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The Mystery of the Disappearing Peaches

This has not been the July I expected. Last year, we spent the whole month picking peaches, processing peaches, selling peaches, eating peaches, dumping peaches on neighbors' get the idea. This year, well, we've picked...a peach.

We pruned heavily this winter. Spring seemed to be coming so early that we weren't sure we could finish pruning before the trees broke dormancy. Late winter dragged on, though, and we finished the pruning. Then we waited anxiously for the trees to bloom.

Finally, in one of the coldest Aprils in history, the flowers opened. It was glorious. The peach orchard was covered in pinkish white flowers. I felt relief that we hadn't pruned off too much from the trees. Oh, we certainly had a late freeze during bloom, but the flowers seemed to emerge unharmed. I monitored the trees and assured myself that there was indeed fruit forming from some flowers. I didn't see many baby peaches, but, y'know, they're small and green and don't stand out well against the lush foliage. Satisfied, I turned my attention elsewhere.

Fast forward, through one of the hottest Mays on record and into June. I knew it was getting close to picking time, so I walked out to see the earliest trees. I expected them to be full of large green fruit, just starting to show the first blush of orangey-yellow. Instead, I found....

...NOTHING?? Where are my peaches??

Apparently, those few little baby peaches I had seen in April were the only ones that fertilized. I can only speculate, and draw hypotheses from what I observed and what I read. I don't yet have much experience as an orchardist. But here's what I think happened:

The pruning was not the problem. The late freeze was not--directly--the problem. I think the problem was with the pollinators. With the wild temperature swings of this spring, the bees and other insects didn't know when it was time to come out. Or maybe they did come out at the right time, but the trees didn't bloom when they should have. At any rate, the timing was off.

My "missing pollinator" idea is supported by the experience with the blackberries this year. I had pruned them a couple years back, and was expecting this to be the year of the bumper crop. It didn't work out that way.

To understand what went wrong, we need to look at the structure of a blackberry flower. It consists of multiple ovules. Each ovule, when pollinated, matures into a juicy bead called a drupelet. A well-formed blackberry should have 60-130 drupelets, depending on the variety. If pollen is not introduced to each ovule, then the berry will be smaller, with fewer juicy drupelets.

That's what happened to our blackberries. The bloom was spectacular, but pollination was incomplete, and we got a lot of berries that weren't worth picking.

I won't pretend to know what happened to the pollinators. I will just fervently hope that next year works out better.

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