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Fruit Trees: A Triumph of Hope Over Experience

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Rest in peace

Of all the amazing plants in my garden–'Scheherezade' lilies 8 feet tall, 'Big Smile' tulips the size and shape of a dinosaur's egg, 'Russelliana' roses that explode into phosphorescent magenta blooms in June–there is only one that causes gasps of astonishment…and that is my peach trees.

Just the other day, in the bleakness of late November, an older gentleman in a beret stopped me and asked for an explanation for something that had clearly been puzzling him since July.  "How is it that you can grow peaches in upstate New York?"

Fortunately, I'd read Jeff Gillman's superb book How Trees Die and could offer a coherent explanation for his mistaken impression that peaches were only a Southern plant.  Peaches are not a Southern native. But they were planted all over the South because they are one of the few cash crops that will grow on soil that's been depleted by cotton.   

My peaches are happy because I'm growing them on poor soil–the super-sandy free-draining mound of my city hellstrip.  

But "happy" with fruit trees, I find, is a relative term.  So far, to amass my current collection of two peaches, I've purchased four plants.  One mysteriously kicked the bucket its first year.  The second one produced tons of delicious peaches over the last three or four years…but wound up growing in some strange weeping, sprawling shape that I could never figure out what to do with. Right across the path from it is the exact same variety, 'Garnet Beauty,' growing into a perfect vase with no help from me.

Last winter, I sat next to a delightful guy who owns a fruit tree nursery at a dinner.  I asked him what I should do about my weirdly shaped tree.  His suggestion?  "It's genetic.  Start over."

Last week, after watching the tallest of my neighbors get poked by the tree while innocently attempting to make his way down the street, I decided the fruit man was right.  Summary execution by bowsaw.  I may not be a skilled pruner, but fortunately, am pretty vigorous with Swedish bowsaw.  So, I'll order another 'Garnet Beauty' from Fedco this winter and soon be made whole.  Peach trees are very precocious.  The one I plant this spring will have fruit the next year.

But that's the way it goes with fruit trees.  Always something.  I planted plum trees out in the country.  Not only did they appear to hate the rich wet clay soil, they were getting browsed to a nub by deer despite the plastic cages I planted around them.  So I moved them to the city.  One is thriving.  The other has an ugly disease called black knot.  Bowsaw when I get around to it.  I've probably been trying to grow plums for a full five years.  Yield so far?  Zero.

I planted four sour cherry trees in my country vegetable garden.  They DO like the rich clay loam there.  The only problem was that three of them were a natural dwarf called 'Northstar' and the fourth was labelled 'Northstar,' while turning out to be some giant completely out of proportion for the garden.  Again, bowsaw took care of that problem, only man, what a job!  I replaced it last year with another 'Northstar,' which kicked the bucket while my back was turned.

Sigh.  Four years into the sour cherries.  Yield so far?  Zero.

 I have an apricot tree in my city yard, planted on the north side of my house, as recommended for encouraging blooming later in spring, after things have warmed up.  It was labelled 'self-fertile.'  I watched it produce hundreds of gorgeous blossoms last spring…and little fruits, which all promptly dropped off in what appeared to be a mass miscarriage.  

I suspect that this self-fertility thing is exaggerated, and I need to order another variety.  Six years at least into the apricot experiment.  Yield so far?  Zero.

I think the reason my peach trees occasion such wonder in Saratoga Springs is that most people don't have the tolerance for futility that I do.  Maybe they order a fruit tree once, and it takes years to produce and then gets diseased, and they give up.  But me?  I never give up.  I find supermarket fruit inedible…and when something does work, like my 'Garnet Beauty' peaches, it is amazing.

Fortunately, I like buying fruit trees.  I probably like buying fruit trees more even than I enjoy eating great fruit.  My favorite sources are Fedco Trees and St. Lawrence Nurseries.  You send these people $20, they send you a surpisingly big tree bareroot.  It's nothing to stick it in the ground…and then you have license to dream about what might eventually appear.  Like buying a lottery ticket, only the dream may last a full five or six years before demise by bowsaw.  

Posted by on December 2, 2011 at 7:48 am, in the category Eat This.
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20 Responses to “Fruit Trees: A Triumph of Hope Over Experience”

  1. Mary Gray says:

    “mass miscarriage” — too funny. I wish I had more space and sun to experiment with fruit trees. I know they are not easy, but how gratifying it must be when they do “go to term” and deliver gorgeous fruit!

