Nothing says summer like a sweet, juicy, sun-warmed nectarine. The good news is, you can probably grow a nectarine tree in your yard, along a fence, or even in a large container.
Nectarines are delicious fresh, stewed, baked, and sautéed. They freeze well and make excellent jam. Nectarines (and peaches) are so useful and tasty, that they have been cultivated for thousands of years. First grown in China, nectarines and peaches have been around for 2.6 million years!
What’s the difference between nectarines and peaches?
Fur. The only difference between a nectarine and a peach is a single gene that produces fuzzy skin (dominant) or smooth skin (recessive). A nectarine (Prunus persica var. nucipersica or var. nectarina) is simply a peach without the furry skin (trichomes). Nectarines and peaches are both members of the rose family, along with apples, pears, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Nectarines and peaches, like apricots, cherries, plums, and almonds, are stone fruits. There are both cling and freestone varieties, and you can find yellow and white peaches and nectarines. [Yellow fruits are more acidic than white fruits.] Peaches and nectarines are also in a group of plants that use specialized cells for storage, manufacturing, and as weapons. These cells are called idioblasts. Don’t worry, though, they can’t hurt you.
The main reason you do not see nectarines in the store year round is because they do not ship and store well. While nectarines are usually smaller, firmer, and more aromatic than peaches, they also bruise more easily. [All the more reason to grow your own!] A standard nectarine tree can reach over 30 feet in height, semi-dwarf varieties reach 12 to 15 feet tall and wide, while dwarf nectarine trees are only 8 to 10 feet and they can be pruned for an even smaller size while still producing a good crop. Nectarines can also be espaliered, if you only have a narrow space along a wall or fence.
Each spring, your nectarine tree will produce lovely pink blossoms, followed by a delicious crop of fruit, and then all the leaves fall off (making dormant pruning so much easier!). Before you jump on the nectarine bandwagon, however, that yummy fruit can only occur if enough chill hours are accumulated each winter.
Nectarines and chill hours
Chill hours are an accumulation of temperatures between 32°F and 45°F. Somehow, trees keep track of this information. I have no idea how. If enough chill hours are not accumulated, nectarine flowers and buds will not form properly, which means you might not get any fruit. Different nectarine varieties have different chill hour requirements, so it is important that you select a variety appropriate to your location. Do not trust your local box store to sell you the right one. Most nectarine trees need 650 to 850 chill hours. Here in the Bay Area, we only get 450 chill hours (or 52 chill portions). You can learn your own chill hours on my chilling hours page.
Nectarine site selection
Once you have found a variety that matches your garden’s chill hours and your personal tastes, you will want to select a site with excellent drainage and plenty of sunshine. Also, nectarines prefer a soil pH of 6.5. Here, in the Bay Area, our soil is more alkaline than that, so acidification may be needed for the best results. Nectarines, like peaches, are self-fruiting, so you do not need multiple trees for pollination. While you may be tempted to grow a nectarine tree from a pit, think twice about that. Most commercially grown nectarines are actually from two different trees: a root stock and a fruit producing tree. These two trees are grafted together to take advantage of the benefits provided by a strong root system and good fruit production. Your store bought nectarine pit may never produce fruit at all. Or it might. You are far better off buying bare root stock from a reputable producer. Nectarine trees can also be started from twig cuttings called scions.
How to plant a nectarine tree
Bare root trees are best planted in winter and early spring. Examine the root system for signs of disease or damage. These bits should be cut out. If your bare root tree is not going to be planted right away, it should be soaked in a bucket of water for 6 to 12 hours, but no longer. [Plants can drown, too, you know!] When you are ready to plant, dig a hole that allows the roots to spread out freely. If the soil is heavy clay, be sure to rough up the edges of the planting hole. Containerized and balled trees should be given a hole slightly larger and the same depth as the container or root ball. In any case, it is very important that the soil level remains the same. Add soil around the roots and gently tamp it down, watering thoroughly. This removes air pockets that can dry roots out before they ever get a chance to grow. Mulch around your new tree and water it in well.
