Henrí the Peach

Monday, June 27, 2016

In a small corner of a treed city, paradise bloomed. It was one of those carefully tended gardens where honeybees nourished themselves on a never ending supply of pollen from a various supply of delicious sources, and where migrating Monarch butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbird moths stopped off to dance and play among an assortment of brightly colored blooms.

A tree grew near the center of this glorious landscape. It stood near the top of a gently sloping ridge. Its branches spread over and provided shade for the myriad of wildflowers and insects below. But this was no ordinary tree. This was the territory of Henrí the Peach. And there was no finer peach tree in the land than Henrí (pronounced "Ahn-Rhee").

Henrí fancied himself to be French in origin, but he had been planted at that spot for so long that nobody really knew. He had heard someone remark at one point during his life that all peach trees hailed from France, which really wasn’t the truth, but Henrí the Peach fancied himself as the finest French peach in the land.

He would greet visitors to his garden with a healthy “Bonjour.” Which was inevitably followed by “Je m'appelle, Henrí” (Hello, my name is Henry). “Comment vous appelezvous?” (What is your name?). His accent, if you could hear a peach tree speak the French language that is, bordered on the comical Pepé Le Pew, a fictional character from the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of cartoons.

All of this, of course, was rather ridiculous. But Henrí had his share of fans and visitors in the paradise that had been created just for him. You see, Henrí was more than just a fine specimen of a peach tree. Henrí produced the finest peaches anyone had ever seen or tasted. Nobody was quite sure what variety they were, but he shared his bounty willingly every summer from the dozens who came to sample his delicious yellow freestone juice and texture.

It’s safe to say that Henrí wasn’t just a peach tree. Henrí was the finest and most extraordinary peach that anyone had ever tasted. His fruit went into a myriad of creations, including pies, cobblers, jams, jellies, salsas, spreads and any concoction that fans could dream of. Fruit tree growers from far and wide came every year to clip branches and twigs from his wide canopy, which would be propagated with other peach trees that grew nearby in the countryside. Everybody loved Henrí. And Henrí loved them.

Henrí the Peach was as happy as a peach tree could possibly be. But it’s not just because Henrí was loved by so many. Yes, that was important. But more important than anything else was, Henrí was in love himself. His love, which he saw nearly every day, tended the garden in which Henrí grew. And, although this garden was wide and diverse, she devoted most of her attention to Henrí.

He received more attention and care than any peach tree ever should. She made sure that Henrí always had a plentiful supply of water. The food and nutrients that Henrí consumed on a daily basis had been lovingly worked into the soil around his root system. Henrí was never one to want anything. Yearly applications of sprays and herbicides kept bugs and disease at bay. The minerals Henrí received created a strong and vibrant root system. The water that Henrí received was the finest in the land, originating from crystal clear streams that started in the high country and weaved their way to his garden.

It’s safe to say that Henrí led the charmed life – or as charmed as any peach tree could possibly imagine. His love not only made sure he was well fed and protected; she would at times sit underneath his impressive canopy and lean against the strong and powerful trunk that she had helped to create and nourish. It is here where she would whisper her love to Henrí and even sing his favorite songs.

Henrí would fancy that he could bend his powerful branches around her and protect her from any harm or disease that might strike in her direction. His heart, if peach trees had such a thing, sung with joy in her presence. “Je veux être avec toi,” he would whisper to his love (I want to be with you). Henrí was as happy as any peach tree could possibly be.

This is one reason why Henrí would reward his love with the finest peaches in the land. The mother of his love would sometimes stop off to visit during the August harvest season. Mrs. Willoughby came for a purpose. Mrs. Willoughby’s pies were the stuff of legend. Nobody baked a pie like Mrs. Willoughby. Nobody produced fresh peaches like Henrí the Peach. Combined, the two produced a magical pie creation that would bring joyous tears to the eyes of anyone who tasted near perfection.

It was during this point in his life where an excited Mrs. Willoughby visited the home of her daughter with the most exciting of news. Although Henrí couldn’t overhear exactly what the two were sharing with one another, he knew it involved him in some way. Henrí noticed that Mrs. Willoughby clutched something very bright and shiny in one hand as she moved in his direction and proceeded to pin the shiny object on one his outstretched branches.

As Henrí would come to learn from the excitement shared between his love and Mrs. Willoughby, pies she created featuring his peaches had captured first prize at the local county fair. The reward for Henrí was a shiny first place ribbon and even more love and adoration from those who prized his peaches. It was proof positive that Henrí produced only the finest peaches in the land. He could not have been happier.

