Thursday, June 12, 2008

Peachy Keen

I don't see how you can make something as fundamentally fascinating as a peach tree so boring. Listen to this: “For many years the use of 'flush cuts' has been recommended for pruning fruit trees to promote rapid wound closure. Recent research results with peach and other tree species indicate that flush pruning cuts are more susceptible to disease infection than cuts in which a portion of the lateral branch remains.”

Four years back I had an opportunity to plant a new tree in the front yard. I wanted a tree that would do something – flower, or provide fruit, or attract flamingos, whatever – and be different from the endless Bradford pears and water maples dotting this planned urban landscape. My parents suggested a peach tree, which right there should have stopped me cold. Accept parental advice? To this day I'm not sure why I planted a peach and not a nectarine, because I infinitely prefer nectarines. Biting into a peach is like eating a kitten. But like a sap, I thought having a peach tree would be “fun,” so in the spring of 2004 the nursery sent me a five foot “Elberta” peach stick. I flipped a coin to determine which end was up.

The first year it put out leaves. In October all the leaves turned yellow and dropped off. I freaked until I remembered the concept of “Fall.”

The second year it bloomed but had no peaches. I wondered if maybe I had a male peach (don't laugh – some fruit trees are male and female).

The third year it bloomed and produced a gazilliion tiny peaches, which proceeded to drop off one by one, leaving only one peach remaining. I petted that peach from spring halfway through July, until a mockingbird savaged it and knocked it off the tree. I cut out the beak slashes, peeled off the black spotted skin, and cautiously had a slice.

It was the best peach I've ever had in my life.

So here we are on the fourth year. It occurred to me that, in order to set more than one peach, I might actually have to do a few things, like prune and spray and study what actually makes a peach tree peach. Spraying proves to be key. For example, last year I noticed a running sore in the trunk two inches above the ground. I took pictures and went to a local nursery.

“Waaal... It's either canker or a borer,” the gentleman stated calmly. “If hits canker, hits gonna die and there's nothin' you can do. If hits a borer, waaal... you spray. But you'll have to call the county extension.”

Die? Where's the phone?

“It sounds like the Greater Peach Tree Borer,” the Master Gardner said in a slow round accent. “I'll send you the spray schedule for stone fruits developed at Tech.” The chemical recommended was so toxic it required a license to purchase in Australia. It also came in a one gallon container, which was enough to cover 1,000 acres. Hello? I am not a farmer, I just have a pet peach. In the end I unfolded a paper clip and stuck it into the wound, hopefully ramming the borer's backside into his brain. Farming can be cruel.

Last fall I found Gardens Alive, a catalog specializing in natural/organic pest control for the home grower, so I bought the Perfect Fruit Spray Kit for fruit trees for this year. I also pruned as best I could, but despite having multiple degrees, I still could not understand the notes from the Cooperative Extension (“Moderately vigorous shoots have a high proportion of nodes with 2 flower buds. The leaf buds at most nodes develop into lateral shoots that may be fruitful in subsequent years.”) The wound is closed now and the tree seems fine. As a matter of fact, this spring, the tree set tens of hundreds of thousands of little green peaches. So I thinned them. Four times.

In doing this, I noticed other things. The tips of the new growth were slowly dying back. I split open a few and found a tiny white worm with a black brown head. Digging around on the Internet I was able to identify it as an oriental fruit moth -- probably. “Use a hand lens to detect the presence of an anal comb under the last abdominal sclerite, which helps distinguish oriental fruit moth from other white or pink worms, such as codling moth, that may be found in stone fruits.”

You see what I mean? Fascinating.

I delivered some samples to the County Extension Office. I gave them a copy of my organic spray schedule, but they didn't care. They sent the samples off to Tech. Tech sent back pages printed from the Internet about oriental fruit moths -- the same as the ones I used to make my analysis. However, according to Tech, I not only have oriental fruit moths, but also plum curculios! So Tech sent me... A spray schedule. Same as before. For grins, I looked up the sprays. One was a nerve toxin and the other was an endocrine disrupter (Peaches, by the way, absorb the most pesticides of any fruit).

So I'm thinking that when you get down to it, these curculio guys, they're kind of cute, what with their funny noses. A lot of character.

We shall see what happens. I have plenty of fruit. I now see how pruning and thinning are crucial not only for the development of fruit, but also for natural deterrence of insects -- curculios burrow into fruit where two fruits touch. Let's face it, nobody in their right mind would go to all this trouble just to grow the same traditionally farmed peaches you can get at the store for $1.99 a pound. I'd rather eat a tasty ugly peach than a beautiful one that will slowly poison me. But I also understand the farmer's need to spray. If I had known what I was getting into I would never have planted a peach tree. It really is a lot of work and worry.

Endlessly fascinating. I'm having the time of my life.

No comments: