April 2019 – Crop of the Month
Peach – Scientific Name: Prunus persica
Written by: Kirby Fry
The peach is arguably the sweetest and tastiest fruit that can be grown here in Central Texas.
I have fond memories of preserving peaches with my cousins and aunts. We would blanche the peaches in boiling water for a minute or so, peel the skin off of the fruit, cut the peaches in half, remove the seed or pit, and then store the peach halves in quart sized Ball jars. Wonderful tasting peaches were on the menu for the rest of the year. At a birthday party, my favorite dessert is still peach cobbler.
The peach tree here in Central Texas, however, needs a little bit of extra care.
My first suggestion when cultivating peach trees is to not plant too many. It’s better to have half a dozen well-tended peach trees than it is to have a dozen poorly-tended trees. When we purchase and plant peach trees, we should keep in mind that this tree crop needs the attention that we give to annual vegetable gardens, not pecan groves.
My second suggestion is to be ready to replace and replant varieties that did not thrive. Peaches are a relatively short lived tree crop. We can expect 7 to 14 years of production from them. We can also expect quite a bit of pruning, and limb loss. Be prepared to replace some of the peach trees you originally planted with better varieties for your region that you later discover and learn about.
With a moderate amount of annual upkeep, though, peach trees can have high yields and are exceptionally rewarding. Some of the best peaches in North America are grown right here in Central Texas just west of the Balcones Escarpment in places like Fredericksburg and Stonewall.
Peach trees are available mid-winter in plant nurseries as bare root stock. The earlier they are planted the better – aim for late December to early January, as that gives them some extra time to establish their root systems. After purchase, they should be planted within 1 day or so upon arriving at your homestead. Avoid exposing the roots to air and sunlight by keeping them moist and wrapped in paper, or submerged in moist sand, and soak the roots in a bucket of water for at least an hour right before planting them.
Choosing the right variety of peach tree for your region is very important. Specific varieties of peach trees require a different number of chill hours in order for them to break their winter dormancy. Chill hours, are the number of hours per winter that the tree spends below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the Dallas / Fort Worth area, there are between 900 to 1,000 chill hours, at the latitude of Austin there are around 600 chill hours, San Antonio may have 400 chill hours, and the Gulf Coast may have as few as 200 chill hours. So make sure that when you buy peach trees at your local nursery, the variety you are buying corresponds to the number of chill hours where you will be planting them. Texas A & M recommends Junegold, Juneprince and Southern Pearl for medium chill hour regions – 450 to 700 chill hours.
Select a site for your peach trees that is on sandy or loamy soils at least 18” deep, that is well drained, and which has good air circulation in order to reduce molds and fungi. The trees should be planted about 18 feet apart, and the rows they are planted in should be 24 feet apart from one another.
When planting a peach tree, dig your hole a few inches deeper than the root ball of the tree, and twice as wide. Add a slow release organic fertilizer with a mycorrhizal inoculant into the hole, and mix the same fertilizer into the soil that you will be using to back fill the hole with. Flood the hole with water before it is completely full of soil and make sure to get rid of all air pockets around the roots of the trees.
Cover a 2-foot radius area around your trees with 4 to 6 inches of mulch after planting them. Six weeks after planting the trees fertilize them with a 10-10-10 organic fertilizer.
Drip irrigation will be necessary from April through October depending on seasonal rainfall. Expect your peach trees to start making fruit around their 4th year.
Peaches make fruit on second year woody growth, so if you never prune a peach tree eventually the fruit will bear beyond your reach. It is recommended to initially prune the newly planted tree back to a single trunk, 2 to 3-feet above the ground.
The next winter prune the tree again, leaving only 3 to 5 of the healthiest branches that are evenly spaced out around its trunk.
Each year after that, 40 to 60 percent of new growth should be pruned back, leaving the center of the tree open. The tree should be sculpted it into the shape of a wine glass for good air circulation and exposure to sunlight.
Fruit buds need to also be removed in the early spring, establishing a spacing of 6 to 8-inches between fruit. A mature peach tree might put on 5,000 flowers and buds, when we actually want 500 or less fruiting buds.
There are a lot of insects and vermin out there that will want to eat your peaches. Deer-proof and rabbit-proof fencing are a good start for any orchard. Proper spacing and pruning will also go a long way towards keeping your peaches mold and fungus free.
Garden hygiene is always important as well. Manage weeds beneath your peach trees, keep a 2 to 4-foot radius around the trees mulched, and remove any fallen peaches quickly and compost them or feed them to livestock well away from your orchard.
The simplest treatment that I’ve come across for fighting insect infestation is the spraying of dormant oil on the peaches in mid to late January. It’s very important to completely cover the surface of each bud. Dormant oil is a horticultural oil with baking soda and dish soap in it that suppresses insect eggs from hatching by either smothering them or dissolving the waxy surface of the insect eggs. Once insects have begun hatching and sucking on the peaches the fruit becomes much more susceptible to fungal infection which can be spread from wound to wound by the insects. It’s an uphill battle after that.
Finally, late freezes may be what kills the most of your peaches. You can expect this at least every 6 or 7 years, and in some cases a late freeze might damage your peach crop 2 or 3 years in a row.
Be patient and observant. Buy a farmer’s almanac and start learning more about the chill hours in your region and what to expect each winter.
All of that said, I look forward to the late spring and summer harvest of peaches which is coming up in the next couple of months. I remember well my daughters and I stopping at the peach stands in Elgin where they were selling peaches from Fredericksburg, such sweet memories.