It’s the middle of July in Northern California, where our tidywild little garden is soaking up the heat of the Sacramento Valley. The highs have varied between 85 and 105 in the last month, typical, with the cooling breezes from the Sacramento River Delta to the south easing us to the 50s or low 60s by every dawn. The last peach of the season was munched by the finches earlier this week, but the birds and the gnarly tree that grew the peaches shared so many yellow-orange gems with us in the last month that it’s taken all our ingenuity to think up ways to use them. Gifts to neighbors and friends, plus Jean’s pies, a cake, muffins, compote for pancakes, topping for cereal, homemade peach ice cream, and fresh snacks plucked right off the tree have still left us with a box of beauties in the fridge.
I’d like to take credit for this tree, but like so much else in the garden it was a gift to us as part of the purchase price for the house. It was smaller then, but already mature, and it presumably had been bearing for several years by the time we became its caretakers. Or am I just more of an onlooker, or cheerleader, or occasional tidy-upper?
One thing about inheriting trees that you didn’t plant is that you don’t have too many illusions about who’s responsible for the bounty each year. The peach tree, the orange tree, the cherry plum, the nopales, and almost all the rose bushes were here when we moved in. Mostly what I do for these hearty creatures is prune and water (and think about pruning and watering), but the roots and health of the plants were established before I came along. Seriously, what I mostly do is try to stay out of their way, so they can do their thing. Well, that’s less true of the rose bushes and nopales than of the orange, peach, and cherry plum. If I didn’t regularly lop new leaves off the nopales (AKA prickly pear), it would have built an impenetrable barrier in the south side of the garden and taken over the orange tree. And if I didn’t trim the dead heads off the rose bushes about once a month and regularly trim back the shoots, there’d be thorn thickets galore. A great virtue of this part of the country is that many plants grow year round, so, for example, no month goes by without new roses or nopales. And that means pruning.
The peach tree, though, has now gone several years without pruning or fertilizing, and it hasn’t missed a beat. I have lazily mulched the tree by just letting the leaves that fall each autumn lie where they come to rest, and in the spring this year I added to this leaf mulch by tossing in the last patches of grass I had dug up nearby to make room for a new venture, strawberries (more on that in another post). I don’t know if there’s a connection between this laissez-faire attitude to the tree and its health and productivity, but I have noticed in the past few springs that the tree has not suffered from leaf curl (a shriveling condition), which had happened a few years earlier.
Now where my “lazy fair” attitude may be a problem is in what happens when the peaches in April and May start to turn from tiny green tufts of fuzz into real fruit, and they multiply on each branch and get bigger. The guides all say that I should be thinning out the new fruit on each branch, lest the branches get so heavy that they break. But I hate to lose the luscious, beautiful fruit–even if by mid-July I’m wondering why I wanted so many!
So I get what I deserve. Indeed, as May turns into June, all the fruit-laden branches start to bend. Last year, with my hesitancy to thin out one of the branches, the branch splintered in late June, right near harvest time. But it didn’t break clean through; instead, enough of the vital connection remained that nutrients continued to flow through the branch and the peaches thrived. This year, the same branch, partly broken, continued to bear peaches, though fewer than in 2015.
Meanwhile, the most fruit-heavy branch on the tree this year bent lower and lower, and the same thing happened. To keep the break from getting worse, I propped it up on our step ladder. Again, the peaches were fine all the way through harvest. But this time, because of the way the branch hung over my strawberry patch, I decided immediately post-harvest to lop it off. C’est la vie.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next year. I’ll probably be doing some more pruning in the fall, to even out the branch symmetry and keep the tree from growing too tall, and from growing too far into the orange tree next door. We’ll see. The lazy fair has mostly worked out so far, but there may be a limit to the fun.