  2. Laura Bell says:

    Maybe the Northstar cherries would produce with a different variety for a pollinator ? Just a thought.

    I understand your fruit tree obsession. Even though I live in California’s Central Valley – the land of persimmons & citrus used as street & park trees, of an orchard around every rural corner and another farmstand just down the road aways – I need my own fruit trees. On moving into our current house, the first thing to go into the blank tiny suburban backyard was a fruit tree. Santa Rosa Plum. Following it immediately were apricot, peach, Asian pear, & sweet cherry trees. The neighbors used to gape when I knocked on the door & hand them buckets of fruit that we’d grown on our tiny plot. I think they’re used to it now.
    Ten years later, I can honestly say it’s the best thing I’ve ever done (aside from birthing & raising kids, of course). But it’s not enough.
    I want more fruit trees.
    So I bought an Owari Satsuma, then a Meyer Lemon, a Bearss Lime, a miniature peach & a miniature nectarine … Still not enough, though, so I’m eying that flowering plum in the front yard, replacing it in my mind with a standard Washington Navel. Or another cherry, Asian pear, Blenheim apricot …
    Hubby is, of course, rolling his eyes. But maybe this’ll give him gift ideas.

  3. Botanicbay says:

    I wish I could grow a peach tree in the north of France … I think I would raise laughter from my folks who live happily in the blessed South of France.I wonder though, aren’t you a tad worried by the air pollution when you grow fruit trees in the city ? I have this idyllic vision that fruit ought to be produced in clean sunny open air environment…

  4. Kelly Ash says:

    I’ve never attempted growing peaches or apricot. I’ve grown cherry & apple trees, but have always wary of those more tender fruit trees.

    I live on the coast of Southern Maine, which is not the ideal location for less hardy trees, but I’ve heard from a fellow Master Gardener that a few varieties including Redhaven, Cresthaven, and Reliance can be grown successfully. But they need to be replanted often as their lifecycle is short.

    I’ve been thinking about trying them this year. I think I will try the clingstone types first because I love canned peaches (the freestone are best for eating fresh)

    I think I may leave the Fedco catalogue out & opened to the peach tree page as a subtle christmas gift hint for my husband!

  5. commonweeder says:

    There are a lot of difficulties with growing peaches on my Massachusetts hill, not the least of which is – BEARS! I just want to take this chance to thank all the Ranters for being such an inspiration to me when I began blogging 4 years ago. Yours was about the first blog I found. And what delight to meet you all at the Flings. Check out my blogoversary Giveaway.

  6. anne says:

    Michele, your “mass miscarriage” was probably the “June drop” (which can happen in May or July, depending on the year and conditions), when all the unfertilized fruitlets drop off the tree…a kind of depressing sight (especially if nothing got fertilized). Either nothing was pollinated to begin with, or maybe a frost or cold event killed them.

    There’s a saying: “Look at a peach tree the wrong way, and it’ll die”. We finally took out our peach trees after fighting curly leaf year after year. We planted a few different types of plum trees, and they seem to be doing quite well.

  7. Lu says:

    Peaches are amazing. But they don’t live for very long, I would say 10 years max.

  8. I just gotta say, “ta-dah!” My peach in central WI, zone 4/5: http://www.flickr.com/photos/9866277@N03/6443149903/

    But yes, short-lived, and yes, bowsaw. I do have an apricot, sweet cherry, apple, and pear. The peach was a learning experience and ever-hopeful I think I could do them justice here, if I had space to grow one properly. Peaches and espalier…don’t try that! Regardless of what you might read elsewhere, they are not good candidates for that!

  9. Looopy says:

    Oh man, did I get some good peaches this year–from the roadside Oregon farmstand. 10 pounds for 10 dollars, and they were SPECTACULAR. I think about those peaches almost every day. Peaches are without a doubt the best fruit there is. We had one at the back of my Greenhills, Ohio garage when I was a kid, but something killed it early on, and it loomed large in my memory thereafter. You’ve inspired me-why should I let that useless and dangerous ornamental pear tree (the city planted the wrong type) squat all over my median strip? Off with its head! Next year, Ima be living on Peachtree street, Scarlett!

  10. UrsulaV says:

    I have a Hardy Russian Pomegranate as tall as my thigh. I hold out a desperate hope that it will someday fruit before I die.

