Sunday, April 20, 2008

Elberta Peach

What’s growing in the area: Pink and white flowering trees, including Bradford pears, purple-leaf sand cherry and fence row cherries are blooming, along with red and yellow tulips, tansy mustard, mossy phlox, western stickseed, and dandelions. Apple buds are developing; black grama grass is greening; chamisa has leafed out; cheat grass getting dense. Smoke and scorched land from people burning more dead plant material.
In my yard: Sand cherries, daffodils and first grape hyacinth are blooming; spirea, lilac, tulips and yellow alyssum in bud; first leaves on apricot and beauty bush; pinks, snow-in-summer, and small-leaf soapwort are growing; peonies and ladybells are coming up.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, coral honeysuckle.
Animal sightings: First cricket on the garage; more black ant hills in drive.
Weather: Friday’s frost was more destructive than last weekend’s snow; peach and forsythia flowers have darkened; first cherry flowers are gone, except those heavily shrouded by leaves. Heavy winds mid-week with a little snow Thursday morning. 13:56 hours of daylight.
Weekly update: When I first moved to New Mexico, I asked someone in the local extension office what trees would grow, and was told to try things like silver maple, catalpa, and Elberta peach.
I was confused, because I’d always been told that peaches in Michigan did well only on the sandy soils protected by Lake Michigan and otherwise, to quote MSU’s Liberty Hyde Bailey, they were a "luxury" cultivated "at great risk." Samuel Rumph developed the Elberta variety from a chance seedling he believed was a natural cross between an imported Chinese Cling given to his grandfather and a Crawford growing in a neighbor’s orchard on the Georgia fall-line in the 1870's.
Still I had neighbors who were growing peaches, so I bought the only variety available in the local hardware in 1997, an early Elberta semi-dwarf. Then the learning began, for I discovered that much as I had absorbed how to garden from my mother, I knew absolutely nothing about fruit trees.
The first thing I discovered was there is a reason horticultural manuals devote so much space to spraying regimens. In May of 2000, I noticed my leaves were deforming and coated with some sticky, crystalline stuff. It was too late to do preventive maintenance, so I started hosing down the tree. I don’t know what was attacking my tree, but there were suddenly more ladybugs in the area, so I suspected it was some insect rather than a fungus.
The problem recurred in May of 2003 and again I washed the tree. This time, I also tried the lime-sulfur spray that experts recommend be used in late winter. Then the grasshoppers hit in 2005, and stripped the tree of every leaf and potential bud.
The next year, pocket gophers started burrowing around the roots, but the only damage they seem to have done was destroy the iris growing beneath the branches. They didn’t eat the rhizomes so much as expose them to underground air. My uphill neighbor says their tree just dried up. My guess, the gophers left my yard for theirs. The rodent does love members of the rose family.
Finally, last summer on its eleven birthday, my tree produced its first crop and I learned the value of more advice I had ignored. After the grasshoppers, I had let the branches grow where they would to recover. When the fruit started to ripen, it got heavy, and branches near the house that I’d plan to cut in winter were suddenly blocking my way. Out came the branch cutters, repeatedly as the longer the fruit ripened, the more branches there were that drooped into my path.
I had one of those bumper crops that Bailey said a tree may have three or four times in its twenty fruitful years. There were too many peaches to eat, and I wasn’t interested in canning in August. I thought I could leave the excess fruit for the birds, only to discover it began to rot, started to smell, and then attracted the local stinging insects. Hastily, I picked everything.
Now the tree has reverted to its infertile state with the center still barren from the grasshoppers. The sparse flowers were killed by frost this week. There is a possibility that somewhere in the upper reaches a few blossoms were pollinated last weekend before the high winds and cold arrived, but I won’t know until summer.
Now I’m wondering what will happen in ten years? Will the tree die and need to be cut down, or will it just produce no fruit? Each time I try to start another tree or shrub in the area to take over its space, the gophers, winds or drought destroy it. If I only knew then what I know now.
Notes: Bailey, Liberty Hyde. "Peach," in Wilhelm Miller and Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, 1901.
Photograph: Elberta peach after frost, 19 April 2008.

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