Fuzzy peaches and their smoother cousins, nectarines, are delicious, but can be a challenge to grow in cooler climates. However, success comes with a bit of effort and the right conditions—few summer fruit crops are as rewarding.
How to Grow
Peaches and nectarines are fully hardy, but their early spring flowers are easily damaged by frost, which prevents fruiting; the young fruitlets are vulnerable too. To provide adequate protection, train them as fans, and grow them against warm, sunny, south- or southwest-facing walls or fences.
Dwarf trees can also be grown freestanding in containers filled with soil-based compost. Bare root trees are planted in the winter; container-raised trees can be planted any time if kept well-watered afterward. All varieties prefer rich, well-drained, slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.5–7.0. Prepare the ground before planting by adding plenty of organic matter. To prevent silver leaf infecting wounds, prune only when the trees are in active growth during spring and summer.
Protection and Pollination
During late winter the trees need protection from rainfall to help prevent peach leaf curl. They also require protection from frost. Container-grown trees can be brought under cover. Outdoor, fan-trained trees should be covered with bubble insulation or plastic sheeting and garden fabric. When the flowers start to open, remove the covers on bright, dry days to allow insects to pollinate them, which is necessary for fruiting. If the weather remains wet, you’ll need to pollinate the flowers by hand, using a soft brush.
Varieties to Try
Some peach varieties show good disease resistance to peach leaf curl. Nectarines are a more reliable crop.
Pruning and Training
To provide a sheltered spot, peaches and nectarines are usually trained against walls on lateral wires. They are pruned twice a year in the spring and summer. The first spring after planting a 1- or 2-year-old tree, cut the main stem, leaving one branch on each side, 10 inches above the soil. Cut the branches to 14 inches and tie them horizontally on canes.
As sideshoots grow during the first summer, select three on each side—one below the branches and two above—and train them on canes. Cut other shoots to one leaf. In the spring, cut back the ribs by a quarter. Prune established fans in the spring to remove dead or damaged growth and wayward stems. On each rib, choose two sideshoots to grow on and remove the others. After harvesting, cut back fruited stems to make way for those left to grow on.
Prune established, freestanding trees by removing 1/4 of the stems that fruited last year, cutting back to healthy, pointed buds. Remove any dead or damaged wood, and thin out old branches that have stopped bearing fruit.
Developing peach and nectarine fruitlets need thinning in the early summer to allow the remaining fruits to ripen fully and reach their optimum size. This process also helps to prevent laden branches from snapping and damaging the tree. Thin to one per cluster, at a spacing of 4 inches apart, when the fruit is the size of hazelnuts, then to 8 inches when they are walnut-sized.
Watch out for These Pests and Diseases
Peach leaf curl causes red blisters on the leaves, which drop, weakening the tree. Spores enter the buds in late winter, carried by rainfall. Cover the tree with plastic sheeting in the winter, remove infected leaves and pick up any fallen leaves the following autumn.
Red spider mite can also be a problem for peaches, nectarines and apricots, causing fine mottling on the foliage and early leaf fall, especially on trees in sheltered spots. Try an insecticidal soap to control the pests. Large spider mite plagues on home orchards can be controlled by introducing Phytoseiulus, a predatory mite.
Apricots are closely related to peaches. They are less susceptible to peach leaf curl than peaches and nectarines, and modern varieties, like ‘Harglow’ and ‘Tomcot’, flower later so are less prone to frost damage. Dwarf varieties, like 'Pixie-Cot', can also be grown in containers.
Protect the developing fruit from birds. Apricots are ready for picking when they start to soften in the summer and pull easily from the tree.
Apricots to try include: ‘Harglow’, ‘Harcot’, ‘Tomcot’, ‘Moorpark’, 'Pixie-Cot', 'Pudget Gold' and 'Perfection'.