Life continued much like this for Henrí for as long as he could remember. “La vie ne pouvait pas être plus parfait,” he would whisper to his love during those warm summer nights (Life could not be more perfect). But as Henrí the Peach was soon to learn, life does change, and sometimes it doesn’t always change for the better.

The first inkling that something was wrong in the life of his love came during the fall, when Henrí was beginning to shed his impressive summer foliage and preparing for his long winter sleep. He noticed his love standing on the porch of his garden. What seemed like raindrops fell from her eyes. Henrí beckoned his love to move closer. He wished to comfort her and wipe away her tears. But despite his repeated calls, his love stood on the porch of the garden and cried like he had never seen her cry before.

Henrí did his best to stay awake and stave off the long winter slumber that so desperately called to him. But, eventually, time and the gray skies of the winter season caught up to him. Henrí fell into a deep winter slumber that all peach trees need to rest and recharge themselves for the upcoming spring and summer seasons. All the while, he noticed his love standing at the porch and staring at him with a sadness he did not understand, nor could he possibly comprehend.

It wasn’t until Henrí awoke next spring did he finally begin to understand the events that had taken place the previous year. The migrating warblers that perched on his branches informed him that the mother of his love and the creator of those wonderful, lip-smacking pies had passed. It was cancer they told him and Mrs. Willoughby slowly slipped from this world while his love, powerless to stop what was happening, watched and grieved.

His first reaction of course was to reach out to his love to provide the comfort and understanding that only Henrí the Peach could provide. They had been through so much together; he and his love, and he vowed that they would make it through this. But fate had other plans.

It started slowly at first, but as time passed, Henrí noticed that his love spent fewer and fewer hours in the garden they shared together. The wildflowers that once grew in abundance weren’t as numerous as they had been in previous years. Honeybees and other insects would soon migrate to other nearby areas. The water that had once been applied in abundance no longer flowed. The minerals that sustained Henrí through the growth spurt every spring season did not get applied. Worse yet, Henrí the Peach had developed a nasty case of peach leaf curl. Though it would not affect fruit production, it wasn’t long before Henrí went from beautiful specimen to downright ugly.

Henrí, of course, noticed the change immediately. During the windy season that normally came every March, he allowed his branches to whip around too and fro, in hopes of getting the attention of his love. But Henrí would soon come to realize that he didn’t see his love nearly as much as he once did. She didn’t visit like she once did. She no longer applied her love in a tender way. The long conversations he enjoyed became fewer and fewer. Worse yet, his lover no longer sang to him in that silky, beautiful way she once had.

Henrí could only stand helplessly and watch from a distance as his love would appear and then disappear just as quickly. He would immediately call out to her “Je ne comprends pas” (I don’t understand). But his love did not hear him. For peach trees cannot speak. Not even the famous Henrí the Peach.

Henrí could not begin to comprehend at first why his love no longer seemed to care for him. If peach trees had such things as feelings, Henrí would have been deeply hurt. His love, for all intensive purposes, had slowly pulled away and abandoned him. Henrí had been left behind in a garden now overgrown with weeds and vines that sapped the moisture he so desperately needed.

As spring slowly progressed into summer and the weather began to warm, Henrí awoke one day parched with thirst. This was a new feeling for him. Henrí had never known want before. His love had always attended to his every need and desire. But as his thirst grew from day to day, he noticed that the irrigation system that once provided him with abundant, clean, cool and crisp mountain spring water had broken down over the winter months.

The ground around his impressive canopy had gone from lush to brown, cracked and dry clay soil. Henrí had produced an impressive crop of peaches that spring, but his dry branches now began to bend and crack under the weight of a terrific crop. Henrí knew he would be forced to sacrifice some of his fruit if he didn’t get water soon, but he noticed his love didn’t seem to care about the fruit falling in worrisome numbers to the ground below. Henrí simply could not understand. Worse yet, he grew frustrated.

Like most lovers, Henrí wasn’t ready to give up and move on, even though it seemed as if his love had done exactly that. He would fight for the attention of his love, even though she now seemed to treat him as nothing more than an afterthought. Henrí did everything a peach tree could possibly do to gain the attention of his lover. He would have stood on his head if a peach tree could do so. But not even Henrí the Peach could pull something like that off.

Still, Henrí desperately wanted to demonstrate his love and affection in the hope that his love would notice and care for him once again. During a rare trip out to the garden, she walked closely enough where he thought he could just reach out and caress her with a soft branch and leaf. It would be his way of saying how much he still cared for her, how much he missed her love and attention and how much he wanted her back.

