any Diospryos kaki (oriental persimmons).  They’re all compatible. There can be incompatibility with the American persimmon (diospyros virginina) which you sometimes see growing on the roadside. It has a small date sized fruit. There’s a native persimmon that grows in the rainforest in Southern Qld. We’re collecting a few different rootstocks from around the world to try, but most of your backyard persimmon is Diospyros kaki the Japanese Persimmon. There’s a bit of variation in growth, but we don’t know a lot about rootstocks as yet, and the industry has a 10 year project which has started and which is pretty much the minimum time to learn anything about rootstocks, although it’s usually 10-20 years to select some rootstocks, graft and evaluate them and try them in different growing conditions.

Sheryl:  If you have both the astringent and the non-astringent planted together in your orchard, will they cross pollinate?
Stephen: If you plant the seed of any persimmon, 97% of the seedlings will be astringent. The non-astringents will get seed in them if you put in a pollinator variety, but we’re not producing pollinator varieties anymore because the industry has stopped using them and we’re going for seedless fruit. Seedless fruit crop OK but can drop if you don’t manage the trees properly – they’ll get very dry. Seeded fruit tends to hang on the tree better.

We put the nets on at the end of January and we’ll take them off as soon as we take the crop off.  There are advantages to keeping a canopy on as it seems to produce a better environment for the fruit. We get the UV stabilised NZ nets in from James Grigson in South Australia in 100mtr rolls which have a 10 year guarantee but it should last for 15 years. The Chinese ones tend to break down.

Sheryl:     How long will the fruit hang on the tree for and how do we tell when to pick?
Stephen:  We do a sugar test and pick when the brix is over 14. They tend to only colour up well once you get a few cool nights so during the warm February – March nights, the fruit is maturing but not colouring up a lot. They will hang over winter but that is rare in the sub-tropics, but if you go down south in Victoria the tree will lose all its leaves and the tree will be covered in red fruit, so in Melbourne it is very popular as a garden tree. The birds won’t eat them when they are green and astringent. We have to net the trees – there’s no alternative!

Pruning Schedule
To keep your tree to say 3 mtrs or whatever height you want, cut it off in winter.  Prune to an open vase shape but if you want fruit, don’t cut off all of last year’s growth as they fruit on last year’s flush. We espalier our trees. They set very heavy crops so we thin back to one or two fruit i.e., if it sends out a shoot with 8 flowers on, we wait until it sets fruit then take most of them off if it doesn’t do so naturally. Taking the flowers off is ideal but you can’t tell which fruit is misshapen.  If you’re espaliering, I’ll cut off to a less vigorous lateral – you can’t allow them to keep growing out forever and what we are finding is that if you prune too hard, they don’t get enough fruit and they just want to grow all the time so we are looking at ways to crop all the vigorous shoots, take some out and leave some.

I’m not exactly doing a proper espalier on my trees – I’m shifting to cordon training; vertical shoots coming up, crop them for about 3 years, then cut them out and another replacement grows.  So you’ll notice I’ve left some pretty high branches here to crop, and a couple of Fuyu growers have told me that it’s the only way they were able to tame the trees, to load them up with massive clusters of fruit and let them all hang down, but we don’t have that problem with Jiro.

When pruning, if the diameter of the vertical was one-third more than the horizontal sub-leader, you cut it out. I went to NZ a couple of years ago and looked at how they grew them, and they grow them a lot flatter than we do and I think it is probably a better system for controlling vigour.  So this palmette system that I had already put in place by the time I went there probably grows the tree a bit too vertically; and they’ve gone to growing their main tree to a T that sends up big shoots and they bend the shoots over so the tree actually covers the whole orchard in the middle, so it’s just a wall of persimmons and their orchards are very productive.

When we grew our first trees, we planted a single row of trees and decided to open them up into a V and on each side of the V, we would grow an espalier tree.  It’s proved reasonably successful – the only thing is that the net sits a bit low so that’s why you should have a fifth wire when espaliering to make it a bit higher.  The low net keeps humidity in the orchard which exacerbates the problem of rainy weather.  We’ve grown a double trunk, then espaliered a branch onto each wire so we have two leaders, then as the tree grows we try to crop to the outside of the wire and keep the centre fairly open so you get a lot of light into the centre of the tree, which is very important and persimmons initiate next year’s fruit in January.  So this January, next year’s persimmon crop, which we will be picking over 12 months later, was initiated in all these little buds, and they tend to only initiate fruit in the buds that get a lot of light.

We try to look for dapple light on the orchard floor, and if you have a solid blocked out orchard floor under the tree, your canopy is a bit too dense for a commercial orchard.  In a home garden, it is not so critical.  We can get up to 250 fruit per tree.  We don’t wax the fruit for sale – just polish it.

Sheryl: When I was in NZ recently at the Treecroppers Conference, what they said was that you lie down on the ground, look up into the canopy and you must see dappled light.

We fertilise in August (late Winter) just before they flush in spring and also fertilise as soon as we pick the fruit e.g. 1kg of Nitrophoska per tree in Autumn and that builds up the trees reserves for next season.

