The old peach tree that came with my house rotted through and fell over two seasons ago. Still, it’s covered with flowers, and is likely to produce a decent crop this year. Woodchucks like this dying tree. In the fall they stand on their hind legs to reach the lowest peaches, and in the winter they chew on the tender bark (as you can see on the branch in the lower-right of the photo).

My county home came with three apple trees, a peach tree, and a pear tree. Having this convenient source of free fruit suits me very well: if I’m growing plants in my yard, I want them to provide food for me. Unfortunately, fruit trees are challenging.

As plants go, fruit trees are among the stupidest. They may produce flowers any time in April… with no regard for when the last frost is going to hit. Some years, this means a late frost destroys a tree’s young fruit. If trees had any brains, they’d keep their buds closed until after the last frost.

Fruit trees have no sense about their own personal space. They grow branches every which-way, filling spaces between branches with more branches. New growth shades out old growth, and branches often collide with and cross each other. In wind, they rub together causing damage where insects and fungus can take hold. To keep trees healthy and promote healthy fruit-production on all the branches, it’s important to prune the excess growth—usually in late winter.

Fruit Trees are Uncooperative

Fruit trees don’t automatically do what’s best for the fruit-eater. For example, trees with hardy roots often produce fruit that isn’t particularly appealing to eat. Roots of trees that make delectable fruit may succumb easily to insects, rot, and other problems. Many of the fruit trees you buy in a garden store have a desirable fruit variety grafted onto a hardy root of a different variety.

When there is no killing frost, a tree can produce thousands of flowers. If all the flowers mature, they’ll produce small fruits. Professional fruit growers pluck hundreds of undeveloped fruits, leaving only a few on each branch to mature by the end of the season. The survivors are often two or three times as large as they’d be without that early culling.

My pear and peach tree aren’t healthy. In fact, three years ago, we planted a second peach tree because the old one looks ready to go. How ready? The main trunk rotted part way through, and the entire crown of the tree fell over two years ago. But the healthy wood of the trunk didn’t break—it bent.

Last year, with its crown resting on the ground, that old tree produced a whole bunch of rather small, very sweet peaches… and this year the crown is covered once again with flowers. I imagine in a week or two I’ll be out there plucking off nascent peaches so the ones that survive the summer grow large.

Getting a Fruit Harvest Requires Work

All my other fruit trees are also covered with flowers—more than I remember from any past spring. This means work. While I want to eat the peaches pears and apples, so do hundreds of thousands of insects. They’re already lurking, but I can’t take action until the blossoms drop—anything that discourages fruit-eating insects can also put off the bees that will pollinate the flowers. I’ll need to spray the trees with bug repellent repeatedly through the spring and summer.

So, by the time I’ve done the winter pruning, the mid-spring culling, and the repeated bug spraying, I’ll have spent, perhaps, twenty hours messing with my trees. The bug spray will cost twenty or thirty dollars by the end of the season. Of course, I also have to pick the fruit, but that’s no more work than buying it at a farmers’ market.

If all goes well, I’ll end up with four or five bushels of apples, and, perhaps, a bushel each of pears and peaches. It’s a terrific return on such a modest investment.

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