  11. Our two peach trees recently died. The canker most likely. I used their carcasses to keep the turkeys from wallowing among the peonies.

    There is a spit out of the car peach tree too. I cut it to the ground because it had a horrible leaning shape from competition. The whole area was cleared and the spit out peach tree has come back from the stump nice and straight. I might just leave it and see if the fruits get bigger than a walnut.

  12. Michele Owens says:

    Wow, great comments! Hardy pomegranate, Ursula! Must try that.

    Christopher, we don’t have “spit out the car” peaches in my part of the world, but we do have cow apples. I’d experiment with the peach if I were you!

  13. Kate in Vermont says:

    Darn. Got all excited but the hardiest peach on the Fedco site is still a 5. And “Cold-Hardy” pomegranates are a 6/7. My husband did have some success with a peach tree in a very favorable micro-climate. He claims his secret to getting it to set fruit was to threaten it with a chainsaw.

    Though the way this fall and early winter are going, we may be a five before long!

  14. Try the Reliance! (For Kate in Vermont) Then cover it on really frosty night while in bloom and the 10 day just after. You might not get fruit every year, but nothing beats it the three out of five you do. Keep it vaselike and topped you might be surprised.

  15. gardengeri says:

    would you consider a columnar shaped tree? there are 4 new Urban Apples this spring from Garden Debut http://www.gardendebut.com/blushing-delight-urban-apple.php

  16. Frank Hyman says:

    Hey Michelle, sorry to hear about your tree trials.

    A few thoughts…

    As a horticulturist who buys lots of plants from lots of wholesale and retail nurseries, mis-labeling is a slowly rising epidemic. Too many plants and too few people keeping track of them accurately. Betcha my bottom dollar your weeping peach was mis-labelled at the original nursery (meaning probably not at Fedco)

    It’s great exercise, but a bowsaw is made for cutting deadwood. The narrow blade will bog down in the sap coming out of live wood. Put a folding pruning saw on your Christmas wish list. The staggered teeth will cut a wider kerf and clear the sap and chips easily. But yes it is less of an aerobic workout, so some people may want to stick (pun intended) with using bow saws on live wood. :-)

    I think anyone who buys fruit trees, whether mail order or from a garden center, without first having a decent sit-down with a local, successful fruit tree gardener or grower is just making an expensive (financially and emotionally) mistake. Too many climate and soil issues and too many varieties to chose from and too much money to spend. Have a conversation with someone who knows your area. First.

    Finally forget the bare root trees. Buying fruit trees on the cheap or without soil is often a short-term kick and a long-term bust. Check out http://www.ediblelandscaping.com and buy their potted up trees, shrubs and vines. I just bought plants from them to make an edible/ornamental shrub hedge for a client: all well-rooted 3 gallon pots delivered via UPS–dwarf blueberry, nanking cherry, korean cherry, Juneberry and aronia to make a hedge 40′ long, about 4′ wide and 4′-5′ tall. Perfect harvesting height. Great fall colors, bright flowers through spring and summer, and fruit from summer through fall. Drought hardy after establishment. And the fruits I’ve bought from Edible Landscaping for my own garden –figs, cherries, apples, hardy kiwi–are growing and producing like gangbusters.

    Give ‘em a try. And good luck! Frank

  17. I love buying and planting fruit trees as well. A good deal on a bare root can be irresistible, and if I don’t have room I’m likely to show up at a friends house with a shovel and inform them of the new addition to their garden :-)

  18. Laura Bell says:

    @ Frank – i agreed with you until you dissed bareroot trees. I’ve had nothing but success with them. They acclimate faster than those that come in pots, growing faster in the early years & (in my experience) setting fruit earlier.

  19. Andrew says:

    I too have had great success with bareroot trees. Many have fruited the second year. They are often larger and cheaper than their potted siblings. Edible Landscaping does have nice plants and I have had good luck with them as well.

  20. Marla (NC) says:

    Sorry, Frank — I too disagree with your dismissing bare-root fruit trees. My bare root trees from both Raintree and Stark Bros. did as well or better than the potted ones from Edible. And, they were true to label. This year I had a bumper crop of persimmons from a bare-root I put in just a year before.

    I have two figs that I cover with black garbage bags for the winter (to reduce die back). Works well! However, I put cold hardy citrus against south-facing retaining walls, double draped in sheets with x-mas lights for added warmth and still couldn’t prevent the limbs from dying. Just keep trying!

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