Ph      Persimmons like a high pH of 6.5+ and you can’t give them too much calcium, so apply dolomite and gypsum.  We do soil testing and leaf testing and try and match the two together to see that what you are putting on the ground is going into the tree. Because I have a variety of soils here and we have high manganese which persimmons don’t particularly like, so the industry is currently revising the standards as the calcium weren’t sufficient and we were getting a lot of fruit quality problems as a result. I work on 5.8 – 7 and that’s with annual lime applications in the winter, and if need be I’ll put on a second application in the summer.  Put on 3kg per tree.  We also put on a large handful of dolomite on each tree in the nursery during winter.  People have told me they’ve planted a tree over some old concrete rubble which is highly alkaline and they’ve done very well.

The trees do best in calcareous soils particularly limestone soils in South Australia.  I’ve been getting my soil tested lately over in WA.  I use to get it done elsewhere and have noticed there is a bit of inaccuracy in all of them.  It’s not a science.  The best idea is not to change your method too much – you look for trends rather than actual figures, so I’ll take a walk through the orchard and take samples from the same place every year so when you hand them to the same lab.  My biggest fruit has been 700gms.

Fruit Drop 
Persimmons will naturally drop a lot of fruit – they might set 600-800 flowers and drop ¾ of them but the things that contribute to fruit drop is poor nutrition, drying out and water logging.  If you get a lot of cloudy weather in spring, it causes carbohydrate stress in the tree and this drops the fruit as well.  Young persimmons are also prone to heavy fruit drop and you’ll see where there are lots of little short stems where there were flowers which haven’t held through to fruiting but as they get older they hold the fruit a bit better.

Fruit Fly 
They’re highly susceptible to fruit fly.  Every roadside within 50kms has guava trees and they should be eradicated, but we control by baiting 2-3 times a week with Lepidex® as the insecticide, mixed with Q-Lure put out by Bugs for Bugs in Mundubbera – yeast autolysate – every other bait I’ve tried doesn’t work.

We spatter spray which means that in an area of a foot square in every few trees, you spray a very course spray with distinct droplets that don’t run together on the leaves or the bait spray won’t work as well. We bait the whole orchard, particularly around the edge of the orchard which gets hammered a bit.  We spray where there’s no fruit.  With the nets on, we often don’t go right through the orchard – just mainly the perimeters  We also spray it on the grass, power poles.  We start baiting mid December so the fruit is about 3-5cm across but the fruit fly seem to be getting hungrier every year.

We use Parafilm® from Fernland Agencies in Nambour for grafting.  In the winter when the tree is dormant, we will cut off to the graft which has taken and check them first to see if they are still alive. August you get good sap flow.

Borers and limb destroyers. There’s a clear wing moth which bores into Persimmons and that’s become a major problem especially with the Fuyu variety.  Jiro doesn’t seem to get affected but I’ve seem them ringbark a tree and kill them.  The industry is controlling it at the moment with pheromone mating disruption so we put out dispensers, and the male can’t find the female to mate with, it’s been very effective.

We have a fungus called Cercospora leaf spot that will take the leaves off the tree, we spray 3 times a year with Mancozeb.  There’s also the yellow peach moth, and the orange fruit borer which will get under the calyx of the fruit starting in Jan/Feb, and they’re a bit of a problem.  We use a product called Mimic, which is one of the new generation of insecticides which tend to be very specific – non-toxic to humans or mammals but highly toxic to little loopers and grubs.  There’s a whole generation of them like the old organo-phosphates on the way out, but some of the new generation pesticides which they call “soft” work well because they don’t create other problems by knocking out all your predators.

If you get excessive rainfall you get a gap around the calyx of the fruit and you’ll get a bit of blackening down inside which makes the fruit go soft a bit earlier.

If you see a dark red fruit on the tree today (this is in the Fuyu Block), that will be fruit that has ripened prematurely due to some damage or other.  Often they’ll get calyx separation – they’ll get a lot of rain and blow up and the calyx separates away from the fruit.  Some of them soften because of water logging in the roots which will also cause the fruit to drop.

Sheryl:  How long can we keep Persimmon in the refrigerator? 
Stephen: Try and keep them out of the refrigerator – best is 15ºC for up to 2 weeks.  If you keep them in the refrigerator and pull them out after two weeks, they’ll go soft and jelly like. You can eat them two ways – hard and soft.  Slice them like you would a tomato and put it in a sandwich e.g. ham and salad which is very nice. Persimmon, cheese and avocado plus a bit of tuna is another nice variation. It’s a fruit that goes nice with diary.

We put in about 8 different varieties from Birdwood Nursery to experiment with, we’re going to try and thin them to get a bigger fruit, and packing them in punnets.  If they get an early flowering I find it doesn’t come to anything.  We only start to get good fruit from the end of June/July from flowers that come on in late May.  I’m going to prune them to a vase shape and we might tie some branches down.

We grow mostly Hass and a few Sharwill and Reed.  Sharwill is probably the best all round avocado for here.  They like lots of organic matter and lots of Dynamic Lifter.  You can fertilise them fairly heavily but just don’t concentrate it.

Don’t plant in clay soil – they need well drained sandy soil or they’ll drown.  They grow well on red sandy soil, well drained, and we prune massive chunks out of them every year with a long handled chain saw and cut out   to ½ out every year.

We also use a plant hormone product called Sunny which we spray on at flowering, that halves your shoot extensive growth and it gives you a bit bigger fruit.  After using it for 3 years, the tree starts to decline healthwise so gave it a break last year.  Only commercial orchards would use a product like this – you wouldn’t worry about it.

On this property are probably some of the 3 oldest Avocado trees in Australia – about 80-100 years old – seedlings planted when this was a pineapple farm and they have survived with no management in all that time, and they are highly prized by Birdwood Nursery as one of their rootstocks.  They pick off 3,000-4,000 fruit off per year for rootstock.

There’s another rootstock I use called Velvick.  Some avocados seem to have a more vigorous rootstock, and some types of avocado have a more vigorous root system which is not exactly resistant to phytophthora, but it regrows quicker so if phytophthora is constantly killing off the roots in the tree, and the tree is constantly growing new ones.  Some do it better than others and these 3 are much healthier trees for resistance to root rot, whereas a lot of avocado trees sold commercially are grown on highly susceptible rootstocks and require a lot of management.  We inject every year with phosphorous acid.

A lot of the seedlings don’t have a very nice flavour so that is why you should buy a grafted tree.

The trees require copper against Anthracnose, and use Endosulphan every 2-3 weeks for fruit spotting bug.  We do a residue test before sending to market which is compulsory before we can start harvesting.  Pesticides are broken down by microflora in the soil.  A healthy soil system is part of your whole lot.  We don’t overfertilise and we encourage organic matter. All the prunings go back under the trees. I’m more worried about Copper. Copper is a fungicide and tends to build up in your soil over time,  we don’t have a viable alternative but Copper would have a more detrimental effect on the soil microflora and the general environment of the orchard.  Copper is toxic to Persimmons unless you use it when they are dormant.  It’s actually a soft pesticide providing you don’t let it get into a creek.

There’s a couple of other pesticides around which you can use, but they tend to be broad spectrum so they tend to knock everything down.  We spray Buldock® for example, it kills all the predatory insects so you get massive mite explosions and all sorts of other problems – scale which you might never have had a problem with before.

All avocado country on this farm is deep red sandy soil and goes down forever into rocky sandstone.  We grow our best quality Persimmons in heavy clay, but mound them when you’re planting them out in this type of soil.  We manage our organic matter in the soil here by side-throwing the grass slashing, so all our grass row clippings go under the trees.  We also get a lot of winter legumes. We’ve just started experimenting with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and got very good results in the avocados – probably made the persimmons a bit too well.  I get it from Malcolm Foyle at Tanawah and we put it out with Urea 2 or 3 times a year and it fixes nitrogen out of the air.  The only problem with it in a commercial orchard is the difficulty in managing. Nitrogen is potentially lethal for a productive orchard – if you put too much or too little you can do damage, so it’s early days for us but it seems to produce good results.  Avocadoes are heavy nitrogen feeders and I think it has improved the soil health in the first season.

We mostly use a product called Spray.Seed® which is one of the Gramoxone types highly toxic to humans, but very effective, and we try and spray before the weeds get too mature.  You use low rates in small dosages and often.  Spray.Seed burns and it only kills what it touches.  It works by burning off the leaf and the young leaves.

Glyphosate is systemic and the roots die as a result, and it won’t kill heavy grasses unless you repeatedly hit it.  We found in horticultural industry that glyphosate requires clay to become inactive, it attaches to clay particles in the soil and until it does, it goes down into the soil and gets taken up by the roots.  If you use it a lot under your orchard, you get tree decline, especially avocados as they have feeder roots.  We never use glyphosate under avocado and try and avoid it in Persimmons too.  If you hit a Persimmon branch with it in autumn, next year that half of the tree will be all deformed – it’s all to do with amine salts as to how it works.

Bob:  I knew a farmer who instead of using 10gms per litre of RoundUp use to use a handful of Urea and half it down to 5 so he got double the strength – it acidifies the water.  It works very effectively if you get your pH down to 3.5 – 4.00.  You can use a quarter of the rate.

Mushroom Compost 
I used it a few years ago around some avocados and nearly killed them.  I think it kept their feet a bit too wet.

Stephen grew up on a fruit and vegetable farm at Woombye, where his parents have grown a whole range of vegetables and subtropical fruits.  In the 1980’s they were one of the early commercial growers of persimmon.  On leaving school Stephen pursued his love of farming and worked on an orchard called Phoolbari Park at Palmwoods, learning to grow Avocados, Stonefruit, Custard Apple and Persimmons.  It was here he also became involved in the nursery industry, becoming a partner in Phoolbari Park Nurseries, a leading supplier of persimmon trees to commercial growers.  Currently he manages Pringle Road Farms, runs Fruitscapes Nursery (specialising in persimmon trees) and in partnership with brother Jon owns the retail outlet Yandina Fruit Market. 
Note from Sheryl: Stephen is President of Persimmons Australia Inc. Contact:  email:     (M) 0408 769 987

This article was compiled by Sheryl Backhouse

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