Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Urban Orchards: a rethink

It’s been an exceptional season for peaches; my battered old tree produced its juiciest crop of fat, red ‘Elberta’ peaches ever—at least the ones that survived the squirrels. Daily combat with these rogue rodents reminded me of the fruit trees I’d seen grown in conservatories in England, often as espaliers against a warm wall. Protected from cold, rain, hail, squirrels…these gracefully trained trees allowed the blossoms to flourish, the fruit to ripen contentedly to be plucked ONLY by a human hand. Not a gnarly little claw. It was galling to see my garden littered with immature fruit marred by just a few toothy scrapes around the stem. Worse was when the fruit was reaching readiness. Furry picky eaters! I took my revenge by chasing the rodents with a particularly powerful water jet attachment. That’ll learn ‘em. Sadly, it didn’t—there’s a wiliness to squirrels not even the most advanced AI could better.

Rosy-skinned ‘Elberta’ peaches on the branch are almost too pretty to eat. If only squirrels felt the same. Photo courtesy of LSU Ag Center.

“Pray send me a Catalogue of what Fruit you have that are Dwarf Trees and Espaliers,” wrote John Hancock’s ambitious uncle in 1736. He had great plans for his Beacon Hill estate in Massachusetts: “I shall want Some next Fall for a Garden I am going to layout next Spring … & it is Allowed on all hands the Kingdom of England don’t afford so Fine a Prospect as I have both of Land and water. Neither do I intend to Spare any Cost of Pains in making my Gardens Beautiful or Profitable (my emphasis).”

Early 19th-century gardening books often had chapters and illustrations devoted to wall-trained fruit trees. French manuals were particularly inventive.

I wonder if he had squirrels? Engaging with the enemy can be costly: in a 1988 essay published in Bill Adler’s book Outwitting Squirrels, garden scientist and writer Roger Swain gave a rough estimate that nationwide some 10 million pounds of pecans were lost annually; add to this the millions of dollars spent on birdseed to replace what squirrels squander, and on deterrents like the Yankee Flipper Squirrel-Proof Feeder. It’s expensive and reviews on its effectiveness are mixed, but one thing most people agreed on was the fun of watching a squirrel whirl off into space (I’ll stick to my firehose technique).

My neighbor wasn’t fast enough reloading her bird feeders so this squirrel took matters into his own paws. Photo courtesy of Glenda Phillips.

Colorado is renowned for the lusciousness of its Palisade peaches. Many of the orchards line Hwy 70  on the western slope of the Rockies just outside Grand Junction. It’s worth the road trip in late summer. The microclimate (hot days, cool nights) further moderated by the Colorado River, which also supplements ample irrigation provided by snowmelt, makes Colorado grower’s “I’m local” badges a significant finding aid when sorting through veggies and fruit in supermarkets. There’s a move, too, to encourage the planting of urban orchards, and it was intriguing to find that in New Orleans in 2015, a neighborhood renovation project that included the Press Street Gardens, was planted as a demonstration garden of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts’ Culinary Institute, which trains young chefs. It included 20 or so fruit trees as well as veg and herb plots, and, it was hoped, would encourage New Orleanais to move beyond citrus as garden fruit trees, and to give special thought to ‘Elberta’ peaches.

Fruit trees shade the entrance to Press Street Gardens in New Orleans. Photo NOCCA Institute.

In theory, I love the idea of an urban Eden, but practically, when I witness how pressed our city forestry workers are just keeping up with storm damage to elderly and, it must be said, inappropriate species of street trees, I wonder who would do the pruning fruit trees need to be harvestable and healthy. Then there’s the mess fallen fruit can make on sidewalks, the wasps the rotting fruit can attract, and inevitably, the squirrel population that would explode given the abundance of food so readily available. Fruit trees are not low maintenance, as any orchardists will confirm; Urban orchards need to be thought through carefully. Life’s too short to spend time chasing yet more squirrels.

This charming little creature is an Arctic ground squirrel, photographed in Denali Park. Proof, if one were needed, of the species tenacious grip on our lives. Photo Denali Park Service.

Text copyright Ethne Clarke, 2019.

Plan a trip to Colorado’s Western Slope with this guide, from bike trails to wine trails, and peaches along the way: https://visitpalisade.com/

Add vaudevillian comedy to your garden scene with the squirrel flipper from http://drollyankees.com/video/yankee-flipper-yf-squirrel-proof-feeder/*

Find out more about Press Street Gardens in New Orleans at http://pressstreetgardens.com/

Read about Bill Adler Jr’s squirrel-like persistence to have his book published at https://wapo.st/2P84DsY

  • Ron Williams

    Hi Ethne,
    I’m very much enjoying your book “The Mid-century Modern Landscape” and am interested to see that you are growing historic “Elberta” peaches in Colorado Springs. My mother, whose father was a horticulturist, told me about visiting the orchards of Ontario’s Niagara peninsula in the 1920s – miles of flowering apple, peach and cherry trees (unfortunately much replaced by wine-grapes today). She told me that “Elberta” was the best and favourite peach, large and delicious. She thought it was the original Georgia peach. She believed that it was just a bit too “soft” for the harshest winters of that area, and was gradually replaced by other varieties.
    You might enjoy my book “Landscape Architecture in Canada” / “Architecture de paysage du Canada”.
    Best regards,
    Ron Williams [email protected]

    • Hartley Botanic

      Hi Ron,

      Glad you are enjoying my book–I apologize for taking so long to say so.

      I hope you get a chance to taste Elberta peaches one day. There is an excellent book you might enjoy in the meantime: Epitaph for a Peach, by David Mas Masumoto. It’s the story of his family’s California peach orchards and the demise of choice as old, much-loved varieties disappear under the weight of market demand for uniformity and “shelf life”. Someone could write the same about avocados.

      I will certainly look for your book; I had a marvellous time at a Garden Writers convention in Quebec some years ago and appreciated the beautiful gardens we saw.

      Keep growing! Ethne

  • Hartley Botanic

    Reply from Ethne Clarke – Despite the late frosts that can freeze-dry buds and leaves, Colorado is renowned for peaches, especially from orchards on the western slope, such that so-called Palisade peaches are an annual event and cause for over-indulgence! However, the general consensus is that as tip-bearing trees, peaches are not suitable for espalier growing – not enough fruit would be produced to make it worthwhile. However, peaches and other tip-bearing fruit (plums, apricots, quince, cherry) are perfectly fine to use as fan-trained trees against a warm wall, with multiple branches spread out like the ribs of fan; you just have to buy a young tree and begin the training yourself.
    On the whole, it’s best to grow peaches as standard trees; just choose varieties that are noted for exceptional cold hardiness, like ‘Contender’ a yellow freestone that sets fruit in even the coldest weather. ‘Elberta’ is an old-fashioned freestone favorite that grows well to 6500 feet (I have a senior tree in my own garden that crops heavily with small, yellow-fleshed, super-sweet fruit – the biggest problem is squirrels!). For higher elevations, look for white-fleshed fruit varieties such as ‘White Lady’ or ‘Polly’.