Peaches: A long-term commitment
Silver barked peach trees crown many of the lakeshore’s hills. In the spring, their blossoms create a gossamer pink cloud while in the summer, their leaves droop like mustaches, hiding the ripening peaches. During the late nineteenth century, peach orchards generated thousands of dollars for Michigan farmers who sent their harvests to Chicago, Milwaukee, and beyond.
My husband, John and I grew organic peaches in the early 1980’s and once again, we are planting an orchard to satisfy our customer’s yearnings for organic fruit. Before we ordered our trees, John planted rye and buckwheat as cover crops that would choke out the weeds and quack grass. Plus, when the plants were disked into the soil, they decomposed and added nutrients to the earth.
We also erected a tall fence around the site to keep out the deer, and nailed up bluebird and tree swallow houses because those birds would eat insects. When corn and soybean farmers sow their fields in the spring, they will combine a harvest that fall. But when fruit farmers plant an orchard, they are investing in the future, because usually, they will not pick peaches or apples for a couple of years.
The morning before we planted, John soaked the sapling’s roots in a concoction of seaweed and mycorrhizae, a healthy fungus. At last, he rumbles to the site on a tractor pulling a wagon loaded with the trees, and buckets of different organic fertilizers. As he digs each hole, we site down the row towards a stake to make sure that each tree is aligned with the marker.
The trees need to be evenly spaced, and the rows straight because for the next sixteen years, John will drive between the trees with a spray rig, spewing out compost tea or neem oil, or other certified organic fungicides. If the rows are too far apart, then the sprays would not reach the trees and completely cover the foliage. Or if the trees are too close together, they will not grow properly, and the sprays will not be able to penetrate the thick canopy of leaves.
After digging the hole, I toss in fertilizer, and John covers it with a little dirt. He spreads out the roots of a sapling; I sprinkle them with a compound that will help good bacteria flourish. He shovels the soil into the hole, stomps it down with his boots, so that we do not leave any air pockets around the tree’s roots. I spread compost at the base of the trees.
Like other fruit farmers, we pruned our older peach orchard in mid-April, training the branches to form a bowl shape that allows sunshine to reach the center of the tree. And also, breezes can dry the foliage and help prevent fungus from forming on the fruit. Our new trees must also conform to that shape, so John snips away some of the branches, trimming them to an outside bud. Sometimes, fruit farmers also return in the summer to prune peach trees while they are growing.
Finally, we wrap the tiny trunks with a white tree guard that will defend the bark from hungry mice and rabbits. We also mulch the trees with wood chips and hay; both will provide nutrients to the soil, and will eliminate the need for herbicides. During the up coming months, we will continue to spray, irrigate, and check for insects as we look forward to that August morning when we pick the first golden peach.