July 18, 2020 8:05:26 PM
There are some sweet homegrown compensations for Mississippi's torrid summers.
I'm not whining, just acknowledging that other than as a starting point for conversations, humidity isn't fun, but one by one we're given gifts to help us muddle through. I'm thinking cold Smith County watermelons, fat blueberries picked on a farm out from Poplarville, Calhoun County peaches and Delta figs.
I spent countless Delta summer days in my great-grandmother's big, quirky Delta garden that included, amazingly, figs, peaches, plums, apples, pears, jujube, both native and Japanese persimmons, quinces, pecans, strawberries, muscadines, elderberries pawpaws, crabapples, blueberries, blackberries, mulberries and prickly pear cactus fruit. Yeah, she was a fruit nut.
Most had worms or rot, but we just cut off the bad stuff and ate or put up the rest as preserves. Anecdotally, I later made my children pick and make preserves from their great-great-grandmother's ancient fig tree. Told them that anybody can find fancy Vermont maple syrup in any Piggly Wiggly, but you gotta be special, or know someone, to get your hands on authentic plump fig preserves made with lemon slices to cut down on the sugar needed.
The other day I explained to a caller to my radio program that her peach problems were normal. And because of the heavy pest pressures, it's no wonder that we no longer have a lot of once-common local peach and plum orchards, because the sheer labor of hard annual pruning, heartbreaking fruit thinning (knocking off most of the fruit while it's small so what's left is big and juicy), and expensive, nearly weekly sprays aren't for the faint of heart.
I mean, I literally wrote the book on growing fruit in Mississippi, but have a hard time pulling off actually growing all but a handful myself. I usually just grow what looks good as yard plants including blueberries, figs, an Indian cling peach, muscadine vine and Japanese persimmon, and, because I choose to not use chemical sprays, hope to harvest a bit of fruit.
Anyway, another kind listener emailed about Murphree Orchard, a small mom-and-pop orchard out from Pittsboro (at the centerpoint of an X made by drawing a line on a map from Starkville to Oxford and another from Tupelo to Grenada). Out in the boonies, where real people work hard to live good lives.
Seeing a rare opportunity, I found directions to the farm online and made a safari to meet the earnest owners, retirees who even, when their church closed because of the coronavirus, held informal services amongst the trees. After talking with them about their farm, I paid for a few bags of huge, juicy, hot-off-the-tree peaches and plums, plus a pint each of homemade peach butter and their own farm honey complete with a thick slab of honeycomb to suck on later.
Not many folks are dedicated enough to do this, leaving it mostly to large horticultural operations with big machinery, seasonal workers for pruning and harvesting, and fungicide drench tanks and walk-in refrigerators. So when I find dedicated folks who do it out of love and the ministry of tending the land and sharing the fruit of their labors, I support them wholeheartedly.
Course, not many folks can jump in a truck and drive all over to find them, which is why we have local outlets for their harvests. I strongly believe that any kid who isn't taken regularly to either family farms or farmers' markets isn't being raised right.
Anyway, as I drove home, bathed in the fragrance of fresh peaches, I was already thinking ahead to September and its pick-your-own muscadines. Summer is good.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]