"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tree Trouble (What the Hell is Wrong With These Plums?)

Sometimes I despair of the orchard. I really do. There are so many factors conspiring against trees here; some of them natural, others decidedly of my own making. We didn't site the orchard very well, to begin with. It's right up on the highest part of the property, where the prevailing winds hit the trees full on. The trees in the southernmost row are all hunched over, curled around their own trunks, almost in the fetal position.

The soil up there is poor and rocky; further down, it gets spongy and has poorish drainage. The highest trees struggle in the compact gravel while the lower ones have wet feet most of the year. Of the five trees we planted the first year, only one remains, the italian plum. The rest succumbed to a variety of maladies, known and unknown.

The orchard has been repeatedly attacked by goats. A herd of six or seven goats can really blow through a young orchard if you give them fifteen minutes unmolested. Then there are the times - yes, more than one - that I rode right over a first-year tree on the riding lawnmower. Sometimes I used to have a few beers before I decided the grass was getting a little long.

It's amazing, the sheer variety of of pests that have plagued my orchard. I didn't know there even WERE so many fruit tree pests. There are the ones that look like tiny little slugs sticking all over the cherry tree leaves, and that, as far as I can tell by googling, are called "bird-poop worms." There's fire blight on the pears. Caterpillars chew on the leaves and voles gnaw on the roots. Something makes certain leaves turn white; something else makes other leaves curl up. Yet something else shreds them like a hail of tiny meteors. There's white fly and mildew and scab, oh my.

It's really too bad, because I believe that the orchard is rightly the cornerstone of a successful homestead. Nothing gives such return on investment as does an apple tree. Twelve or fifteen healthy, highly productive fruit trees would supply a family with much of their family's needs - for fresh fruit, certainly, but also for winter preserves, for animal forage, for shade and beauty, even, perhaps, for some extra cash from a farm stand. A good milk goat is a valuable creature, but she doesn't begin to touch the worth of a good tree.

Much of my orchard's problems are due to simple neglect. I have taught myself a little about pruning, but I'm timid and afraid of doing damage. I hate to use sprays, and I haven't even used fertilizer. The orchard is far from the hose, and to water it in the long dry stretches of August, I have to carry a whole lot of five gallon buckets around, and I haven't done that as consistently as I should. Considering the potential worth of these trees, and the money already invested, it's probably worth it to get a real tree person out here to prune and give me suggestions. Certainly, the current state of affairs is intolerable.

Today I went out to check out the plums on the plum tree. I had been delighted to see that we actually had a decent number of plums this year, but then I began to get annoyed by the plums' mystifying refusal to ripen. Here it is, practically mid August, and the plums are still green as grass and hard as rocks. Hunting diligently through the ratty, tattered foliage, I managed to find two plums that were respectably purple, and even sort of soft. So I bit into one.

I haven't got the foggiest clue what is wrong with those plums, but they taste like satan's compost pile. They are filled with a brown, mushy gunk that seems to be fermented and rotten. Checking carefully all over the skins, I didn't see any holes, nor did I find any insects in the stinking brown mush. Maybe it's a fungus of some sort. Maybe it's a virus. Maybe it's monkeys, I don't know! But it makes me VERY UNHAPPY.


Andy Brown said...

Oh Aime, I hear ya.

I thought that if I could garden, I could just as easily have fruit trees. It turns out that's like saying that since I can drive a car - hang gliding will be a snap. The only fruit tree here above 9 feet high is a volunteer mulberry, but these trees are already a cruel education in casual orchardry. Brown rot withered the peaches (well that at least got me to prune), Japanese beetles made lace of the cherry leaves, the deer pruned the plums and not kindly, raccoons vandalized the mulberry, the black raspberries are making life miserable for the sickly Jonathan apple and the only really vigorous tree, a Macoun apple has decided to call it an early autumn this year for some reason.

My models for fruit trees were the feral, ancient trees you'd find in the woods or pastures of Pennsylvania - producing apples or pears through decades of neglect. Or my grandfather's cherry tree, which produced gallons of cherries (mostly for the birds to decorate the property with lavender poop, but still) the thing was productive and all he ever did that I saw was shake his head at the mess. Sure, I'd seen my father fail at peaches a few times and I certainly knew that part of venison's popularity was one part delicious taste, and one part vengeance of gardeners and orchardists.

I've resisted the warfare model of gardening in favor of being an ally to my plants. I do what I can to help them - little sprouts that they are. I kind of thought trees would be a little more self-sufficient. Who knew they'd be so needy?

Andy Brown said...

I put up a few pictures of my own orcharding blues just for commiseration’s sake. Oy.