Peaches are one of my favorite fruits. When I moved to central Virginia I decided to give them a try. I got a pamphlet from the Ag Extension agent that suggested it was not possible to grow peaches organically in this area. Is this true? Yes and no. Emboldened by an article in Organic Gardening magazine (Rodale Press), I ordered 4 peach trees, 2 Red Haven and 2 Elberta. They seemed to be sturdy trees with the least problems with disease. I planted them in garden soil amended with compost and soaked peat moss (always soak your peat moss in water before you use it, otherwise it can act as a wick and dry out the roots of whatever you are planting). I fertilized with a granulated organic fruit tree fertilizer.
The peaches grew well and flowered in their third year. We got a good crop in terms of volume, but they were far from perfect. Their skins were mottled (no problem if you peel them) and they had some peach borer damage, which caused some secondary fungus. What this meant in practice was that 2/3 to ¾ of each peach (for the most part) was edible (and delicious). They were fine for fresh eating (washed, peeled and sliced, not “out of hand” eating- you might encounter a bad spot or little critter) and even better for making jam, canning in syrup and dehydrating. The other 1/3 to ¼ had to be pitched, but we still had lots.
The next year I discovered Surround, a wet-able, spray-on clay. It prevents fruit moths from laying eggs in the fruit if sprayed on from blossom drop through the season end (it is thought that they don’t like the grit). You have to re-spray after a significant rain. It improved the quality of the peaches immensely! The peaches were bigger, less blemished and had far fewer borers and rot. The trees did look a little ghostly, though, but it was worth it. Edible Landscaping, a plant nursery in Afton, VA, exclusively uses Surround on their fruit trees and recommend it highly.
This season (’08) was tough. It threatened rain as frequently and I decided to spray Surround, so I did not keep the peaches consistently covered with the stuff. The peach trees set out so much fruit that we had to thin thousands of peaches off the trees. The quality was not as good as year two, but we still had lots of peach pies and have lots of canned, frozen and dried peaches, enough to go through the winter.
So, is growing peaches organically here in Central VA impossible? Yes, if you want unblemished and perfectly formed fruit. But unblemished fruit comes at a cost to my family’s health, and the health of the environment, through the use of pesticides, fungicides and I-don’t-know-what-all-a-cides! (Many people do not know that some of these chemicals, derived from stocks of nerve gas left over from WWII, were never thoroughly tested for long-term safety to humans). But if you want organic, tasty peaches that you can eat fresh, cook with, can and make jam from, the answer is NO, it is NOT impossible!!
Next year I plan to use Surround more consistently, along with dormant oil spray and organic fungicides (plus I promise to do a better job thinning the peaches!). Look for a post of the outcome sometime in July ’09!