Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Planting new peach trees regularly offers insurance against losses due to broken limbs, disease, cold and other vicissitudes. Photo by C.J. Walke

By C.J. Walke

You can grow peaches in Maine? I tend to hear that question when giving organic growing presentations to new organic gardeners or when talking with beginning farmers interested in diversifying their vegetable operation by adding fruit trees. Often they are new growers with the image of peaches growing in southern states, or they've moved north from a southern state and can't imagine that a peach could survive a typical Maine winter. Either way, most are excited to hear that peaches are an option for Maine farms and gardens.

That being said, Maine is a large state, and there are northern and western locations where growing peaches will be a struggle – a struggle that can't be won for more than a few seasons, according to some who have tried in those areas. With that knowledge, I think it is still worth the effort to plant a peach and help it grow, considering the sweet and juicy fruit the trees often produce in their second year after planting. And although only a few peaches may appear in that first productive year, especially if you are thorough with thinning, yields from a healthy peach tree tend to increase significantly the following years.

Varieties for the North

The peach variety most commonly spoken of for the north is Reliance, a medium-sized, yellow-fleshed freestone peach bred in New Hampshire and released in 1964. It is considered the most cold-hardy peach (zone 4 or 5), although most nursery catalogs claim its flavor as fair and not as sweet as other varieties. It may have some resistance to peach leaf curl, a fungal disease of concern for peaches in Maine.

Another variety that has good success and that some Maine growers tell me has performed better than Reliance is Redhaven (Red Haven), a medium-sized, yellow-fleshed freestone peach bred in Michigan and released in 1940 (zone 5 or 6). It is one of the most commonly planted peaches around the world, and the Fedco Trees catalog claims it is “probably the best-flavored peach we offer,” while Cummins Nursery states that it “remains the standard of excellence in its season.”

Fedco Trees offers a few other varieties for the north, such as Polly, the hardiest white-fleshed peach, and Cummins Nursery offers a couple of varieties bred by Paul Friday in southwest Michigan, one of which caught my eye in its catalog: PF 19-007. Not a very attractive name, but it's a large (3-inch diameter) freestone with claims of being resistant to brown rot, a major fungal disease of stone fruit in our area. If anyone has experience with this variety, I'd appreciate hearing some reports.

Cultivation Notes

Peaches tend to be relatively free of insect pest issues, compared with other tree fruit grown in the Northeast. Peach leaf curl is a common fungal disease. I hear more reports of it along the coast than inland. It infects leaves in early spring and by late May or early June shows visible signs – crinkled, often reddish, curled leaves from buds produced last year that were infected as soon as buds swelled in spring. Hand picking and disposing of the leaves can be very effective on a small scale, but organic sulfur applications in late fall and early spring may be needed for larger plantings or more severe infections.

Brown rot, the other fungal disease to manage for peaches, is also the most serious disease of stone fruit in Maine. Brown rot can be tricky to manage in organic orchards because the first signs of infection are at bloom, when blighted blossoms die back and shrivel. At this point the blight can move from blossoms into twigs, and you may not see other signs of infection until just before harvest, when tan spots start to show on fruit, quickly spread and then cover the entire fruit. Orchard sanitation can help on a smaller scale, but larger plantings and severe infections may require applications of organic sulfur materials.

Death of a Peach Tree

If you have grown peach trees, then you know that sometimes they just die. I do not write this to discourage readers; actually, I hope this article encourages you to plant peach trees while being aware of the realities of a tender crop pushing the limits of its zonal boundaries.  Severe cold in winter or wide fluctuations in winter temperatures can kill a tree. Often the tree starts to fall apart with broken branches too heavy with fruit, then rot sets into the wounds followed by signs of gummosis (amber ooze) in branch unions, eventually weakening the tree.

I have a Contender peach in my backyard, planted by others before we arrived, that was not pruned or trained properly in its early years. At about chest height, the trunk spreads into three main branches, all from the same location, as if the young whip was topped and the top three buds grew up as shoots that were never trained. I've consistently pruned the tree over the past five years but could not do much to change this awkward open vase structure, all anchored to the trunk at roughly the same spot, rather than evenly spaced around the trunk.

We've had decent crops off this tree each year, but despite my pruning and thinning efforts, one of the three main limbs broke off this summer, full of developing fruit, during a very windy day. By early September, we harvested over 100 pounds of peaches from the remaining two branches, but I could see signs of decay in the wound where the included bark had split. Then the Halloween storm, with gusts over 50 mph, blew a second branch off the tree.

Every day, I look out the kitchen window at this decimated, lopsided peach tree, surprised that the remaining limb still stands after a couple of cumulative feet of snow or the 3 inches of rain dumped over one mid-January night. Should I cut it down or let it fall? Maybe it will produce one final little crop of peaches next season. Either way, my insurance policy is to plant a peach tree every spring so that I have a diverse mix of trees, which almost always guarantees a crop of peaches. And that's what I plan to do come spring.

Resources

Fedco Trees online catalog: https://www.fedcoseeds.com/trees/?cat=Peaches

Cummins Nursery online catalog: https://shop.cumminsnursery.com/shop/peach-trees

Paul Friday website: http://www.flaminfury.com/www.flaminfury.com/home.html

C.J. Walke is MOFGA's Organic Orchard Educator. You can contact him at [email protected].