Peach trees light up the old hen house - and vice versa
I live in the wrong climate to be a peach lover. But after many years of trying to outwit or out-wait winter freezes and spring frosts, I have learned how to enjoy at least a few peaches almost every year and in some years, lots of peaches. Strangely enough, the hen house that you see in the picture behind the blossoming peach trees is part of the key to success. Actually, the chickens you see under the trees are the secret, not the hen house itself.
It’s a long story, dating back to when I was a child playing with my cousins on their farm across the fields from ours. My aunt had a big white clingstone peach tree in her chicken lot. We boys would hide up in the tree where Aunt Stella couldn’t see us from the house and gorge on her precious peaches. The fact that there might be some connection between the peaches and the chickens never dawned on me until years later.
All of my early efforts at growing peaches failed not so much because of late frosts but because the trees would become infested with peach tree borers by the time they started bearing, and I could find no effective way to control them organically (and not much better luck using poisons). That’s when I wondered about how Aunt Stella could enjoy a peach tree that had to be at least 30 years old. When I read that chickens can control peach borers by eating the eggs and larvae that the adult borer insects lay in the soil and debris around the peach tree roots and trunks, I slowly made the connection.
I actually didn’t even plant the trees you see in the picture. We had been feeding the leftover skins from canning purchased peaches to the chickens and threw out the pits with them. Some of pits sprouted and grew— and still do. I did not expect much from these trees, since they were seedlings, not grafted varieties, but about half of them eventually produced very nice peaches indeed. Those that didn’t I cut down and new seedlings eventually took their places. There are seven bearing trees presently. I could have more, but that’s enough. I have learned that when the blossoms are large, pink, and open up widely, the fruit will be better than from the trees whose blossoms are redder and do not open up fully.
Because the hen house sits in the woods, the area right around it is partially protected from late frost by woodland trees hovering nearby. Sometimes even a degree or two of temperature can make a difference. I feed the chickens their grain and the table scraps under the trees in summer and so they scratch around there, finding the borers and keeping the soil partially bare, which peach trees like. The chicken manure makes good fertilizer too. Water off surrounding buildings also provides a little free irrigation during dry summers. I’ve never sprayed these trees with anything, organic or chemical. They get a fungal disease called peach leaf curl in the spring sometimes, but grow out of it by midsummer. They start bearing in their fourth year usually.
I am tempted to philosophize. We have essentially provided ourselves with peaches for free. My favorite advice to homesteaders has always been not to do anything that can be put off until tomorrow because tomorrow you might not have to do it at all. Add to that the following: Don’t do anything that you can get nature to do for you.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land) and The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life
Photo Credit: Gene Logsdon
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