Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Growing Peaches and Nectarines

Driving through Georgia, The Peach State, and South Carolina, with two Peach Capitals of the World, you might think that peaches are native to the South. Peaches (Prunus persica) were first believed to be native to Persia (thus the name, persica). But most historians agree that peaches are native to China, and were packed to Persia along the Silk Road. They were later carried to Europe by Alexander the Great, and to the Americas by Spanish and English colonists.

Peaches may be second only to apples in popularity. Nectarines are the same species as peaches, differing from them only by the lack of fuzz, smaller size, redder skin and greater amounts of vitamins A and C, and potassium. The same cultural requirements apply to peaches and nectarines.

Peaches can be divided into 3 types: freestones, clingstones and semi-freestones. Freestone peaches part with their seeds easily. Clingstones do not. Semi-freestones are somewhere in the middle of that. Generally, freestones are preferred for fresh eating while clingstones are preferred for processing. Peaches can be further divided into yellow and white flesh varieties.

They are self-fruitful, meaning that they do not require cross pollination. One tree will set a crop with its own pollen. However, a planting of different cultivars will extend the fruiting season. Three or four trees should supply the backyard fruit grower with sufficient fruit.

Though peach trees are generally hardy throughout USDA climate zones 5 to 9, buds and flowers are easily damaged by extreme low temperatures and frost. Don't plant cultivars that won't work for you. Since there are over 300 varieties of peaches that have been developed for environments around the world, I won't bother to suggest any. Consultation with your local Cooperative Extension Service is essential for making good choices suitable for your area.

The backyard fruit grower must know that peaches are prone to damage from insects and diseases. Common insects include Japanese beetle, June beetle, oriental fruit moth, peach tree borer, plum curculio, stink bug, tarnished plant bug, and red mite. Common diseases include  bacterial spot, brown rot and scab, peach leaf curl and powdery mildew. The grower must be committed to keeping these under control, or forget about trying to grow the fruit. Similarly, cold damage is a very real danger. Steps must be taken to protect the trees during winter and spring. High quality fruits are firm and free from defects such as bruising, insect and disease damage.

It's important to note that peach trees require care whether or not they will fruit. Many home orchardists lose fruit to frost, then figure that there's no need to spray the trees until the next year. Not so. Insects and diseases will attack the tree as well as fruit, so a strict spray regimen is always necessary.

Select peach cultivars in consultation with your local Cooperative Extension Service office. Choose plants that are one-year old, 3 to 4 feet high, with a trunk caliper of 3/8 to 1/2 inch, and with good root systems. Planting stock should be free of disease and damage. Inspect the trunks carefully for gummy residue, nicks and scrapes.

Select a planting site that has not grown peaches before, and that receives full sun throughout the day. If the lot slopes, avoid planting at the bottom where cold air will drain. Soil should be well-drained, sandy loam with pH ranging from 5.6 to 6.5. If water doesn't drain within an hour ofter a heavy rain, choose another site. If you are able to determine the water table of the proposed site, it should be no nearer than 4 feet of the soil surface. Your nearest Natural Resources Conservation Service office may be able to help with that.

Commercial growers are advised to begin soil preparation one to two years before planting so that the soil can be analyzed and amended well before planting. Home gardeners usually don't think that far ahead. At the very least, a soil sample should be taken to your nearest Cooperative Extension Service office for analysis a couple of months before planting time. Follow the soil test recommendations.

Container-grown plants may be available year-around. If you can obtain them in fall, I recommend planting then. Though there will be no shoot growth until spring, the roots will establish themselves over winter, giving a head start for the growing season. Bare root plants should be more economical, but are seldom available until spring.

Keep plants moist after arrival. If bare roots are dry, soak them in water overnight before planting.

Prepare a planting site 6 feet in diameter by eliminating weeds with a glyphosate herbicide. Follow label instructions. After weeds are dead, cultivate 10 to 12 inches deep, adding organic matter and recommended soil amendments. Allow weed seeds to germinate, then spray again with glyphosate. Let the new weeds die.

Plant the tree in spring in the center of the site. The graft union, an obvious bend in the trunk a little above the roots, should be set 1 inch above the surrounding soil line. Add water to the planting hole as the soil is being back-filled.

Peaches and nectarines are customarily grown in the shape of an open-centered vase, kind of like a martini glass. This allows sunlight to penetrate the tree, increase yield, and produce better fruit. The trees must be pruned each year to maintain good shape.

Immediately after planting, prune the tree to about 28 inches high. Also, remove all side branches. This will leave a single, short whip.

During the first year, select 3 or 4 well-placed branches to serve as scaffold limbs. Again, the tree should be open-centered, resembling a martini glass. Remove shoots that grow vertically. Also remove damaged, weak, and low-hanging limbs.

During the second and third years, continue to remove damaged, weak and low-hanging limbs, and shoots growing vertically from the center of the tree. Vertical shoots growing from the scaffold limbs may be pruned back to outward facing buds.

Pruning during subsequent years should maintain the form, and also maintain a desired height of 8 to 12 feet. Novel tree forms have been the subject of experimentation, but these are best left to growers with advanced orcharding skills.

When the grower and nature are cooperating, peaches and nectarines can set more fruit than the tree can support. When the fruits are small, about 1-1/2 inch in diameter, some of the fruits must be removed. This is called "thinning." Remove excess fruit by hand, leaving one peach every 8 inches. Sure, it hurts...you more than the tree. The remaining fruits will develop better size, shape and color.

Sprinkle 1/2 pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer around the newly planted tree 1 week after planting. The application should be 1 foot away from the trunk. Apply the same amount again in 5 weeks. For two- and three-year-old trees, increase the amount to 3/4 pound in early spring and again 6 weeks later. Broadcast the fertilizer farther out from the trunk, under the drip line. The drip line is the circle under the outer reaches of the limbs.

Take a soil sample to the Cooperative Extension Service office every 3 or 4 years for analysis. Follow the recommendations. Older trees should receive 1 to 2 pounds of fertilizer per application.

Peach trees need to grow about 18 inches each year. Adequate moisture and fertilizer is essential. Weeds and grass will try to compete; control them. Mulch conserves water and discourages weeds, so apply it liberally. Apply herbicide if you must; follow label instructions. Irrigate as needed, especially within 3 or 4 weeks before harvest.

When well-grown, peaches give the backyard orchardist a lot of satisfaction. Use them in cobblers and pies, cakes, ice cream, smoothies, fruit salads and salsas. Summer wouldn't be so pleasant without them.

John J Marshall

John also blogs at goGardenNow.blogspot.com.

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