Growing fruit trees can be a real gamble

Sometimes, you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em. I know, that Kenny Rogers song is called “The Gambler,” but he might as well have been singing about gardening and life in general.

I would argue there’s no bigger gamble in growing something in these here parts than fruit trees. People seem to have this romantic idea about having backyard orchards, but growing fruit is hard work if you do it correctly. Literally, the fruits of your labors are unreliable and can vanish in the snap of a late spring frost.

When we bought our little homestead almost nine years ago, it came with an established orchard of peach, cherry, plum and apple trees, and a wild tangle of grape vines. Unlike some other potential buyers, who may have seen the large yard and orchard as deal-breakers, we were twitterpated with young house love and just couldn’t wait to prune and spray and harvest and … well, here we are now. Nine years later, I can tell you how much work it is to attempt to rehabilitate a neglected orchard infested with pests and problems.

The first year, the fact that the trees had been improperly pruned and trained didn’t seem to matter. The blossoms continued to dazzle and the tree limbs hung so heavy with fruit that we couldn’t eat it all. We noticed some bug problems and quickly diagnosed the first as peach twig bore, which is fairly easy to treat.

Of course, we had codling moth larvae burrowing through our apples, but who cared about a few wormy apples? And there was the constant battle with the aphids we waged annually.

In the following years, we tried to gradually fix the problems. We made pruning cuts with chain saws as we removed large, dead branches from the trees. To avoid causing further problems, we could only remove 20–25 percent of each tree when we pruned, so we allowed the tree enough resources to survive the next season. This sort of rehabilitation over time is slow and frustrating.

When we inherited the orchard and all its problems, we couldn’t see that the biggest challenge lurked in some of the trees and soil already. The peach trees had crown borer, the most destructive pest of stone fruits. The borer is the larvae of the peach tree borer moth, and these larvae tunnel into the trees below the soil surface, feeding on the tree and overwintering to cause more damage the following season.

Prevention is the best medicine with these insects, but we were past that point, and the borer was already inside the trees.

We diligently applied pesticide around the trunks and soil to prevent more moths from infesting the trees in July and August, and I even resorted to using paradichlorobenzene (moth ball crystals) buried around the trunks to attempt to fumigate the buggers out so they would be exposed to the poison.

Unfortunately, it was too late. The borers girdled the trees from the inside, and each year we resorted to a calculated, depressing amputation of wizened limbs. Soon, the peach trees stood like a mangled sentry of wounded soldiers.

But that wasn’t the end. A microscopic fungus sealed the fate of our peach trees. Over time, improper pruning cuts and the invasion of the borers created an ideal environment for cytospora canker, caused by a fungus that runs rampant in local fruit orchards. The fungus thrives in wet spring conditions and can be transmitted to healthy trees by water, wind, insects and infected pruning tools.

It’s a very common, destructive problem with fruit trees that produce stone fruits in particular. In fact, one-third of peach trees that are at least 3 years old are estimated to have cankers, according to Colorado State University Extension.

Also called “gummosis,” the trademark of cytospora is an amber-colored sap the tree exudes in the attempt to heal itself. Instead, the sap covers and protects the fungus, which continues to do its dirty work. The yellowish-orange ooze eventually turns reddish brown and black over time, and the cankers turn into sunken dead areas on the tree with peeling bark, exposing the desiccated gray wood within.

This spring, we will cut down the remaining peach trees in a last-ditch attempt to protect the rest of the orchard from cytospora. I think I’ll plant some low-maintenance shrubs in their stead.

After knowing how much work and disappointment is involved in growing peaches, I’m happy to purchase them from a local grower and support his or her hard work.

I never was much of a gambler, anyway.

Erin McIntyre is a writer, master gardener and owner of the gourmet pickle company, Yum Pickles. Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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