The peach is one of the most popular of homegrown fruits. Both peaches and their close relatives, the nectarines, are at their best when tree ripened, so a home gardener's time and effort are rewarded by a product that money can't buy. Probably the biggest drawback is that peaches are susceptible to many pests and diseases and spraying is often necessary for a good harvest. If you choose not to spray your peach trees you will have to be prepared to lose some or all of your crop in a bad year.
Peaches cannot tolerate extreme winter cold or late frost, so in the northern Plains States and northern New England, peaches are purely experimental. The hardiest, such as 'Reliance', may survive and bear in a protected spot, but you can't be sure. Peaches do well in the more temperate climates near the Great Lakes, but choose the warmest site available for planting. A protected sunny spot where cold air can't collect and sit is the right place for your tree.
Some of the greatest peach-growing country in the world is in the West: California alone produces 50 percent of the commercial peaches in the United States. Peaches also do well in South Carolina, Georgia, semicoastal areas of the East, and dry areas of Washington.
To produce great peaches the climate must fulfill high-chill requirements (700 to 1,000 hours of cold winter weather at 46° F or below) unless otherwise stated. This should be followed by warm dry spring weather and hot summers. Gardeners not blessed with this prime cli mate can grow satisfactory fruit by selecting the right varieties for their own gardens. Selected low-chill varieties can fruit well in all subtropical climates but southern Florida.
The standard tree on a peach rootstock grows to about 15 feet tall and 15 feet wide. It could grow larger if left alone, but it is best pruned heavily each year to maintain that size and to encourage lots of new growth along the branches.
A totally satisfactory dwarfing rootstock for peaches has yet to be found. However, the genetic dwarf peaches grow in bush shape to about 4 to 7 feet tall and require no pruning to maintain size or force growth. At most you will clip out tangles and remove broken twigs. Genetic dwarfs are a good choice for patio containers or small yards. You won't have any trouble fitting a genetic dwarf peach into whatever space is available to you.
In the home garden peach trees can be planted two or three to a hole if the varieties are well chosen. This will spread the harvest over several weeks. Dig an extra large planting hole and set two to three varieties together with their roots almost touching. You can also graft different limbs to different varieties and have three varieties on a single tree.
Once a crop sets on a peach tree, you may not even see the branches through all the fruit. You can't leave it all on the tree because it will be small and of poor quality, it slows branch growth, and it may snap branches. Thin it out when it reaches thumbnail size. For early-season peaches, leave 6 to 8 inches of space between fruit; for late season peaches, leave 4 to 5 inches between fruit.
If a frost knocks off much of your crop, leave all the remaining fruit, even if it is clustered. What is important is the ratio of leaf surface to peaches, so a sparse crop will do equally well in singles or bunches.
Only a few peach varieties need a pollinator. Normally the trees are self-fertile, although bees are a big help in pollen transfer.
All peaches like a winter rest. Without it they bloom late, open their leaves erratically, and finally die. Be sure to choose varieties that suit your climate. Low-chill peaches have been bred for short, mild winters and may bloom too early or freeze in the North. Be sure to buy hardy, high-chill varieties for the North. A high-chill peach will leaf out and flower erratically in southern Mississippi, while a low-chill peach may try to bloom before the last frost in Tennessee.
The universal peach ailment in the West is leaf curl, but you can control it easily with a copper spray. You will also probably encounter the major insect pest, the peach tree borer, gnawing the trunk at ground level. Brown rot attacks fruit but is controllable with sprays. In the East and South, check the list for varieties resistant to bacterial spot. Brown rot and plum cur-culio are the chief pests in the North and South. See pages 29-37 for control methods.
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