Monday, March 23, 2009

Peaches, Pears and Peas

The arrival of spring on the coast is like most anywhere, heralded by the blooms of daffodils and crocuses, while deciduous trees emerge from dormancy. Spring heath (often called heather) is in full bloom, mostly of the 'Mediterranean Pink' or white varieties. A few hebes have been coaxed into bloom after an unusually sunny late winter. But the stars in my garden promise future bounty: peaches, pears and peas.

The coast is a challenging site for the would-be fruit gardener, and stone fruit in particular can be picky about climate. Typically they perform best where winters are cold to accumulate enough "chilling hours," followed by a sunny spring that encourages pollinators during bloom and ample moisture to develop the fruit. With cherries, the rain must come to an end in time that the fruit won't crack just as it's mature. Peaches and apricots normally want some more heat than we can provide on the Oregon coast, and the wind can be a challenge to branches and leaves.

My good fortune was to work for a nurseryman a few years ago who brings to our area one particular peach variety that is disease-resistant (peach-leaf curl is a problem) and grows vigorously, with lower chilling requirements. The variety is 'Frost' -- a selection discovered in western Washington state. Given my less-than-ideal setting, I am training my peach on the south-facing wall of our garage into a fan shape. If you are familiar with espalier apples, it's the same idea. Build a substantial post-and-wire trellis with space between it and the wall, plant the tree relatively young and carefully select and train the branches into place. Even if this tree never produces a fruit, its beautiful pink blossoms look fantastic against our pale-yellow wall. The south-facing aspect provides reflected heat and a barrier to north winds in summer.

The pears are also coming into bloom, and with a city lot, I am again working with an espaliered form. Like the peach, pears would prefer a warmer late-spring climate, as in the outstanding inland tree-fruit areas of central Washington and Oregon's Hood River area. But my little 3-way (3 different varieties grafted on one tree) pear receives full sun and is in a protected site, so last year it produced several fruits in its first season. Unfortunately the raccoons got them before me, so that will need to be remedied this year. The dense show of white blossoms on the north fence against the woods is a treat in itself.

Peas are among the best reasons to keep a vegetable garden-- the taste difference from what you can buy to what comes out of the garden rivals that of homegrown tomatoes. When picked fresh and immediately shelled, garden peas have the sugars intact and are frequently eaten raw -- at least in my garden. My border collie will wait for the sweet pods to hit the ground and gobble them up. Our climate could not be better for peas, with ample moisture and cool moderate temps. The sugar-snaps I started in a large pot in January have now moved outside and are climbing the trellis with abandon. An abundance of white flowers promise peas are soon to come, but even the young shoots are tasty and can be sampled on salads or stir-fried.

March on the coast is proving to be cool and rainy, but the warm January has brought many plants out of dormancy early, and we can begin to enjoy the colors of spring.

Next up: planning your coastal landscape

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