Fruit Trees: A Triumph of Hope Over Experience

Fruit Trees: A Triumph of Hope Over Experience

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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

Michele Owens
on December 2, 2011 at 7:48 am, in the category Eat This.

15 Comments
    • Mary Gray
    • 1st January 1970

    “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!

    • Laura Bell
    • 21st March 1982

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

    • Botanicbay
    • 6th May 1989

    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…

    • Kelly Ash
    • 15th December 2001

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

    • Lu
    • 30th December 2005

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

    • Rachelle Towne
    • 22nd August 2010

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

    • Looopy
    • 19th January 2014

    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!

    • UrsulaV
    • 24th January 2016

    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.

    • Christopher C NC
    • 10th June 2016

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

    • Michele Owens
    • 16th October 2016

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

    • Kate in Vermont
    • 29th October 2016

    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.

    • Rachelle Towne
    • 31st October 2016

    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.

    • gardengeri
    • 9th November 2016

    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

    • Frank Hyman
    • 10th November 2016

    Hey Michelle, sorry to hear about your tree trials.

    • Laura Bell
    • 13th November 2016

    @ 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.

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