There are few things so satisfying as a cool, juicy peach, picked at the height of summer. That first bite, breaking through the tender orange skin and sinking into the sweet gold on the inside. For me, it’s an instant flashback to childhood, splashing along mountain creek beds in the heat of July, with peach juice running down my chin.
Though sometimes apples outshine them, peaches actually grow quite well in our region. There are several orchards that offer the option to pick-your-own, such as Gross’ Orchard in Bedford, which advertises its peach season from June 15 through September 10. (And if you wander into the nearby Mountain Fruit and Produce before they’re sold out, you can even treat yourself to Mrs. Joy’s famous peach ice cream or peach hand-pies, made from the orchard’s fruit.)
However, if you are so inclined to grow your own peaches, it can be done. With a little patience, home orchards can be incredibly rewarding, and fun to tend. Fruit trees, peaches in particular, can be a bit finicky. Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far for growing tips and tricks. My husband is a professional arborist, and owner of Meyer Arboriculture, and he is full of useful information. Here are Nick’s best practices for growing peaches.
Terms To Know
Cling: These are typically early season varieties. They are called “cling peaches” because the flesh of the peach is still clinging to the stone (pit) in the middle. There are also “semi-cling” varieties, where the flesh detaches more easily.
Freestone: The fruit of a freestone peach has completely detached from the stone (pit). They often have that bright red color in the very center surrounding the stone, and they typically fruit in late summer. These are generally preferred by consumers for snacking and preserving.
Dwarf & Standard: Most fruit trees come in both dwarf and standard sizes. Dwarf trees usually stay in the 10- to 15-foot range and are ideal for the home orchard. The fruit is easier to access, and they can produce prolifically, despite their smaller size. Standard trees can grow very big and tall, and also fruit very well, but may require a ladder for access.
Pick Your Variety
There are over a hundred varieties of peaches available to the home orchardist, and a plethora of things to consider when choosing the specific variety you would like to grow. Peaches can be grown in zones 4 through 9. Here in zone 7, we actually have a great climate for peaches, so your selection process can focus a bit more on flavor and less on hardiness. However, if you’re looking to plant in one of the more outlying zones, you’ll want to choose a variety engineered to withstand extreme heat or cold. We do have a few pests and diseases that target fruit trees, such as fireblight and leaf spot, so consider disease-resistant varieties. Some great choices for our area are Contender and White Lady.
Most peach varieties are self-fertilizing, meaning you only need one tree to produce fruit. However, planting more than one tree could improve the pollination, and production, of fruit. And of course, you’ll have more peaches.
Choose Your Location
Peaches like a lot of sun, and a fertile, well-drained soil.
The location of your trees will impact their productivity, as well as their vulnerability to disease. Choose a spot in your yard that gets full sun at least six hours a day. You’ll want to take space into consideration. Dwarf trees will need to be spaced about 12 to 15 feet apart, while standard size trees will need more room, about 15 to 20 feet.
Soil drainage is critical to growing healthy trees. Test your soil drainage by digging a 1×1 hole, filling it with water, and monitoring how long it takes for the hole to empty. Measure the depth of the water, wait 15 minutes, and measure it again. Then, multiply the difference by 4 (because 15×4=60, or 1 hour), and you’ll know how much the soil will drain in an hour. If it is less than an inch or so per hour, you may want to consider a new location, or take additional measures to improve soil drainage. Wet roots can cause rot and encourage bacterial growth.
Peaches also prefer a slightly higher pH, so consider testing your soil prior to planting. You can pick up an inexpensive test kit at any garden or home improvement store. You’ll want a pH of around 6.5 or 7. Once you determine the pH of your soil, you can raise it if necessary by adding garden lime or peat moss. There are products and tips available to lower pH as well.
Plant Your Tree
Once you’ve chosen your location, you’ll need to carefully plant the tree or trees. Planting is arguably the most important part of long-term tree health, and planting it correctly can save a lot of heartache down the road.
Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball or pot of your tree, and only about two-thirds as deep. Around the edges of the hole, use your shovel to loosen the soil. This will help the roots spread out into the compacted earth. Remove the peach tree from the pot and loosen the roots, spreading them away from the trunk. Any roots that appear to be circling the root ball or trunk can (and should) be clipped to avoid girdling (when a tree’s roots wrap around the trunk and ultimately choke it). Generally, all of the roots should be laid out to spread like fingers away from the tree.
At the cellular level, root wood and trunk wood are very different. If trunk wood is below the surface of the soil, your tree will be a magnet for disease and rot. For this reason, planting depth is critical. The root flare, or the spot on the base of the tree where the first root shoots off of the stem, should be planted two inches above the existing soil level. Remember why we dug our hole two-thirds the depth of our pot? This is why. You’ll want to plant the tree on a subtle mound. If needed, toss some loose soil into the hole in order to elevate the tree.
The graft union (where the rootstock meets the scion) should also remain above the soil when planting and growing fruit trees. As long as the above instructions are followed, this will occur naturally, as the graft union is several inches above the root flare. You can identify the union by looking for a bulge at the base of the tree with a visible line running through it.
Give your newly planted peach tree a nice soaking, and then make sure the tree gets water every day for the first week. After that, water a few times a week for the first month, then leave it to nature to handle the watering, unless you get a particularly dry spell.
When the peach trees start to bloom, it’s a good idea to thin the blossoms so that there is only one flower every six inches or so.
This will reduce the overall number of fruits, but will result in a yield of larger, healthier peaches with better flavor. Consider contacting a professional arborist to help with this part if you are unsure of the proper pruning technique.
In healthy soil, fertilization is really not necessary until your fruit trees are ready to produce fruit. This will be when they are about two or three years old. Ask your nursery about the age of the trees available. Usually, potted trees available for purchase are about a year old. You should also avoid fertilization until at least six weeks after your trees have been planted. If you do decide to fertilize, and give your trees a boost just before the fruiting season, apply a balanced, nitrogen-rich fertilizer in early spring.
Peach trees are very vulnerable to a number of pests and diseases. It is highly recommended to spray the trees a few times a year with fungicides and insecticides in order to prevent stunted growth, poor production, structural failure, and tree death. There are products available in most garden centers, but be sure to read the label carefully and completely. It never hurts to call a professional arborist, either.