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GOURMET GARDENER

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By Adrienne Cook
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 8, 2000; Page H10

Early peaches are ripening now; by the end of the month, these fleeting summer fruits will be ready for picking. Taking advantage of the short local peach season should be a priority for gourmets, grown-ups and kids alike.

If this region's reputation as a peach-growing area pales compared with points south, the metro Washington area nonetheless does peaches proud, especially in the higher elevations of the Piedmont. A drive westward into the low mountains reveals a wealth of peach orchards--and apples and other fruits too--dotting the rolling hills.

But you don't need a hillside orchard to raise peaches: Dwarf varieties are well suited to the home garden; they grow small but abundantly.

Whether dwarf or standard, the trees bear watching as summer's heat settles in. At the fruit's peak of ripeness, the plush skin takes on a warm sunset hue, the fruit's flesh yields slightly to gentle pressure, and a rich, peachy aroma wafts from its interior. When cut open, the flesh is gleaming and juicy, with dense color. Depending on the variety, it might fall easily from the pit or cling like the flesh of a mango, to be removed gingerly with knife or teeth.

Peaches are relatively easy to grow in a home orchard. Most are self-pollinating, which means that a single tree can bear fruit. The climate in this area is perfect for peaches. The soil might need amending, but, once established, a peach tree requires no special fertilization to ensure a crop. Routine care entails pruning, generally recommended annually to encourage internal air circulation, which results in larger fruit and cuts down on pests; and spraying, which is perhaps the most labor-intensive part of any fruit tree undertaking.

In this region, the peach's biggest enemy is the plum curculio, a small beetle whose larvae feast on the inside of the fruit. At the very least, infested peaches are wormy; at worst, the larval attacks leave fruits open to brown rot, a fungal disease. Fruits often fall off the tree before they ever get a chance to mature.

It's not difficult to diagnose a case of plum curculio; the tell-tale crescent-shaped scar, the size and shape of the cuticle on a fingernail, appears on new fruit, usually by the end of May. This year, the pests arrived earlier; infestations were in full swing by the end of April.

Until very recently, the orchardist who counted on getting peaches each year had little option save to combat plum curculio with chemicals such as captan and diazinon. Even the new organic wonder-spray, neem oil, performed poorly as a guard against the plum curculio worms on the fruits. Mechanical controls, such as laying cloth under the tree and shaking branches to dislodge unsteady adult beetles as they swarmed on trees to lay eggs provided only slight reductions of the pests.

The development of pyrethrins, pesticides derived from the ground-up petals of pyrethrum daisies, has changed much of modern organic pest control. They are effective on an ever-greater range of pests when used in combination with other compounds, in an oil-and-pyrethrum product called Pyola, for example.

To control plum curculio and brown rot, fruit trees are sprayed at petal-drop--when 90 percent of the spring blooms have lost their petals--and again two weeks later. This prevents damage to pollinating insects, which also will succumb to pyrethrins.

Curculio beetles are at their most active as the new fruit begins its nascent swelling, before the layman even notices the fruit forming. A spray of Pyola or any dormant oil can be applied in late winter to control mites and borers, which can become a problem under the right environmental conditions.

These organic controls, coupled with planting resistant varieties and a willingness to put up with some pest damage, allow fresh peaches without harsh chemicals.

Sources of peach trees, both dwarf and container varieties, include Edible Landscaping (800-524-4156, eat-it.com); and Stark Bros. (800-325-4180, MySeasons.com).

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