But Henrí didn’t realize that the lack of care and water that season had turned his once soft and supple branches into hardened and sharpened sticks. Instead of a caress, he managed to poke her so hard with a sharpened branch that it tore the skin on her arm, leaving an angry red welt. As she pulled her arm away in anger, her reaction wasn’t what Henrí had hoped for, or the hurtful words that followed.

“You stupid, ugly thing,” she exclaimed in a nasty and angry tone that Henrí had never heard before. “I’m so sick of you. I just can’t stand you anymore.”

The words tore at his heart, had Henrí had such a thing. Tears began to fall. Peach trees aren’t supposed to have hearts, memories or even cry for that matter. They certainly aren’t supposed to feel emotions like love either, but Henrí the Peach was one of those special trees that did feel emotion and felt terrible about the pain he had caused. “Je suis désolé mon amour,” he exclaimed (“I am sorry my love). But she could not hear him because peach trees cannot speak. He only felt a great sorrow for the pain he had caused his one love in life.

Time has a way of passing. His love continued to spend less and less time in the garden. What had once brought her happiness now seemed to only bring tears and pain. The visitors who once fawned over him visited less and less. Henrí dealt with the loneliness and pain of abandonment the best way he could, by delivering a crop of only the best peaches.

He didn’t notice, of course, but due to a lack of water and care, his peaches were much smaller than in previous years. They were also pockmarked, bruised and beaten from numerous diseases and pests that Henrí did his best to fight off. But when harvest time came, no one came to visit. The peaches that were once desired by all, no longer commanded an audience. Slowly, one by one, his peaches rotted on the branch and fell to the cracked, brown clay soil below. There would be no more pies. There would be no more cobbler. While Henrí could not understand why the love of his life had changed in the way she did, he vowed to do even better.

But, what Henrí failed to realize is that his love had moved on in life. Life changes people, which can be both good and bad. Henrí was doing his best to recapture the love, attention and adoration he had once received. What Henrí failed to realize is that he could only be Henrí the Peach. This wasn’t a bad thing. Henrí had spent the better part of his life impressing those around him. But what he could not control is change.

Change was coming. It was coming in ways that he would not understand.

As Henrí fell into his deep winter slumber that fall, he vowed to do better. He would do his best to conserve the rainfall that dropped over the cold winter months. He could do without the best water. He would make do with what he received. He vowed to fight off the pests and disease that had made such a mess of the previous year’s crop. During the tears of sorrow and lost love that came more often now, he vowed to do better and win back his love.

When Henrí awoke that next spring he immediately noticed a difference. The flowers, butterflies and honeybees had returned. His watering system that had been hopelessly broken the year before had been repaired. Most of all he noticed his love dancing about the garden again, as happily as she had ever been.

Henrí bloomed with a love that he hadn’t felt for many years. His love had returned. His love once again danced around him. The visitors who had stopped coming a year ago had returned. Henrí felt life returning to normal. Everything was right in his world again.

But what he failed to notice is that he was sharing his space and water with another. And he slowly came to realize that another peach tree sat patiently in a container nearby. Worse yet, Henrí began to understand that the love who once whispered and sang her love for him had found the love of another.

“Isn’t this the most beautiful white peach you’ve ever seen,” she would croon to anyone who would listen. “White donut peaches are the best peaches under the sun,” she would brag. It was almost as if Henrí was invisible. Though he still dominated the garden he was in, he was no longer the center of attention. If anything, Henrí was invisible. In the eyes of his love, he no longer mattered.

His love didn’t speak of him much nor pay him much attention as she had in years past. But the few words he did hear were not encouraging. Henrí was “in the way” as he would come to understand. Despite his magnificent production of years past, despite his love for her, Henrí had been replaced. As he began to comprehend that his love had eyes for another, the jealousy and anger began to grow.

But the worst injustice, at least in the eyes of Henrí the Peach, was still to come.

The group of men with power tools arrived in the garden one day without warning. They weren’t there for the peaches. It was June you understand. The peaches that Henrí produced wouldn’t ripen until August at the latest. But his rival, the white donut peach, was already producing ripened fruit that the workers and many others had come to sample.

The first cut is the deepest. Henrí felt the pain but couldn’t understand what was happening to him. The loud noise he heard blocked out just about everything. But something was happening to Henrí the Peach that he couldn’t quite understand at first. It was only at the last minute did he understand that the loud noise he heard was that of a chainsaw. The pain he felt was the sharpened blade of a power saw cutting him down at the stump.

