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Summer Fruit : GARDEN FRESH : Dribbler's Delight


Of all the luscious summer fruits that dribble down our chins, peaches are the dribblingest. Some summers, peaches are great. Other summers--well, you could build a rock wall with the fruits pretending to be ripe. And once off the tree, they just don't ripen as sweet as they could.

So grow your own!

If you have a patch of well-drained soil in full sun that's about 15 feet around, and if you plan it right, you can pick tree-ripened peaches in parts of June, July, August and even September--heavenly flavored peaches the likes of which you can't buy anywhere.

How? Plant three peach trees of equal vigor two feet apart in a triangle, each with a later fruiting time. Each mature tree will give you at least two weeks of glorious peaches for eating fresh--and perhaps for putting up.

Peach trees like their winters cold, their springtimes warm and dry and their summers hot. But peach people have been working away on cultivars that will produce good-tasting peaches in which these elements are marginal. Little of Southern California is classic peach territory, but now we have peaches that will ripen everywhere.

Here in the mountains near Idyllwild, our season begins in June with Early Redhaven, scrumptious yellow freestones on a prolific small tree. In our garden, they ripen over several weeks. Late in July comes Polly peach, a delicious and delicately blushed white freestone. In late August, we can pick Indian Blood Clings such as Thomas Jefferson grew. Crimson through and through, with marvelous white peach flavor, these are beautiful fruits.

If you live in the High Desert, you can also start picking in June with Gold Dust, a yellow freestone with exceptional flavor. The Nectar variety ripens in July, and some consider it the best-flavored white freestone of all. You can also grow Indian Blood Cling for August, or wait for White Heath Cling, a superb peach that matures in the high desert in September. White Heath has a particularly long blooming period.

Frost can be a problem late in the blossom season, especially in the Low Desert. Flordaprince ripens very early--sometimes in late April--producing lots of yellow semi-clingstone peaches of good quality. Midpride is a fine yellow freestone that ripens in July. However, in the Low Desert, it might be wiser to grow genetic dwarf trees in tubs.

Genetic dwarf peach trees have been bred to stay four to six feet tall once they mature. Their blooms are exceptionally beautiful, being thick on the limbs. They are adaptable to all of Southern California and are easy to move into a convenient spot; just use a large redwood planter or half-barrel (give the container rollers for easy moving). Plant two genetic dwarf peaches in a container for best pollination, mulch with manure, keep stringently pruned, and let the soil mix dry out just slightly between deep waterings. Two small trees with low chilling requirements are tasty yellow freestones: Southern Sweet, which is early, and Southern Rose, which is midseason. Add fresh soil mix to the top third of the container every spring.

You can even grow one standard peach tree in a very large container. Just prune the roots as well as the branches every couple of years when the tree is dormant.

In those parts of Southern California where there aren't many hours in January and February below 45 degrees (called chilling hours), you might plant in your three holes Flordaking--a red-blushed yellow clingstone of high quality that ripens late May; then Shanghai, a juicy, wonderfully sweet white freestone for July--or Santa Barbara, a very peachy yellow peach; and for August, aromatic yellow freestone August Pride.

You'll plant slender, leafless bare-root trees in late winter or early spring (in the mountains, plant in spring). Whether you get it through the mail or from a local nursery, bare root means the little tree is shipped without soil after being dug while dormant--when it's leafless. In a state of suspended animation, the tree can endure a two-day trip through the mail. Companies ship varying sizes of trees, so inquire before you order.

You can bring a potted peach tree into your temperate garden any time of the year. In cold winter areas, wait till spring.

When you plant, tip each tree in the triangle slightly outward and remove the largest inside branches. Standard peach trees start bearing when they're three years old; dwarf trees can bear the first or second year. Life expectancy for a peach tree is about 20 years, although production may decline sooner.

This year's fruit was formed on last year's growth. Once it has offered up fruit, that piece of branch will never bear again. What insures that there will be new branches this year to bear next year's fruit? Heavy pruning. Probably more than any fruit tree, peaches respond to being cut back--in fact, unpruned trees grow cranky and miserable.

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