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Father harvests sweet lesson from a peach tree

August 1, 2018

An edited version of a column published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 25, 2018

Six-years ago we planted fruit trees. Two apple and one reliant peach, a variety hardy enough to endure New England winters. Each was semi-dwarf, meaning less than full size at maturity, so as not to over crowd our small front yard, nor tower over our single-story home.

The trees were part of a vision, long in the making, which my wife Lori and I held. We imagined a simple home, nested in a small community, where we would raise kids, grow food and connect with our neighbors.

I vividly recall the day we planted the trees. I carefully marked and dug the holes, mixing in organic fertilizer and compost. Our son Adam, age 3, proudly helped position the middle tree, a Concord apple, which was at least double his height, pushing the soil in place and patting it firm. The neighbor boy, Jasper, his father Jerome at his side, placed a Gala apple tree in the hole closest to their house, and at the edge of our yard. Finally, daughter Zoe, age 6, with Lori supporting, gleefully planted the peach tree.

For years we nurtured these trees – fertilizing, watering and pruning them, supporting their growth and helping them thrive.

The apple trees have produced some fruit, though never abundantly, and most years the squirrels and insects consume more than we do. The peach tree, however, has many times produced 400-500 peaches in a single season, plenty for us and the squirrels.

But growing fruit is fickle business, so I was recently reminded. It was early, morning dew still glistening on the grass, I hastily left the house for work, pitched my bag in the car and climbed into the driver’s seat. Glancing right as I put the key in the ignition, I gasped at the site of the peach tree. The main stem, the trunk, had snapped in half and the top six feet of the tree hung down to the ground, at least two hundred peaches clinging to its branches.

A few days before, I had noticed the tree was a bit top heavy and leaning toward the street. I had climbed a step ladder, wrapped a piece of cloth around the trunk, and then a rope around the cloth, and pulling the rope firmly I anchored the other end around a fence post I have driven into the ground. The tree stood straight, mostly, though I suspected that the increasing weight of the growing peaches would put additional strain on the trunk and branches.

Late winter, before the buds on the tree emerged, was the ideal time to prune the tree, strategically cutting branches back and removing smaller or unhealthy limbs, which likely would have prevented the over-growth that led to the tragic break. But late winter, and then early spring, I continually found other ways to occupy my time, whenever I thought about the fruit trees. Pruning just never made it to the top of my to-do list.

So, as I pulled out of the driveway, I wondered if vigorous pruning late this autumn, after the leaves have fallen and the first frost has visited, would save our tree for years to come. This thought was eclipsed by worry that my pruning neglect meant our family would no longer enjoy an annual yield of juicy peaches.

When I returned home that evening sadness lingered, and I began to realize the important symbolism of the broken tree. These past years, while the peach tree flourished, so too did other parts of my life, including commitments to family, community – and especially work. While I cannot undo harm to the tree, I vowed to carefully trim unnecessary parts of my life – before they break – in order to save the parts that matter most.

So while the tree will yield fewer peaches this year (and perhaps beyond), harvesting this important life lesson offers enduring sweetness.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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