At first he could not believe the injustice he had been subjected too. This was his yard! This was his garden! How could the love of his life allow this to happen? It was then that Henrí noticed his love a short distance away, clapping with joy as he was slowly cut down. It was then when all pretenses of the French language and origin dropped and Henrí began to cry out in plain English: “But wait,” he silently cried! “I am Henrí the Peach,” he exclaimed. “My peaches are award winners,” as he thrust forward the branch that Mrs. Willoughby had pinned a first place county fair medal on years earlier.

But what Henrí failed to realize is that time and nature had done its damage to the first place prize ribbon that had hung on his proud branches for so long. The wind and rain of multiple winters had long ago washed away any wording or glitter that his award ribbon once contained. All that remained were tattered remains of a dull and dirty scrap of paper that nobody recognized as nothing more than trash.

The essence of Henrí barely had time to rush into the trunk and root systems of a once proud tree that now fell to the ground with a loud groan and crash. He watched as the men with power tools proceeded to slice up and stack every last branch. Henrí knew his fate. His once proud branches were stacked neatly near a fire pit in the corner of the garden. He would be next summer’s fire pit fuel. The branches that once produced the finest peaches in all the land, would soon roast over an open flame.

As Henrí the Peach sunk lower into the root system to ponder his fate, the men with power tools finished the professional job they had started with a stump grinder. As they worked to eradicate every last trace of Henrí, he realized that the wood chips from his stump would serve as the compost that the fancy white donut peach would need to not only survive, but thrive in its new setting.

The men with power tools left later that day. Dust and wood chips scattered the ground where the great Henrí the Peach once grew. The fancy white donut peach stood in the same hole that once contained the remains of his mighty stump – the same stump that his love at one time leaned against as she sang her garden songs of love.

Henrí survived the initial onslaught, but now came to fear the woman he once loved with all his heart, had peach trees had such a thing. If he dared allowed his root system to send up even a single leaf’s worth of growth, it was hacked into pieces and sprayed with a substance that stung his remaining roots. Henrí knew to stay below the surface and could only watch his love sing the praises of another. The fight to stay alive for his love grew into a daily struggle, as the fancy white donut peach grew to a size where it began to consume the water and nutrients that had once been reserved for Henrí the Peach.


Henrí isn’t sure when he died or if he did die, but one day he realized that he was no longer in the garden that once contained his very essence. As he slowly became aware of the conditions around him, Henrí didn’t recognize the setting he was in nor the garden. Worse yet, by the time Henrí did become aware of the environment around him, he would fall into a deep slumber, only to reawaken in another strange place.

At first, he could not understand where he was. It felt like a peach tree but it wasn’t his tree. He shared it with another or sometimes, several others. They were all peach varieties just like Henrí, but also unlike him. After all, time may have passed, but the peaches that Henrí bore were still unique.

Henrí can’t remember how long it took before he finally understood, but it must have been a period of several years. His very essence was contained in a series of peach trees that were planted on different farms or in different gardens. He survived in the cuttings that growers had taken from his magnificent tree years earlier, which had been grafted to other peach trees. Henrí was glad to discover that he had not been forgotten. His fruit was just as prized now as it ever had been.

As for the love that sang to him and nurtured his soul through the years, his memory had faded to the point where he could no longer remember her name and not even her face. Henrí knew that she never visited him again, but did remember her love with a fondness that would never die. Because nobody ever forgets a true love or the joy and pain that a true love can bring.

Henrí could only realize that, at one time, he was loved and he was cherished. He remembered the good times with great relish, and tried not to dwell on the pain and tears of the past. His only wish, had peach trees had such a thing, was to feel her caress on his branches once again and hear her songs of love.

A love like this comes but once in a lifetime. While the tears and pain of loss did not come as often as they once did, from time to time the old sorrow came to visit. For we all feel the sorrow and tears for a deep love that comes to an abrupt end. That is especially true for Henrí the Peach.

The Flowers of Spring

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Honey Crisp Apple Tree in Full Bloom
"April Showers Bring May Flowers," my mother once crooned. She usually started screeching after a surprise rain storm wiped out whatever her youngest boy had planned for the day -- an event that was usually outside. Because, what boy wants to be stuck inside when the sun is shining outside?

Thank God our house had some thick walls -- because mom's singing was pretty brutal. Brutal enough to drive a boy into a garage in an attempt to find some auditory relief. Perhaps that's the way she wanted it. Perhaps I'm not giving mom enough credit...

Granny Smith Apple in Bloom
Spring is special because it brings a bounty of flowers to the Bird Back 40. And, in our case, every single tiny flower brings the promise of a fruit payoff later this summer. I've come to that age (OLD), where I appreciate the finer things in life. And nothing brings greater joy than a Honey Crisp Apple tree doing it's best Granny Smith Apple imitation.

