I always dreamed of having a peach tree in my garden. When I was a child growing up on a farm, we didn’t have peaches, but I always wanted them. So, just after we bought our first home, I visited a local nursery to buy a tree for the new garden. I bought the tree even before we had moved into the house. We planned to make this tree a celebration of our new life in this house the moment we moved in.
Peaches belong to the genus Prunus. I planted a Prunus persica ‘Frost’ about 9 years ago. It was a very young tree that we sited in a protected location in our back garden. It was placed in a mid-sided bed on the north side of the property, between two buildings. It had plenty of room to spread and grow and received great morning (Easterly) light and mid-day light from the south. The tree was quite lovely — in some respects.
In its first year it developed Peach Leaf Curl. Because I was fairly naive about fruit tree care at the time, I took a sample of the deformed leaves to a Master Gardener Help desk at a local nursery. The rudest MG I’ve ever met scoffed at me saying, “I just don’t understand why home gardeners in Seattle think they should plant these trees here. They’re so disease prone.” She then explained that the tree had leaf curl and I needed to start spraying it regularly to control the disease. What she didn’t realize was that
- I had purchased the tree at the nursery where she was giving advice
- she was horribly rude and insulting
- The reason I grew the tree was because I love them and was told it would do well in my garden.
- There are alternative methods to controlling leaf curl!
I decided to skip the spraying she was recommending and did some additional research on my own. I learned that if I picked the sick leaves off the plant and removed diseased debris from the ground around the tree I might control the disease through manual methods rather than chemical methods. For two growing seasons I followed this approach. I had some fear that I would defoliate the tree so much that it would starve, but the tree survived and as it became established, it no longer had the curled leaves. Occassionally, one or two leaves would exhibit signs of the problem, but it looked like the tree and I won out. (Also, I should note that I did do about 2 seasons of compost tea applications to the tree, which I believe, but cannot prove, helped strengthen the plant.)
After the tree was about 3 years old and had defeated the curl problems, it began to flower nicely and begin producing significant fruit. Before I knew better, I did mal-prune the tree, essentially topping it. Later I was to learn that topping a tree is bad, but in the case of a peach it is sometimes done to encourage new growth on which fruiting occurs. So, a mistake somehow became okay. Over the next couple of years I began better pruning to correct or adjust my mistakes. And, I continued to harvest bumper crops of peaches. Family members came to love the peach jam that came at christmas. And we gorged ourselves on peach tart tatin, peach cobbler, grilled peaches on salads, fresh peaches and so forth. And then the real nasty stuff showed up!
Yes, my peach began showing signs of peach brown rot. Likely, it had the disease long before I knew to look for it. But, when I did learn what to look for, I recognized it right away. Twigs would start to leaf out and then die back, turning brown. Blossoms would cover the tree, and some would wither and turn brown. Brown ooze would show up in the crotches of the tree. And, finally, the fruit was affected by the disease and would mummify on the tree.
I refused to do a lot of spraying on my tree, and I’ve heard that the spray methods often don’t help much anyway. Sure, I could have tried, but being a mostly organic gardener, I had no interest in going this route. So, I tried to pick the fruit a little green and use it before it turned into a mushy, nasty fuzzy grey mass. This worked a bit, but then the situation got even worse — rats decided this tree was their party banquet.
Rats! A sick tree! Inedible fruit! I was done.
The Seattle Times ran a piece on the various issues surrounding growing peaches and other fruit trees in our area. I suggest reading this article for additional information. (I will say here that in my experience ‘Frost’ does produce a very flavorful fruit, but if the fruit must be picked when young, due to disease issues, it gets a bit mealy and flavorless. Cooked or jammed it is just fine!) This article also discusses problems with growing cherries and apricots. Issues with apple and pear are an entirely other discussion.
So what’s next? Well, as you can see from the photos, our peach has been cut down and the stump has been dug out. Some suckers from the tree still exist, but they will be removed as we rework the entire area of the garden. (Yes, peaches sucker, which is another annoying thing about them in the residential garden.) The orange paint you see in the photos is part of our work in determining the flow of a new path we’ll install through the bed.
The perennials will be moved and new trees added to provide them the shade they need. We’ve selected one tree, an Azara microphylla. And, I’ll be moving a Disanthus into this bed, but as for everything else, well I haven’t decided on everything just yet!
I guess I now know more about why the rude Master Gardener scoffed at a naive home gardener growning a peach. There really are better choices to be made. Still, I think the greatest lesson I learned from her attitude was to be kinder in teaching gardening lessons. None of us are born knowing everything, many of us learn through doing, and we look to our teachers for guidance and encouragement not ridicule.
February 2009 Update: If you’re interested in reading more about the renovation of this garden, here’s a bit on the Azara microphylla that went in. The beds are still evolving, so more to come later!