Feeding and watering nectarines
Nectarine trees use a lot more nitrogen than other fruit and nut trees. You can use blood meal, ammonium sulfate, or commercial 10-10-10 fertilizer to feed your nectarine tree. Young trees will need a total of 10 to 15 lbs. of manure or 1/4 lb. of urea, spread out over the months of spring and summer. Mature trees should receive twice that amount. If your nectarine tree doesn’t get enough nitrogen, you will start seeing red areas on the leaves.
Nectarines are shallow-rooted trees, so they are susceptible to water stress during the summer. You can protect your tree with deep irrigation and a thick layer of mulch, just make sure that the mulch does not actually touch the tree trunk. If your nectarine tree becomes too water stressed, it will develop a condition called bitter fruit which is exactly how it sounds. The problem is, once bitter fruit occurs, the tree will forever after produce fruit that is bitter. If you keep your nectarine tree properly irrigated throughout the growing season, you can improve the taste and sweetness of the fruit with deficit irrigation, just before harvest.
Another technique used to improve both the quantity and quality of fruit is called cincturing, or scaffold girdling. This is not the same thing as girdling your nectarine tree with the weedwacker. Get help from an experienced arborist, rather than trying this on your own, as it can kill your nectarine tree.
Nectarine pruning and thinning
Nectarine trees perform best when they are trained in what’s called an open center system. This is exactly what it sounds like. Each winter, you will want to remove 50% of the previous year’s new growth. This will stimulate fruit production and maintain a reasonable tree size. One problem that commonly occurs with nectarines and peaches is that trees produce more fruit than they can support. This can mean broken branches. Proper pruning and fruit thinning can save your tree. Thin fruits to 6 inches apart when they are the size of a marble. If you think there is too much fruit on a branch, you can always prop it up with a board or other support until after the fruit is harvested, and then prune and thin more heavily next year.
Nectarine pests and diseases
The most common diseases faced by nectarine trees here, in the Bay Area, are peach leaf curl and brown rot. Nectarine are also susceptible to crown gall, bacterial blight, citrus blast, bacterial spot, stem blight, and shot hole disease.
Peach twig borers are a common pest of nectarines. Peach twig borer infestations often appear as dead twigs, called flags or shoot strikes. Luckily, many beneficial insects, such as braconid wasps, mealybug destroyers, and tachinid flies love to eat peach twig borers, so avoid using broad spectrum pesticides. Armyworms, earwigs, eugenia psyllid, Japanese beetles, mealybugs, San Jose scale, green fruit beetles, Mediterranean fruit fly, armored scale, eriophyid mites, katydids, and birds are also common pests. [Who can blame them?] You can use tree cages to protect your crop from birds in summer. Kaolin clay can be applied to individual fruits to protect against some pests.
In fall, after harvesting your delicious crop and before the first heavy rain, apply fixed copper to control shot hole fungus, fertilize plants one last time, and give your tree a deep watering. After all the leaves fall, move them away from your nectarine tree. Destroy or compost the leaves to prevent the spread of apple scab. As always, remove mummies as soon as they are seen.
Bordeaux mixture, dormant oil sprays, and fixed copper sprays should be used in fall and winter to protect against San Jose scale, shot hole disease, and other fungal diseases. You can prevent brown rot with a spring fungicide application. Crawling pests can be blocking from reaching fruit by wrapping the tree trunk with a sticky barrier.
Nectarines are ready for harvest when they come away from the tree easily with a gentle twisting motion. The fruit will bruise easily, so be gentle when handling ripe nectarines.
If you install a nectarine tree this spring, you can expect to have a tree for 7 to 20 years, depending on where you live. Since each nectarine tree can produce up to 65 lbs. of fruit each year, or approximately 200 nectarines, you will have plenty of delicious fruit to go along with a lovely tree.
Plant one today!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!