This is year five for the Honey Crisp. It's delivered exactly one eye-popping crop so far -- and that came in year two. The dreaded Fire Blight would strike in year three, wiping out an entire crop. And last year? Last year the Honey Crisp bloomed in exactly one spot. That's a crime, because the Honey Crisp Apple is that good.

Duke Avocado Tree in Bloom
But this year is somewhat different. This year is somewhat exciting. The temperamental Honey Crisp is covered with blooms and honey bees. The Fuji Apple is also blooming heavily -- a first for this tree as well. And the Granny? The Granny Smith apple was meant to bloom. It always blooms. When doesn't a Granny bloom? If you're looking for a good pollinator tree, look no further than the Granny. That tree is rather ridiculous. It blooms early. It blooms mid-season. It blooms late. Even after you think the Granny is done blooming, surprise! There's another set of buttery pink blossoms.

The story is pretty much the same across the Bird Back 40. The blossom period for the peaches and nectarines is just about over. The thorn less blackberry vines are in full bloom. The Shuksan strawberry plants are going to town. Even the Duke Avocado tree is covered with more blooms and bees than I can possibly count. Step anywhere near that tree and you'd swear there was a beehive hidden somewhere in there.

Duke Avocado Blooms
But the most surprising development isn't the surprisingly heavy crop of Royal Rainier Cherries. It's not the myriad of mandarins that are covered with a carpet of white. No -- the most surprising development was the number of blooms on the Harrow Delight Pear tree. I planted this tree three years ago. I dutifully chopped it in half to knee level to encourage low branch development. And I was told it could take 4-5 years before the Harrow Delight produced its first crop.

Instead, the Harrow Delight bloomed in year three and set a nice crop of pears. This is important because I fell in love with the Harrow Delight at a Dave Wilson Nursery fruit tasting event held several years ago at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. Even though the wife that is Venus were sampling a bevy of different fruits on this particular day, one item stood out among all the others. I kept going back for more. It was the Harrow Delight Pear.

Harrow Delight Pear in Bloom
The Harrow Delight is one of two varieties planted in a raised bed that are supposedly resistant to the scourge upon fruit kind known as Fire Blight. It was introduced in 1982 from the Harrow Agricultural station in Ontario, Canada. The Blake's Pride Pear, which is also billed as Fire Blight resistant, was developed by Richard Bell with the ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia in 1998.

Unfortunately, I will have to wait on the Blake's Pride as it did now flower this spring. The old-fashioned Bartlett Pear, which is not resistant to blight and is planted in the same raised bed as the other two varieties, flowered heavily this year.

Harrow Delight Pears
No sign of the dreaded blight yet this year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and trying a new organic solution of water and apple cider vinegar to keep the blight at bay. I do have something stronger, BUT, I really don't like what this particular chemical did to the fruit composition last year. So it stays on the sideline.

Half the work of growing home-grown fruit takes place in the spring. Is the area clear of weeds (weeds steal water)? Has the appropriate fertilizer been applied? Is it getting enough water? Are the fruit trees protected from various ills, like blight, that can strike in the spring?

If the answer to all four questions is "YES," congratulations. You should have a tree full of fruit. Of course, a million and one things could happen between now and harvest time that could spoil that tempting looking crop. As backyard fruit growers, this is the cross we bear.

So -- congratulations. Springtime has arrived. The fruit trees are in full bloom. The honey bees are out in force. And, so far, mom hasn't been tempted to start crooning "April Showers Bring May Flowers."

Steaks in the Summer Garden

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Heirloom Tomato Seedlings
We're planning to grow steaks in the Bird Back 40 summer garden this year. How about you? Can you spot the tiny steak starter plants in the photo to your right? They are right in front of your nose. They don't look all that special -- but come this summer -- hopefully the wife that is Venus will be digging into her favorite cut of prime rib.

How does one grow steaks in a garden you ask? Plant a moo-moo cow in the raised garden beds perchance? Set aside a portion of the Bird Back 40 for some moo-moo cows? They'd get along great with Lenny the Giant Maine Coon cat, wouldn't they? Probably not -- so perish the thought.

Steak House Hybrid Tomato Seed
No -- the steaks we're growing this year -- a first for us by the way -- are of the vegetable or fruit variety. It's called the Steak House Hybrid. It's the latest introduction from Burpee Seed, and I must warn you, it's ridiculously expensive. How expensive? Stupid expensive. As someone has to be as stupid as yours truly to lay down $7 for a packet of magic beans.

