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Urban Gardener: Dearest Peaches

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Dearest peaches, lovely rosy blush, golden hue, sweeter and juicer than any found in markets, are a highlight of the garden year. Is there any sight so endearing than a fruit tree laden with fruit? Nothing inspires hope and faith more than planting a sapling fruit tree. The rewards are beyond plentiful, at first thought surely infinity before harvest and what about all those warnings of fungus, blights, or the perennial threat of squirrels? Or the lurking suspicion that an urban gardener is transient? The thought that a fruit tree matures slower than a US government bond’s dividend and has an upfront cost in the low $20 range makes many pause. Do not. Think of that special moment this week when the heavily fruit laden branches bend towards the turf under the weight of aromatic fruit, a migrant from Medieval images of the Garden of Eden complete with unicorn. Each gardener’s signature garden has its roots in the past, resides in the present, manifest faith and hope for the future.

Legacy of peaches

Peaches have a long tradition in America; the famous Dedham pear has borne fruit since the 1640’s when wilderness started a few feet from Plymouth Rock. Peaches were planted too as an important source of sweetness among people for whom sugar was an expensive luxury and honey the traditional sweet, again a European import to America. Many generations later the peach, essential to the homestead orchard, assumes its rightful place alongside the pears. Peaches are of the Rose family and include among its cousins the apricot, almond, plums and nectarines. Plant fruit trees with the near future in mind and remain confident someone else will pay tribute to your foresight. Plant forward and enjoy relatively quick payback.

Members of the rose family share horticultural needs. The more sunshine, the better! Select a well-drained sandy loam and continue your relentless addition of bio-degradable compost material within the drip line or out to the last shadow of leaves. A fun winter activity is to roam the web or peruse catalogs for dwarf fruit trees. Savvy gardeners prepare the planting hole in the fall, removing old soil and following the dictum: a $100 hole for a $10 tree. Combine plenty of organic material, mix in Ironite to fortify our water leeched glacial soils, adjust for a neutral PH with dolomite pelletized limestone, and generous helpings of bonemeal. The saplings will arrive at the nursery’s discretion for our appropriate planting time as little more than broomstick’s, severely pruned for success. This is where hope makes its early entrance. Can this stick transform, flourish, and ever yield fruit? Oh, YES!

Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Plant the sapling with an eye to surrounding areas allowing for free air circulation, sunshine, and no competition from plants that will shade the youngster tree. Do stake the saplings with simple temporary takes and tie off with old t-shirts torn into strips, colors optional a foot or so from the base. I give my trees and added persuasion by literally coating all sub surface tissue with Rootone, a basic garden essential. Rootone is a hormone that promotes root development. It’s not required for success. However, I routinely dust transplants and root divisions with Rootone with excellent results. Much happens beneath the soil surface before gardeners experience success.

My peaches bloomed the first year during cold April weather. The blossoms are cheerful forecasters of garden beauty when the possibility of sleet and snow hover at the margins of early spring. To promote fruit set, I assist the declining honeybee population who formerly pollinated blossoms of myriad types, by simply dusting each flower with a watercolor brush, dusting golden pollen from bloom to bloom. This is not arduous work, rather artistry of a quiet subtle kind during natural fluctuations of pollinators’ populations. Hands’ on touch and spot on observation are habits all gardeners should foster.

A four foot step ladder is good when the dwarf fruit trees, best in confined urban spaces, are very short. It won’t take long however for the tree to set leaves, anchor itself, and begin the next spring to grow by leaps and bounds. It is possible to grow peaches in very large pots. An elegant and handsome tree of modest proportions, peaches have great sculptural presence and reward regardless of fruit yields. However, remember, any plant in a container must not dry out: put that old time religion into the effort and keep moist. Dried out pots increase risk and add chance to the tried and true. Loss is possible. Urban gardeners reach for success and it is within our grasp.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

The light at the end of the tunnel shines brighter every day after planting. My peaches, each selected for hardiness, disease resistance, size, season such as early, mid and late, all to prolong harvest, surpass every cautious doubt. I seek the lowest environment impact in every corner of the garden. I’m willing to tolerate moderate infestations that do not threaten the bulk of the crop or the health of the plant. A rather frightening array of chemicals, indiscriminate in character and persistent far beyond the present is on the market. Conventional guides recommend spraying in the cold months with dormant oil preparations which smother bark laying spores, eggs and larvae. I’ve had great results despite a hit or miss attempt at regularly staged sprays. Remove old fruit, “mummies”, as nurseries for future infection. I compost everything and the infected old fruit usually ends up deep in the soil somewhere far from the trees. However, many neglected fruit trees abound in the city and reservoirs of possible enemies neglect to observe fence lines and busy streets in their journey to seek new hosts. Keep faith.

