Peaches may be the last thing on your mind right now, but autumn is a good time of year to find room on your property for a peach tree. Even if you don’t have room in your yard, dwarf peach varieties can be grown in containers.
Peach trees make a lovely addition to a foodscape. Fragrant spring blossoms give way to fruit that practically defines summer. Autumn leaf drop makes pruning easy and what winter would be complete without a surprise dessert of peach cobbler? A mature peach tree can produce up to 65 pounds of fruit each year! That’s over 200 peaches!
History of the peach
Did you know that peach trees have been around for over 2.6 million years? Traditionally thought to be from Persia, genetic research shows that peaches actually originated in China. Also, it was thought that peach cultivation started some 6,000 years ago, until some ancient writings showed that certain kings and emperors, back in the 10th century B.C., favored a delectable peach now and then. So, if you love peaches, you are in good company.
The peach tree
Peaches and nectarines are the same fruit, like fraternal twins. The only difference is that peaches have fuzzy skin (trichomes) and nectarines are smooth skinned. This difference is due to a recessive gene, the same way blue eyes or red hair occurs. Peaches are in the rose family, members of the Prunus genus, all of which produce fruits called drupes. This makes them cousin to almonds, apricots, cherries, and plums. Peach trees are in a group of plants that use specialized cells for storage, manufacturing, and as weapons. These cells are called idioblasts.
Standard peach trees can grow 25 to 33 feet tall and 25 feet wide, if you let them. For the best productivity and tree health, it is better to keep them pruned to 15 feet by 15 feet. Dwarfs will grow to 6 feet. Most peach trees in Maine only live 7 years, while California peach trees live 12 to 20 years.
Peach trees and chill hours
Before you plant a peach tree, you need to understand chill hours. Each winter, peach trees enter a period of dormancy. Being deciduous, they lose all their leaves and enter a winter rest. During that rest, the number of hours spent between 32°F and 45°F are accumulated (don’t ask me how - I have no idea). These “chill hours” must reach a certain number for a tree to be able to blossom properly in the spring. Once enough chill hours are accumulated, the tree enters a different type of dormancy called quiescence. Depending on the variety, peach trees need 600 to 900 chill hours. Here in the Bay Area, we generally only get 450 chill hours. When selecting a peach tree variety, you want to take chill hours into account. There are several models used to calculate chill hours, and each one gives you different information. Below you can see the chill hour results for the South Bay Area. Go to my page on chilling hours to learn how to get your local information. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from. According to UC Davis, using the Dynamic Model, the following varieties have their chill hours noted alongside:
[Using the Dynamic Model, San Jose receives an average of 52 chill portions each year, so only two varieties would be a good choice.] You can see detailed list of different fruit trees at the UC Davis Home Orchard.
Peach varieties are divided between cling and freestone. Those names refer to how easily the fruit comes away from the pit. Freestone peaches tend to have firmer fruit, while clingstone peaches are known for their sweeter taste. Clingstone varieties are harvested May through August, while the freestone harvest extends into October. There is also a hybrid cross between the two, called a semi-freestone, and flat varieties, called pan-tao. Not all peach tree varieties perform well in all regions or microclimates. Check with your local County Extension Office and be sure to verify your growing zone using the USDA Hardiness Zone Map.
Growing a tree from a peach pit
While you can eat a peach and then plant its seed, this doesn’t always work out the way you expect. Like apples and many other fruits, peach seeds do not necessarily produce offspring that taste as good or grow as well as the stock you buy at your local nursery. This is because most fruit and nut trees are grafted. Grafted trees have an aboveground part from one variety and a root stock from another variety. This is done to take advantage of one variety’s ability to develop strong roots, while other varieties may taste better or be more pest or disease resistant. Also, your pit grown peach tree will not produce fruit for a few years, and some will never produce fruit.
If you want to give it a try, you can simply put your peach pit in the ground and let nature take its course, or you can refrigerate the pit until December or January. This method, called stratification, fools the pit into triggering winter processes (vernalization), in preparation for spring. Just soak your pits in water for a couple of hours, and then place them in a plastic bag, along with a little moist soil. This bag goes into the refrigerator, until you see signs of germination. This can take a few weeks or months, depending on the variety and other factors. Since peaches emit high levels of ethylene gas (a ripening agent), you should keep them away from other fruits and vegetables. Once it starts germinating, remove it from its cold environment and let the planting begin! But first, you need to select the best location for your peach tree.