Yes -- I will admit -- I paid $7 for Burpee's latest creation. They promised a seed packet with 25 seeds. Yet -- someone has a serious math problem in that seed operation because when the package finally did arrive, it contained a total of six or seven seeds. That's right, a buck a seed. This better be worth it.

Tomato Seed Selections from Tomato Growers Supply
Burpee claims that it is. "Meet the biggest tomato ever bred," the advertising claims. "And it’s not just bigger but better. Tipping the scales at up to three lbs. plus, broad-shouldered tomato titan is bigger than Big Daddy, and loaded with true heirloom tomato flavor and head-spinning fragrance. Indeterminate plants produce gorgeous, humongous fruits."

With advertising like that, who can resist? The Steak House Hybrid is one of 40-50 varieties that we're growing from seed this year. Planted two weeks ago, most of everything has sprung to life. This includes numerous peppers, which should have been planted a month earlier, but, uh, I'm late. OK, so sue me.

Solar Flare Tomato Seed: Wild Boar Farms
Some of these varieties are new. Some are old favorites. Every tomato garden must now include a Pink Berkeley Tie Dye, the brainchild of Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms. If that's not a gardening law, it should be.

Other old-time gardening varieties include the always amazing, but sometimes tempermental, Azochka (tastes like bacon!). Look closely and you will find a Druzba, Green Zebra, Caspian Pink and Brandywine.

Ah -- but the Steak House Hybrid isn't the only "meat" feature in this year's summer garden. And no summer garden is complete without other tasty summer vegetables. Nope -- you've got to have a patch of basil here and there. Peppers are a must. And who can forget about tasty eggplant?

Seed Starting Station
So -- it's not just steaks -- but meatballs as well. This is yet another Burpee selection -- an eggplant they like to call "Meatball." So -- what's so special about "Meatball?" I have absolutely no clue. This is the first time I've grown it.

But if you were to believe the fine folks at Burpee: "Meet the mightiest, meatiest eggplant ever. Imagine fresh, home-grown, vine-ripened MEAT! That's Meatball."

Do you believe them? Meh -- me too. We'll see what happens.

Our "seed rack" contains about 140 starter plants this year. That represents the most we've ever started from seed. Can we fit 140 starter plants into the Bird Back 40? Only if I knock down the neighbor's fence and take over his backyard -- something he probably wouldn't like.

But, starting too many plants is a tradition here. Besides, they always do find a home. If not in our garden, somewhere else. I mean, look, who can pass on a tomato named after a STEAK and even the hardiest eggplant hater would pause at something called a MEATBALL.

It's 2016 in the Bird Back 40. The carnivores are taking over.

Big Pink
Black Krim
Campbell’s 1327
Cascade Lava
Caspian Pink
Green Tie Dye
Green Zebra
Italian Sweet
Lemon Boy
Marisol Purple
Mint Julep
Oaxacan Jewel
Pink Berkeley Tie Dye
Pink Boar
Pork Chop
San Marzano
Sky Reacher
Solar Flare
Sweet 100

Dark Opal
Large Leaf
Siam Queen

Chillax Dude!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Pride Peach Tree-Bird Back 40
Chill! Chill out dude! Take a chill pill! Dude, just chill for a minute, will you? It was the "cool" word of the day -- way back in the day when I was a young man. Back when horse drawn carriages plied pretty red brick lined streets of Old Sacramento, and...

Oh, who am I kidding. I'm old, yes. But ancient? Only in the eyes of someone half my age, say 26 or 27? But, seriously, I can remember this word. I can remember it because my friends and I used it often. Usually, we called upon the magic word to stop our friends from saying or doing something rather foolish.

Or, perhaps they'd already done something foolish. Like -- trying to appeal a member of the opposite sex by complimenting her on that very pretty undergarment she was wearing at that particular moment. At that point, we had to rush him off and drag the offender away from the highly-offended member of the opposite sex, while muttering the entire time, "yo, dude, major error on your part! Just chill for a minute."

Eva's Pride Peach
I sometimes wonder how teenage boys survive to become men. But I digress.

Those precocious teenage years are but a distant and now blurry dot on that rear view mirror we call life. I'm older now. With age comes the rewards of crankiness, grouchiness, grumpiness and a somewhat disturbing loss of bowel control. Win!

But -- not everything changes. I'm still using that cool word we call "chill." Only now it has an entirely different, but still very important, meaning. Those of us who grow all sorts of delicious fruit for fun or profit also know the importance behind the magic word of "chill." But it's not "chill out dude," it's more like "check the chill hours, dude."