Many activities will distract gardeners during the long steady arc anchored in April and bending toward mid-August harvest. Don’t be discouraged. Each fruit is a promise of future pleasure. It is normal for some to inexplicably drop off the tree. The occasional tropical depression may whip gales through the garden toppling taller plants and leaving a tragedy of windfalls beneath the peach. Don’t despair, incorporate these windfalls in the mulch or remove to the compost heap or pit of your choice. I discourage marauding squirrels from easy pickings; they must work to find a fruit to steal. Soon, you’ll discover inner qualities long unknown or happily re-discovered. Gardeners nurture and develop compassion for their plants. These admirable qualities walk out of the garden with the gardener, much to everyone’s benefit.

During the last few weeks rain became ever more important for the entire garden. Soils sadly lacking in organic materials were dry indeed. The extensive peach root system protects the trees from drought. Introduce children to the wonder of fruit cultivation. The very nature of peaches, aside from their universal appeal to taste, piques children’s interest. The fruits are obvious, visibly expand and grow, change colors from pale green to benchmark complexions of rose and gold. The peach does not require fine finger skills or co-ordination to harvest or tend.  Some children succumb to temptation and climb trees, if your can find the heart discourage tree climbing  until the tree will support those eager enough to scamper up the elegant barked tree. Time will resolve this attractive nuisance.

Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Hand pollination is hugely successful; the peach trees will be covered in nascent fruit. Cull obvious runts. Thin crowded clusters of fruit, favoring those in the vanguard, remove those lagging behind. Diseases and insects seek the weak in the garden. Without easy targets, much insect control occurs without any chemical applications. Non-chemical techniques require some teaching, avail yourself of the many free or inexpensive seminars offered by local land grant universities or USDA agricultural agents. Pruning water sprouts, emphasizing shape, fruit bearing growth, and safe use of hand tools are all parts of the gardener’s repertoire. Don’t be discouraged, garner the loins and with care, clean cut with sharp blades, do not tear, superfluous growth. What? Superfluous growths emerge from a mere broomstick? Yes, and more. Faith realizes hope.

Use all your senses

Pick your peaches using all your senses. The nose is honest: ripe fruit has an unmistakable fragrance. Gently cup the fruit, perfectly ripe peaches will fall into the hand. Bring or borrow a quick child to catch fruits that escape your grip. Smiles will travel around the garden plot. Do you have lots of windfalls after heavy rains? Or did the heavily fruited branches, bend, and break under the weight of success? Do not despair. Peaches can be ripened in the house. Place the fruit “donut” side down, (Puzzled? A quick look at the fruit will reveal the donut spot) in ever handy brown paper bags, put in an apple or banana to release natural ethylene gas that triggers ripening, and gently seal. I gently crease and fold over the bag’s opening.

Again, trust your nose and touch. Ripe peaches, despite every appearance of ripeness, are not truly sweet and juicy until soft to the touch and release their unmistakable aroma. Cut out any bad spots, peaches easily bruise, and eat.

Celebrate! Your peach trees will produce bountiful crops for many years to come. They thrive with relatively little care and endure much neglect. Prune in cold weather as well as apply dormant oil sprays when hot sunny days are a favored memory of tisane and Madeleine’s.

Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Peaches are fun to can. Follow typical directions for fruit caning, sterilize your jars, an early and enduring form of re-use, use new lids, parboil the fruit for a minute or so in boiling water, plunge in bowls of iced water, like tomatoes, the skin will peel right off. (This is a good task for youngsters). With a sharp paring knife, slice the peach in half or quarters, remove the “stone” or pit, and put skins, pits, twigs, and any refuse aside for the compost pile. Bring your canning pot to a boil, perhaps starting the flames first while lining up your ducks in row, and pack the jars with your favorite sweet syrup and fruit. Basic syrup is four parts water and one part sugar   slowly brought to simmer. Make plenty, cooled extra syrup keeps in the fridge and complements many dishes, such as a bowl of fresh sliced peaches. Many gardeners go further and add cinnamon, vanilla, rum, or a touch of anise or rosewater. All complement peaches. Use a spatula to pack the fruit, sliced side down, and gently release trapped air bubbles in the process. Wipe clean the jar’s mouth, wiping away anything stuck to the edge, place on the cover and twist hand tight the lid. Most canning kettles hold six or seven jars on an insertible rack and lower carefully into the roiling boil up and over the jar covers. Remove from the bath as directed onto a folded bath towel and let cool. As the jars cool, the contents shrink and a vacuum seals the lids tight. I always add labels or scribble dates, names, comets, or ask guests and children to sign the lid.

A row of canned peaches promises is hopeful and confident. Add to the canned peaches as the crop comes in, at times it will seem hopeless, don’t be discouraged. As frigid winter gales blow and snow swirls the home is replete with the helplessly happy delight of nutritious fruit, unadulterated by dyes, preservatives, pesticides, residual fertilizers or transported thousands of miles in artificially atmospheric controlled containers. So much for so little!  Bite into the first ripe peach or the 100th and each has the same reward, a dribble of sweet juice trickling down the chin and staining the shirt. A smile soon follows. And another. Urban gardening is a good thing. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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