Ed Colby: The fruits of labor in Peach Valley
Saturday we picked asparagus in a snow squall. Our sweet cherries are in full bloom, and the wind howled and the snow blew sideways through the cherry blossoms. It was lovely, actually, but Linda shook her fist at the heavens. I’d cry, if I hadn’t given up caring long ago.
We live just west of New Castle, in Peach Valley, but we call it No-Peach Valley. It’s just hard to grow fruit around here. This used to be orchard country. We’re right on the railroad, and prior to 1920 they shipped peaches out of here by the boxcar load. I don’t get it, because Jack Frost prowls this valley at night.
Everything blooms, or gets ready to, about the end of ski season. If the weather stays clear, it’s typically shirtsleeves weather during the day and above freezing at night. But if a front comes through, the mercury drops like a rock. Ordinarily we’re fine as long as it stays cloudy. It’s the first clear morning after the storm that always gets us.
Last night it was partly cloudy and 35 degrees when we went to bed at midnight.
Spring’s a little late this year. We had a cold winter, and it stayed cool right until the first few days of this month, when we had a minus-6-degree night. Then the weather turned mostly hot and windy – until yesterday.
We have five huge, ancient, sweet-cherry trees. There were 11 when we moved here nine years ago, and the survivors are diseased, rotten and dying. They still produce fruit, however. One yielded a heavy crop a few summers ago, then blew over in a windstorm a week later.
Ever the optimist, I planted ten Lapins sweet-cherry trees, on a dwarfing rootstock. I put them in rows, with tall posts at each end and a wire overhead. The idea was that I could use the wire to drape plastic for frost protection and hang netting to keep out the birds.
Two years ago on May 15, in the middle of a record hot spell, when these baby trees were in their second leaf, it dipped to 20 degrees. There weren’t any fruit blossoms, so I hadn’t bothered to cover them. This time the cold killed all the leaves. When the trees finally leafed out a second time, they looked wraith-like, with just a bit of green at the end of spindly, barren branches. They never fully recovered. They took off like bindweed the summer I planted them, but since the freeze, they’ve basically stopped growing. I don’t mind if the blossoms (not the leaves) freeze this year. These trees need to direct all their energy toward growth.
The same frost that crippled the cherry trees did massive damage to a row of baby lilacs, also in their second season. Some of the bushes were killed from the ground up and had to start again from the roots.
We just about always get apples. Did I mention we lost our entire apple crop along with the cherry leaves and the lilacs?
Last spring the heavy frost came in early June. You might remember. It killed the alfalfa bloom from New Castle to Aspen. It also got our grapes, which is rare, because grapes bloom so late. Grapes are different from most fruit, however, in that they bloom again after a killing frost. Why can’t sweet cherries? The second grape bloom isn’t as heavy, but it’s a nice consolation prize.
The frost that nailed the grapes didn’t hurt our earlier-blooming fruit – apricots, sweet cherries, plums, peaches, pie cherries and apples. These blossoms had already turned into tough, frost-resistant little fruits that escaped unscathed.
Plum flowers are frost-hardy. I don’t understand this. Plums are the only crop we’ve never lost to a spring frost, even though they bloom more or less right along with the apples.
Our apricot trees bloom early in April, or sometimes even in late March, so we hardly ever get apricots. The trees themselves are hardy. There are apricot trees up the Fryingpan. You’d think that if we rarely get apricots at 5500 feet in Peach Valley, you’d never get them at 7000 feet on the Pan. Not so. Because high-altitude ‘cots blossom later, they sometimes make it in years when we freeze here. This is a crapshoot.
It’s 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, and it’s all over. Skies are clear and the thermometer reads 26 degrees. There’s ice on the car. Linda sleeps like a saint on our matrimonial bed. She doesn’t know, poor thing.
There’s a silver lining, of course. There always is. We can cross another project off our summer agenda. We won’t have to pick.
Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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