Honeycrisp Apple-Requires 800 Chill Hours
What are chill hours and why are they so important? Are you really that bored with life that you want to learn? Become a nerd like yours truly? Then, you're in luck. Because I am always willing to share the nerd germ with anyone who wants it.

Sleep is an important factor in our lives. Most of us don't get enough of it and yearn for more when that damn alarm starts going off, or the Maine Coon cat starts using a baseball bat against the sliding glass door. But it's not just important for people and pets. Fruit trees need a nap too -- and a long one at that.

In some ways fruit trees are a lot like that child that will not accept an 8:00 PM bedtime. They'll cry, they'll moan, they'll complain. And then -- after all that -- comes the fun of a childhood tantrum. Fruit trees follow much the same behavior. They will stubbornly stay awake until that very last possible moment and will resist the urge to lose every last leaf and fall into a deep, winter slumber.

Harrow Delight Pear-Requires 800 Chill Hours
These are the chill hours I speak of. I've come to discover, through trial and error, that they are vitally important to the health of next summer's crop. Because a fruit tree that doesn't get enough chill hours is just as cranky as that child who stayed up far too long past that 8:00 PM mandatory bedtime.

Ah -- but not all fruit trees are created equal. That Pride Peach collection pictured above and now coming into bloom has a far different chill requirement than the Black Tartarian Cherry tree planted nearby. Some fruit trees require a lot of chill hours. Some, not as much. That's why it's always best to check the chill hour requirement BEFORE you make that fruit tree or bush purchase. Chill hour requirements are just as important as the gardening zones that determine what type of and when vegetables should be planted.

The current drought that I hope and pray will come to a speedy end this winter means more than just a lack of water for fruit tree growers. When the rain stops falling and the storms move way, it tends to start warming up. And when it warms up early as it has for the past two to three years, fruit trees that require a lot of chill hours tend to suffer a great deal.

Black Tartarian Cherry-800 Chill Hours
Something simple like a lack of chill hours can result in a reduced harvest or no harvest at all. This is why prices for fresh cherries have been so high in some parts of the country. If that Black Tartarian cherry tree doesn't get the required 800 chill hours of slumber, it doesn't matter how much water or fertilizer it gets during the spring and summer months. It's just not going to produce.

I've learned the same hard lesson about other fruit trees that have long chill hour requirements -- like the best apple on God's Green Earth: The Honeycrisp Apple. If the Honeycrisp doesn't get that 800 hour chill hour nap during the winter, much like the Black Tartarian cherry, production is going to suffer.

It's not just production that can suffer. Sometimes a fruit tree that doesn't get enough chill hours will produce a lot of fruit. But that fruit will often be smaller, and in the case of last year's June Pride peach crop, lumpier. Lumpy peaches don't look appealing. They don't taste all that grand either.

Royal Rosa Apricot Preparing to Flower
Commercial growers long ago learned the secret behind and the importance of chill hours. That's why the fine folks at the UC Davis Fruit and Nut Research and Information Division long ago developed a very handy and dandy chill calculator page. By clicking on this page you can see the chill hours that are taking place in every county of California, and more importantly, the chill hours in your very own backyard.

The nearest chill hour station to the Bird Back 40 is just over the Yolo County line, near Woodland. Like the true fruit nerd that I am -- I visit this page often during the all important winter months. The chill hours ranging between a high of 45 degrees and a low of 32 are the most important statistic. The Bird Back 40 is up to nearly 700 chill hours as I write this -- and that is the cause for a very wide smile on my part. I haven't seen this type of cold weather treatment for awhile and fruit production has suffered.

5-in-1 Apricot Tree
Although most Sacramento County locations normally average about 1,000 chill hours during most years -- the last two winters have been anything but normal. It didn't rain or snow a lot -- and it didn't stay cold for nearly long enough. Our chill hours suffered. Instead of the expected and hoped for average of 1,000 chill hours -- some areas received less than 600. Fruit trees flowered weeks earlier than expected and production suffered.

Short and sweet, there is absolutely nothing a grower can do if Mother Nature doesn't deliver on some extended cold weather. A lack of chill hours impacts just about every fresh fruit variety grown around here, from apples, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears and even grapes. Think that might impact the price of your favorite variety of wine in two to three years? It might.

Redwood Barn Nursery owner Don Shor recently wrote an impressive article on the tremendous importance of chill hours in the Davis Enterprise. He predicted that the 2015 fresh fruit year might be a bad one. For the most part, he was right on the money.

June Pride Peach Tree
What will 2016 bring us? That's a good question. The jury is still out. If the weather warms up and the storms stay away like they have for the past two to three years, most fruit tree owners are, in a word, screwed.

