How to Grow Peaches

Peach treeThe peach is a semi-hardy deciduous woody perennial tree. A standard-sized peach tree will grow to 25 feet tall and just as wide if not pruned. A dwarf peach will grow to 6 feet tall and wide. For the best productivity, keep standard peaches pruned to about 15 feet tall. Most available peach varieties are grafted, meaning the root system and the fruiting section of the tree is different.

Peaches usually come to harvest from mid- to late summer. Peach fruit requires 3 to 5 months to reach harvest from the time flowers are pollinated. Peach trees have fruit producing lives of about 12 years.

Peaches are divided into freestone and clingstone cultivars. The flesh of a freestone peach will separate easily from the seed. The flesh of a clingstone peach does not. Freestone peaches are best for eating fresh out of hand. Clingstone peaches are a good choice for cooking and preserving.

The flesh of the peach fruit is most often yellow, but some cultivars have white flesh. White flesh, like yellow flesh, is tender and tasty.

Yield. A peach tree can bear up to 66 pounds (30 kg) of fruit each year.

Climate and site. Peaches grow best in USDA zones 5 through 9. Peach trees require a chilling period of between 600 and 900 hours at a temperature of 45°F or less each winter in order to fruit the next season. Peaches do not grow well where the temperature falls below 0°F for extended periods. Where winter temperatures fall lower than -10°F, peach wood will be damaged. Choose a peach variety that grows well in your region; check with the nearby cooperative extension for a cultivar recommendation.

During the fruiting season, peaches prefer clear, very warm weather; the optimal peach fruit ripening temperature is 75°F. Where temperatures are consistently hotter the flavor may be astringent. As well, cool, wet climates leave peaches susceptible to disease.

Required chill hours determine when a peach variety will bloom. Cultivars that require fewer chill hours bloom earlier in spring than those requiring more. (Apples generally require 900 or more chill hours. The geographic range of the peach is generally closer to the equator than apples which require more chill hours than peaches.)

Peaches grow best in full sun in a location where cold air or frost will not settle. Peaches will tolerate partial shade but the yield will be diminished. Peaches prefer light, well-drained somewhat sandy soil with a soil pH ranging from 6.0 to 6.5. If the soil pH is lower than 6.0 add lime to the soil. Do not plant a peach tree where another peach has recently grown; the decaying roots of a peach will emit a chemical that can kill new tree roots.

Planting time. Plant peaches in spring when the soil becomes workable. Where winter temperatures do not become very cold, peaches also can be planted in fall.

Balled and burlapped peach trees can be planted at any time during the growing season. Position the soil ball in the planting hole to the same depth the tree was growing at the nursery. When the tree is positioned in the hole, remove the twine from the ball. You can gently slide the burlap from under the ball or open it at the top and set it in the hole with the soil-covered root ball (the burlap will gradually rot away).

A container-grown tree can be planted any time during the growing season. Slide the root ball from the container carefully and plant the ball at the same depth as in the container.

Bareroot trees should be planted in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Spread the bare roots out completely in a hole that will accommodate them. Plant bareroot trees about two inches deeper than the tree grew in the nursery (you will see a soil line above the roots).

After planting, peach trees should be thoroughly watered. Add compost tea or high-phosphorus starter fertilizer to help the roots become settled.

Planting and spacing. Plant standard peaches 18 to 20 feet apart. Plant dwarf peach trees 5 to 6 feet apart. Peaches for yearly harvest should be pruned smaller than their natural size at maturity.

Most standard peach varieties are grafted onto seedlings rootstock grown from Levell and Halford peach seed. In cold climates, choose peach varieties grafted onto Siberian C rootstock.

Pollination. Most peaches are self fertile and do not require pollenizers. Bees help transfer pollen between trees. When the weather is cool and insects are not active, peaches will benefit from hand pollinating. The varieties Indian Free and J.H. Hale require cross pollination.

Water and feeding. Water peaches regularly–at least weekly–during the first year in the ground. Established trees require less regular watering. For the most succulent, juicy fruit keep the soil evenly moist, not wet. Mulch around peach trees to reduce soil moisture evaporation. Peaches will produce where watering is infrequent.