Peach tree site selection
Peach trees need plenty of sunshine, but they will also benefit from a little protection at the extreme points of summer and winter, if possible. Being susceptible to several fungal diseases, peach trees also need good drainage. Peach trees prefer a soil pH of 6.5. Here, in the Bay Area, we tend to have more alkaline soil, so acidification may help your tree thrive. Of course, you won’t know what your soil is without a test from a reputable lab. Just sayin’…
How to plant a peach tree
Bare root trees are best planted in January and February. Your peach sapling should be planted right away, or soaked in water for 6 to 12 hours before planting. If you have a bare root tree, gently spread the roots out to see how much space they can use and dig a hole that will accommodate them. This is also a good time to clip off any dead, diseased, or damaged roots. Be sure to rough up the edges of your planting hole. If you don’t, the smooth clay left by your shovel can create a tough barrier for young roots. Containerized and balled trees should be given a hole slightly larger and the same depth as the container or root ball. It is very important that the soil level remains the same. Add soil around the roots and gently tamp it down. 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. Peach trees can also be started from twig cuttings called scions.
Peach tree care
Peaches are self-pollinating, which means that another tree is not needed to produce a crop. If you have room for more than one tree, be sure to space them 12 by 16 to 18 by 18 feet apart. Peach trees perform best when they are trained in what’s called an open center system. This is exactly what it sounds like. Peaches can also be espaliered.
Feeding and watering peaches
Peach trees use a lot of nitrogen. You can use blood meal, ammonium sulfate, or commercial 10-10-10 fertilizer to feed your peach tree. Nitrogen deficiencies in peach appear as red areas on the leaves. Peaches are shallow-rooted, so they are susceptible to water stress during the summer. Too much stress can lead to a condition called bitter fruit that can mean the end of the useful production of your tree, so irrigate accordingly. Near the end of fruit development, deficit irrigation can be used to improve taste and sweetness.
While you certainly want to avoid girdling your peach tree with the weedwacker, doing it on purpose, called cincturing, or scaffold girdling, can increase production and fruit quality. You just have to be really careful that you don’t kill your tree in the process.
Peach pests and diseases
Peach are susceptible to these bacterial diseases: crown gall, bacterial blight, citrus blast, and bacterial spot. Fungal diseases include stem blight, peach leaf curl, shot hole disease, and brown rot. Armyworms, peach twig borers, earwigs, eugenia psyllid, Japanese beetles, mealybugs, San Jose scale, green fruit beetles, Mediterranean fruit flies, armored scale, eriophyid mites, katydids, and birds are the biggest pests. Luckily, beneficial insects, such as braconid wasps, mealybug destroyers, and tachinid flies love to eat peach twig borers!
Pheromone traps can be used to monitor many of these pests and sticky barriers will prevent many pests from ever reaching tender buds, shoots, and fruit. Bordeaux mixture, fixed copper, and dormant oil can be used to prevent or treat some bacterial diseases, fungal diseases, and pest infestations. Kaolin clay can also be used to prevent some pest damage. Since fruiting occurs from pollination by honey bees, flies, and other pollinators, avoid using broad spectrum pesticides.
When to harvest peaches
Color and smell are good ripeness indicators, when it comes to peaches. Yellow skin, which may or may not have a red tinge, and that amazing sweet summer aroma of ripe peaches are reason enough to give one a try. Taste, ultimately, is the only true indicator of ripeness, but who can complain about conducting that test? If the fruit comes away from the stem easily, it is ripe.
Too much of a good thing
Your peach tree will produce far more fruit than it can support. This leads to a low quality harvest and broken limbs (the tree’s - not yours). You can protect your tree and improve crop quality by thinning flowers and fruit partway through the growing season. First, when your tree is covered with blossoms, leave it alone and enjoy it. As the flowers start developing into tiny fruits, it is time to thin. The basic rule of thumb for thinning fruit is to leave one fruit per spur, with fruit 4-6” apart. Apricots, nectarines and peaches are normally thinned when the fruit is 1/2-3/4” in diameter.
Make a place for a peach tree in your yard today for a decade of fresh summer peaches in your pantry!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!