Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Peach Harvest

When we bought our house, the yard was over-landscaped with ornamental trees and bushes.  That was fine for the previous family, but this one likes to mow in straight lines and thinks that landscaping ought to offer a little more than just a pretty flower come spring.  So, we dug up over 20 plants and found them loving homes amongst grateful neighbors.  The irony is that once the yard was cleared to our liking, we then bought ourselves three self-pollinating fruit trees, but placed them at the back of the lot where they'll offer both buffer and food.  We let the boys each pick a variety, and Cal chose a Belle of Georgia Peach.  We figured that the climate is right, and since our Georgian neighbors seem to grow them abundantly, why not us here in north Alabama?  Since planting, we have lovingly nurtured that tree, and while it did give us 9 ripe peaches, they were 9 of the ugliest fruits I have ever seen.

The story begins with a wee tree and some black leaf spots.   A little research and a trip to the Extension Office turned up a disease called Bacterial Leaf Spot.  It is spread by wind and rain, and once it infects your leaves and fruit, the only treatment is to suffer through the season, prune, and then treat the tree as soon as leaves sprout the following spring.  I read that Neem Oil can help keep the disease from continuing to spread, so we applied it for a few weeks on a 7 day cycle.  The problem only worsened.

Next, I began to notice that as soon as new fruits appeared, they would quickly mummify on the branch.  They'd start off as fuzzy, perfect peaches, then shrivel up and die before maturing.  Another chat with my new friend at the Extension Office revealed the development of Brown Rot.  His advice was to ditch the Neem Oil, pick off and throw away the mummified fruits, and spray with copper as a fungicide.  It seemed to stop the mummification cycle, but we still had a seriously sickly-looking tree.

We sort of limped along through the summer, but as our fruits began to approach maturity, I spotted a new problem emerging:  Peach Scab.  It now appears that we have been attacked by every known peach tree ailment with the exception of powdery mildew.  The fact that we escaped that one may have been the tree's only saving grace.

As it turns out, peaches are a very difficult fruit to grow.  Obviously.  I've talked to many a grower at the farmers markets only to get a chuckle, some reassurance that it is the tree and not me, and little advice.  Start early with the treatments.  They WILL be required.  Be aggressive.  As the tree buds, begin cycles of sulfur and be consistent from bud to petal fall.  Supposedly, under ideal conditions, this will keep the diseases at bay.  But, good luck, they say!

Now, mind you, we have chosen to grow fruit and food in our backyard mostly because it is fun and we love doing it.  But, it is also our small attempt at some self-sustainment, and we want to do it as organically as possible.  So, is sulfur organic?  The answer, it turns out, is yes.  Thank heavens.  Sulfur is a mineral and is the oldest known pesticide in use.  It is non-toxic to mammals and while it can cause eye irritation, it is otherwise not harmful to one's health when used to treat obnoxious, needy peach trees.

Fortunately, Cal isn't yet aware that his tree almost got the axe.  In fact, he checks it religiously, and just this weekend, we decided it was harvest time.  He grabbed his bucket and picked all 9 ugly peaches off the tree.  They may not be pretty, but they were hard won, and we plan to eat every last one.  With out the peeling.  And the bad spots cut out.

Here's to sulfur and next year's disease-free peaches.  Grow, Cal, grow.

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