Feed peaches with aged compost each spring or use one pound of well balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer for every year of age to a maximum of 10 pounds per tree per year. Add aged compost around the tree when fruit sets. For additional feeding, spray leaves with liquid kelp every 3 to 4 weeks during the growing season.

Pruning. A peach tree can grow from 1 to 1 ½ feet per year. Annual pruning is important to keep the tree from becoming unwieldly. Pruning will enhance productivity and ensure a quality crop. Unpruned trees will produce small crops and small fruit. A peach tree can be lightly pruned at any time of the year; heavy pruning should be done in late fall after the tree has dropped its leaves and gone dormant or in early spring before new buds appear.

Peach trees are commonly pruned to an open center–vase shaped–which allows air and light into the center of the crown. Where fruit sunburn may be a problem train a peach tree to a central leader.

To train a young peach tree to a central leader, remove all side limbs and choose the highest shoot as the central leader. As the trunk develops continue to remove all side branches until the tree is older than two years.

To train a young peach tree to an open center, cut the young tree back to 24 to 30 inches tall. Soon new shoots will grow from below the cut. When the new shoots reach 12 inches or so long, select three or four that are growing at wide angles in different directions; these should be separated by at least 4 to 8 inches. The side shoots will become main scaffold branches. For the next several years, nurture the scaffold branches; prune them back during the dormant season by one-third each year so that they sprout new side shoots and develop a framework of webbed side branches. (Young scaffold branches can be trained to spread 40 to 60 degrees using a small piece of wood propped between the branches.)

Peaches produce fruit on one-year-old wood–that is new branch growth from the previous year. Rub off unwanted shoots and sucker as soon as they appear. Prune away or “head back” one-third the length of the branches you intend to keep each season. Cut back growth just beyond an outward facing branch or bud. Remove branches that are no longer productive.

Pruning is best done during the dormant season from late fall to late winter but before trees break dormancy in spring. Peach trees can be thinned during the summer.

Pruning step-by-step. Follow these steps to prune a peach tree:

  • Remove all diseased, dead, or broken branches.
  • Remove all watersprouts. Watersprouts are fast-growing vertical branches that usually have no side branches.
  • Remove all suckers. Suckers are the fast-growing shoots that grow out of the soil from the roots below the soil surface.
  • Remove tight V-branching crotches. These are narrow crotches formed by branches that will not support the weight of a full crop of fruit.
  • Remove crossing or rubbing branches. If two branches cross and rub against each other they can cause a wound that may allow insects or fungal disease to attack the tree. Remove the least desirable branch.
  • Never prune away more than one-third of the total tree in a single growing season.
  • Always prune to a growth bud or flush to a main branch or trunk. Remember that apple trees produce on same lateral spurs several years in a row.
  • Prune every year. Once a tree has been well pruned, it will need less annual pruning; only the removal of crossing branches and twiggy growth.

Prune in late winter when the tree is dormant and before buds appear, particularly heave pruning. A light maintenance pruning can be done in summer working around the fruit set.

Thinning. Thin peach fruits when they reach thumbnail size, about 1 inch in diameter. Thin after the first natural drop of fruit–called “June drop.” June drop is the tree’s own natural thinning of fruit which usually occurs a few weeks after fruit set.

Thin early season fruit from 6 to 8 inches apart. Thin late season fruit from 4 to 5 inches apart. Thin fruit when it is green before the pit hardens; this will allow the remaining fruit to grow large and sweet. Thinning increases the sugar content and flavor of the remaining fruit.

Do not allow peach trees to set fruit during the first two growing seasons. Remove flowers or young fruits before they sap the energy the tree requires for growth. During the third year, allow the tree to bear a small crop. Do not let a tree set more fruit than its limbs can bear.

Container growing. Peaches can be grown in containers. Stark, Sensation, and Garden Gold peach varieties are good choices for containers. Choose a container at least three feet or more in diameter. In cold regions, protect trees growing in containers by moving them to a protected place–a garage or covered porch–in frigid weather.

