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.