If there is a silver lining, it's this. We are off to a very good start as far as chill hours are concerned. December started off with and ended with a cold winter's blast. January conditions were nearly as good. The $64 question is, what will February bring?

So, sit back and chill out dude. Chillax for a moment. My Black Tartarian cherry tree will thank you.

Good Night Sweet Charlotte

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Flavor Finale Pluot Tree-Bird Back 40
It's a serious hair cut. We all get them from time to time. In this particular case and this particular year -- the famed and favored Flavor Finale Pluot got the "big chop" as they say in fruit growing circles. What had been a mighty fine looking large and wonderfully productive tree now resembles an outdoor houseplant.

I hope you didn't think I was talking about myself. It's been a few years since I had enough hair on my own head to qualify for a "big chop." Now, the instructions to the barber are more like, "can't you cover up that big bald spot at the top of my head?"

Barbers can work wonders. But they can't make hair grow where it once grew in abundance.

Flavor Finale Tree Before Haircut
Although my own hair won't be growing back anytime soon -- I have no doubt that the Flavor Finale Pluot WILL spring back to life when it wakes up from its long winter nap in a couple of months. Why on God's Green Earth did I cut this tree so far back to size? It's my own fault, really.

See, I'm a glutton for pluots. I have been since I tasted my first one many moons ago during a former lifetime in Fresno. They were -- and still are -- amazing. I couldn't get enough of them back in the day -- which is why I set out several years ago to grow my own. I figured that -- with my own tree -- I would finally get more pluots than I bargained for.

It took awhile -- about six years of growth and tender care. That first big crop that I'd dreamed up finally showed up two seasons ago. It nearly broke several branches on the tree -- but not quite. I should have learned my lesson then -- but didn't. I wasn't expecting the gigantic crop that finally appeared last season.

Busted Branches
It appears the tree wasn't ready for it either.

The "damage" (if you want to call it that) started to show up in late summer about a month before Flavor Finale crop was due to ripen. Those strong branches suddenly laden with fruit didn't seem so strong and sturdy with hundreds of pounds of juicy pluots attached to them. I watched, rather hopelessly I might add, as those branches slowly sank under the weight of a terrific crop.

I can handle one branch loaded with fruit. The same goes with two. But when EVERY branch on the tree suddenly begins to bend in an alarming, downward fashion, you can guess what happened next. Much like a rice krispies treat, my Flavor Finale suffered a "snap, crackle, pop" treatment of one broken branch after another. And if the branch didn't snap in two, it bent so low that it eventually hit the ground.

Pluot Limbs Removed During Haircut
This wasn't what I was expecting. But I should have known better. Because it's exactly what I got.

Pretty soon, my pretty and well trimmed Flavor Finale tree resembled some sort of failed bush. The wife swears it actually fell over at one point. A visual inspection would reveal that the tree was still standing tall alright. It's just another branch had busted under the weight of a terrific crop. And then another followed by yet another.

I won't lie to you. Last year's harvest was truly something special. I lived on pluots for as long as I could stand them. I would pack heavy, 30 lb. sacks of them for family and friends. Yet at the end of this picking party project, the tree was so heavily laden with fruit, it didn't look like I'd even touched it. Despite my efforts to process as many pluots into jars of jam as I could, and give them away to anyone who asked or wanted them, I'd estimate about 30-40 percent of the crop went to waste.

More Broken Branches
This is also despite the presence of family of marauding mockingbirds who also shared a love for everything pluots. At the end of the season I had a family of fat mockingbirds hanging out in the Bird Back 40. And despite the heavy raids of both man and beast -- hundreds of pluots still went to waste.

The damage -- oh there was plenty of it -- wasn't easy to look at after the onset of rain and cold put the tree into a deep slumber and removed every last leaf. The Tree That Bethany Built -- a collection of many different varieties of pluots thanks to exhaustive grafting efforts -- looked like a child's toy that had been abused far too often. What was once well shaped and majestic looked bent, busted, tired and worn.

So what happens next? Oh -- the tree will eventually recover soon enough. Fruit trees can take fantastic amounts of abuse once established and spring back again and again and again. I don't know if I will ever get as large as it did the first time, because I'm no fan of fruit going to waste. But I will take special care now to carefully trim this tree in a way that will result in strong branches that can hold a big crop -- rather than those long and slender sticks that are nothing more than a distant memory now.

So -- it will be awhile before I see another pluot crop like the one I had last year. And that's fine in my opinion. The mockingbirds who live in that tree during harvest season may not like it too much -- but I could use a small break!