Peach and Nectarine
Deciduous, Edible fruit, Trees
Native to China. Peach (Prunus persica) and nectarine (P. p. nucipersica) trees look alike and have the same cultural needs. Where fruit is concerned, both peaches and nectarines may be clingstone (flesh adheres to the pit), freestone (flesh easily separates from pit), or semifreestone (between the two); but other than this, nectarines differ from peaches in several respects. They have smooth rather than fuzzy skin; in some varieties, the flavor is slightly different; and many are more susceptible to brown rot of stone fruit. Here we consider fruiting peaches and nectarines. For strictly flowering types, see Prunus.
In most regions, crops ripen between June and September, depending on the variety. Early varieties grown in mild-winter climates may mature as early as April.
Most varieties need 600 to 900 hours of winter temperatures at or below 45°F/7°C. Insufficient chilling results in delayed leafout, a scanty crop, and eventual death of the tree. In extremely mild-winter areas, only low-chill varieties do well (and very few of those are satisfactory in the low desert). A few low-chill peach varieties have been tried successfully at higher elevations in Hawaii; nectarines tend to split in Hawaii and so are not commonly grown there. In areas subject to late frosts, early-blooming varieties are risky. Where spring is particularly cold and rainy, plants set few flowers, pollinate poorly, and get peach leaf curl. They need clear, hot weather during the growing season.
For information on the varieties that perform best in your area, consult your local Cooperative Extension Office or an area nursery.
A standard-size peach or nectarine tree grows rapidly to 25 ft. tall and wide, but properly pruned trees are usually kept to 10–12 ft. tall and a little wider. They start bearing large crops when 3 or 4 years old and reach peak production at 8–12 years. Genetic or natural dwarf trees, most of which grow to 5–6 ft. tall and produce medium-size fruit, are useful in tubs and small planting areas. You can also save space by planting three or four full-size varieties in one hole: prune the new bare-root trees so that each retains just one primary branch, and point those branches outward as you plant the trees in the hole. With a few exceptions, peaches and nectarines are self-fruitful, so you don’t need a pollenizer; from a fruiting standpoint, it’s fine to grow just one tree by itself.
Peach and nectarine trees require good drainage and regular fertilizing. They also need heavier pruning than other fruit trees because they produce fruit on 1-year-old branches. Severe annual pruning not only renews fruiting wood—it also encourages production of fruit throughout the tree rather than at ends of sagging branches that can easily break. Even with good pruning, peaches and nectarines form too much fruit. When fruits are 1 in. wide, thin out (remove) enough fruit so that those that remain are 8–10 in. apart. Genetic dwarf trees need less pruning than standard ones. When planting a bare-root tree that is an unbranched “whip,” cut it back to 2–3 1/2 ft. above the ground (the thicker the trunk, the less severe the cutting back). New branches will form below the cut. After the first year’s growth, select three well-placed branches for scaffold limbs. On mature trees, in each dormant season cut off two-thirds of the previous year’s growth by removing two of every three branches formed that year; or head back each branch to one-third its length; or head back some and cut out others. Trees can be trained as espaliers.
Among the most serious diseases of peaches and nectarines are brown rot of stone fruit and peach leaf curl. The fungus responsible for peach leaf curl causes emerging new leaves to thicken and pucker. Infected foliage may be tinged red, pink, yellow, or white; it usually falls in midsummer. Severely infected trees are weakened and may stop producing. Brown rot fungus causes flowers to wilt and decay, twigs to crack and ooze sap. To control both diseases, practice good sanitation—get rid of diseased plant parts to keep fungus from reinfecting the tree the next year. Also apply fixed copper or lime sulfur dormant sprays once after autumn leaf drop and again just as buds begin to swell but before they open. In places where winter and spring are almost always rainy, spray three times, starting in late December and repeating at 2–4-week intervals. Some gardeners reduce peach leaf curl by planting the trees under eaves and training them in a fan shape against a south-facing wall (dry leaves aren’t susceptible to infection). Move potted genetic dwarf peaches and nectarines to a covered location in rainy weather. To control the diseases as well as scale insects, use sprays combining horticultural oil with either lime sulfur or fixed copper.
Peach tree borer, which tends to attack trees stressed by poor growing conditions or wounds, causes defoliation, branch dieback, and possibly death. Jellylike matter exuding from the base of the tree is the first indication of the pest’s presence. The insect holes will be evident at or just below ground level. Prevention through good growing conditions is the best control; if a tree is attacked, consult your Cooperative Extension Office for the best treatment.
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