Beautiful spring flowers, lush foliage through summer, juicy fruits, golden fall color - Peach or nectarine trees (Prunus persica) are a beautiful sight across seasons. Widely popular for their sweet fruits, they require more severe pruning than most other fruit trees, but the extra work pays off in bountiful, juicy, homegrown peaches.
- Native to China, Peach trees are low, broad trees, 15-25 ft. tall and wide (4-8 m), forming a rounded crown with upwardly-reaching branches clothed in lance-shaped, lustrous dark green leaves. Fast-growing, they are not long-lived and usually have a 10-20-year life span.
- Appearing in early-mid spring for about 2 weeks, before the new leaves unfold, their showy flowers can be single, semi-double, or double in colors ranging from pure white to deep red. The flowers have a pleasant fragrance. They are susceptible to damage by late spring frosts or particularly cold winters.
- The luscious 3 in. fruits (7 cm) mature in mid-late summer. A peach tree can yield 50-150 pounds each year. The peaches can be either freestone (the flesh does not adhere to the pit) or clingstone (the flesh adheres to the pit). Nectarine is the same fruit as peach, differing in a single gene that regulates fuzziness. Peaches have a fuzzy coating, whereas nectarines have a smooth skin.
- The foliage of deciduous leaves provides a deep golden-yellow fall display, adding further charm to the tree.
- Usually hardy to USDA 5-9, peaches and nectarines need winters cold to satisfy their chill requirements. They need enough hours of temperatures below 45ºF (7ºC) in the winter for their buds to open in the spring. Once these requirements have been satisfied, the arrival of mild weather will bring your peach tree into bloom within several weeks. A subsequent sudden freeze may kill the crop. Therefore, gardeners in cooler areas are safer planting selections that require at least 750 chill hours and bloom later in spring. Gardeners in mild winter areas need to plant low-chill selections that require less than 650 hours of winter chill.
- Peach and nectarine trees are self-fertile and bear fruit on their own.
Growing Peaches and Nectarines
- Peach trees should be planted in spring. Choose a tree that is about 1 year old.
- Peach and nectarine trees thrive in full sun in moist, slightly acidic to neutral, well-drained soils. Do not allow water to stand around the roots.
- Plant these trees on slopes and hilltops to avoid frost pockets. Air temperatures of 28ºF (-2ºC) and lower can kill peach and nectarine flowers.
- Train the young tree to an open-center form. Peaches and nectarines take well to espalier too, and can be nicely fan-trained against a wall. Aside from being attractive, this method will enable your tree to garner extra heat from the wall and be easily draped with a cloth if a later frost threatens.
- The trees should be kept on a regular spray and fertilization schedule to insure best fruit production. 6 weeks after planting, fertilize your peach tree with 1 pound of a nitrogen fertilizer. Add ¾ pound of nitrogen fertilizer in the spring and early summer of the 2nd year, 1 pound of nitrogen fertilizer in the following years.
- Propagation is by cuttings or grafting.
Pruning Peach and Nectarine Trees
Peach and nectarine trees require annual pruning to remain strong, healthy and produce bountiful harvests. Such regular pruning will also keep the tree at a workable height, for harvesting, pruning and pest control. Unpruned peach trees will soon stop producing.
- Peaches bloom and bear fruit on second-year wood. Therefore, the tree needs to produce 18-24 in. (45-60 cm) of new growth each year to insure a crop for the next year. About 40% of the tree should be pruned out annually to stimulate new growth.
- Prune while the tree is in bloom.
- Prune the tree to an open center shape. This will permit sunlight to penetrate all parts of the tree and helps prevent brown rot. In the first year, pick 3 or 4 healthy branches, spaced equally apart and angled out and up at a 45-degree angle. Prune these primary branches back to 24-30 in. long (60-75 cm), leaving their smaller shoots intact. In the second year, keep 1 or 2 secondary branches from the new shoots on the primary branches and cut them back to 24-30 in. long, leaving their smaller side shoots untouched. After the third year, remove any shoots in the center of the tree to keep its shape.
- Remove remove all rootstock suckers, gray, non-fruiting wood as well as dead, diseased and damaged branches. Restrain the height of the tree by topping off all the branches at a height that you can reach easily. Cut the remaining fruiting, red bearing shoots down to 18-24 in. (45-60 cm).
- Thin the fruits so that they are 8 in. apart (20 cm) on the branch after the tree blooms. While this will reduce the number of peaches you will harvest, it increases the size and quality of the remaining fruit.
Pests and Diseases
Peaches and nectarines can be attacked by many insects and diseases that must be controlled to have a successful harvest.
- Oriental fruit moth makes a large hole in the fruit or bores into branches, causing the tips to wilt. Relatively uncommon, it can cause significant fruit damage.
- Peach tree borer is a wasp-like, day-flying moth which makes holes in the trunk from which exude gummy balls of sap. Peach tree borers can kill small trees but are attracted mostly to those that have injured areas on the trunk or have previous bore infestations. Keeping trees healthy and protecting trunks and root flares from injury helps reduce attacks.
- Brown rot is a fungus disease, worse in humid climates, that turns fruit fuzzy, gray, and inedible. The disease gets its start each year from dried up fruits left on the tree or the ground. Retrieving and destroying all mummified fruit will be very beneficial.
- Bacterial leaf spot and peach leaf curl: both these issues can be easily avoided with disease-resistant varieties.