Pests. Peaches are susceptible to attack by a number of insects: fruit worms, leafhoppers, tent caterpillars, scale, borers, mites, Oriental fruit moths, and plum curculios. Many pests can be controlled if caught early in their life cycle.

  • Plum curculios are beetles common east of the Rockies. They cause fruit to become scarred and drop. Place a tarp under the tree and knock or shake the tree. The beetles will drop and you can collect and destroy them.
  • Oriental fruit moth larvae will tunnel into growing shoots and cause shoots and branches to wilt. Peach twig borers will tunnel into branches and fruit. A pheromone trap will attract moths. Branches infested with borers should be trimmed away. Both pests can be controlled if the tree is kept healthy with regular watering and feeding.
  • European red mites such juices from leaves. Mites can be knocked from trees with a strong spray of water. Predatory mites will also attack red mites.
  • Scale is a sucking insect that looks like a small bump on the bark. Spray trees with dormant oil in the winter.

Diseases. Peach trees are susceptible to numerous diseases: brown fruit rot, peach leaf curl, peach scab, bacterial leaf spot, powdery mildew, perennial canker, crown gall and crown rot.

  • Peach leaf curl is a fungal disease that causes leaves to curl up and die; new leaves will appear after leaves drop. Preventive spraying with a copper fungicide will help control the disease. Resistant varieties include: Candor, Clayton, Com-Pact Red Haven, Correll, Dixieland, Elberta, Red Haven, and Stark Earligro.
  • Bacterial cankers cause branches to become sunken with lesions and ooze. Infected branches can be pruned away or cankers can be cut out and the healthy wood treated with lime sulfur.
  • Brown rot is a bacterial disease that attacks flowers and shoots and can spread to fruit. This disease can be controlled by spraying with lime sulfur when buds begin to turn green in spring.
  • Bacterial leaf sport and peach scab cause spots or cracks on leaves and fruit. Both leaf spot and peach scab can be controlled with a lime sulfur spray every 15 days.
  • Trunk sunburn can be controlled by whitewashing the trunk in early spring. Whitewashing will also discourage ants.

Harvest. Peach trees reach sufficient size to bear harvestable fruit 2 to 4 years after planting. Peaches are most flavorful and have the highest sugar content when they are allowed to mature on the tree. A peach is ready for picking when the fruit is well colored–the skin changes from green to yellow–and the flesh gives slightly to the touch. To pick a peach, hold the fruit in the palm of your hand and give it a slight twist. A ripe peach will come away from the tree easily. Periodic taste-testing will also help determine when most of the fruit on the tree is ripe.

Peach Varieties:

Yellow-fleshed fruit: Cresthaven, Earliglo, Garnet Beauty, Redhaven, Compact Redhaven, Briscoe, Elberta, Redskin, Reliance, Madison.

White-fleshed fruit: Belle of Georgia. (White-fleshed peach are very soft-bodied.)

Genetic dwarfs: Compact Redhaven, Compact Elberta.

Late flowering or cold tolerant: Clayton, Jayhaven, Emery, Redhaven, Jefferson, Cresthaven, Nectar; Reliance, Sunapee.

Early season: Springold, Earlgrande.

Midseason: Derby, Redhaven, Raritan Rose,

Late season: Veteran, Redglobe, Canadian Harmony,

Heat tolerant: Florida King, Florida Prince.

Bacterial leaf spot resistant: Raritan Rose, Clayton, Ouchita Gold, Candor, Redhaven, Biscoe, Champion, Nectacrest.

Canker resistant: Biscoe, Elberta, Candor, Brighton, Raritan Rose, Harken, Madison, Reliance, Harbrite, Champion, Harbelle.

Brown-rot resistant: Carmen, Elberta, Orange Cling, Red Bird, Sunbeam.

Peach leaf curl resistant: Candor, Com-Pact Redhaven, Correll, Clayton, Dixiland, Elberta, Redhaven, Stark EarliGold.

Storing and preserving. Ripe peaches are best eaten just picked. A peach will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Peaches can be canned, frozen, or dried.

Common name. Peach

Botanical name. Prunus persica

Origin. China