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Peaches are a challenge to grow in northern climates. Mention peaches to Maine gardeners, and they get a glint in their eye, either from anticipation that their three-year-old tree will make it through another winter and bear next year, or from the memory of that bushel of the world’s best tasting peaches that they harvested last year. Maybe they’ll reminisce the two peaches that they shared the year before the tree died. A ripe peach in Maine is worth 100 blue ribbon beefsteak tomatoes, maybe more. Given the right conditions, a few helpful tips, and a little luck, you can be the one who casually asks your visiting neighbor, “Oh, have you seen my peach crop yet?” Here’s how to grow peach trees in Maine.
History of peaches
Peaches and nectarines, both genetically similar Amygdalus persica (formerly Prunus persica), were growing in China as far back as 2000 BC. They were brought to Europe, then to Florida by Spanish explorers. The trees are relatively short-lived, between 10 and 15 years. Few heirloom cultivars exist, unless they were kept alive by family or are commercially cultivated.
Types of peaches
‘Contender’ peach: This is a high-quality variety zone 3 to zone 4 peach that is proving to be hardy in northern Maine. Large round bright red and yellow freestone fruit with a slightly raised suture. Firm melting aromatic yellow flesh. Growth habit similar to Redhaven, but fruit ripens three weeks later. Resistant to leaf spot. Because it blooms quite late, it might escape late spring frosts.
‘Reliance’ peach, a medium-sized, yellow-fleshed peach of good quality, developed by Elwin Meader at UNH, is the hardiest variety available, considered zone 4 in the right location. Medium-sized, roundish, bright yellow flesh, soft and juicy. Flavor usually considered fair, but well-loved in Maine. Often produces large crops. Bears at an early age. May have some resistance to peach leaf curl. Will grow in Zone 4 and pockets of Zone 3.
‘Candor’ is a very early yellow peach, also quite hardy. Less hardy, but worth a try in some locations are the yellow fleshed ‘Bailey Hardy,’ and ‘Madison’
Nectarines and white peaches
‘Belle of Georgia’ is a zone-5-hardy white peach. White peaches are known for their full flavor and sweetness, though they are not commercially popular because bruises show so easily. Most hardy peaches are grafted onto ‘Bailey’ rootstock. ‘Citation’ is a hardy dwarfing rootstock. ‘Hardired’ is the hardiest nectarine cultivar, comparable to ‘Reliance.’ Nectarines are just peaches without the fuzz. Sometimes a peach seed will produce a nectarine tree, or a nectarine seed will grow to be a peach tree. The seed is fairly true-to-type, meaning that you can plant a peach pit and grow a similar tree. Both nectarines and peaches are self-pollinating and do not need a second variety to pollinate them. Cultural practices are the same for both.
I have seen many peach trees in Maine bent low with heavy crops of fuzzy, red blushed fruit. Successful peach production in the north depends on selecting hardy varieties, the best site, careful feeding, pruning, crop thinning, and the winter weather. Most peaches will not withstand temperatures colder than –20 degrees F. The hardiest cultivars are rated as zone 4 to 5 in hardiness.
As the University of Maine Cooperative notes, higher elevations and windy sites are preferable to lower ground or areas for peach trees because they’re protected from the wind, and they tend to be warmer on the coldest nights. Select sites where air drainage is good. Ideal sites occur on sloping land that is not surrounded by dense woodlots.
Once you have your hardy tree, site and soil are your next concerns in order to grow peach trees. Unlike pears and plums, peaches will not tolerate cold, wet, heavy soil. They prefer dry sandy soils that warm thoroughly. A good, light garden soil will suffice. The optimal pH is 6.0.
Peach trees need a long season (150 frost-free days) to harden off their new growth each year. The spring buds and blooms are susceptible to early spring frosts. An optimal site is a well-drained slope where temperatures remain fairly consistent. Avoid frost pockets. An overly protected spot may have very warm temperatures that promote early blooming followed by cold nights that can kill those blossoms. On the other hand, a protected corner of the yard may be the only place a peach tree will survive. Most peach trees that I have seen thriving in Maine are in spots where the cold air can keep rolling down the slope and where exposure to wind is minimized.
Because the trees are a short-lived treein Maine, pr trees that can survive the harsh winters that succumb after a mild one, it may be best to think of peaches as a semi-annual crop. Plant one or two every few years to ensure a regular supply of peaches. The reasons for their demise can be quirky and erratic. I suspect a combination of weather, growth rates, fruit loads, and accumulated stresses from any combination of these factors. That’s where luck comes in, but it’s also where a gardener can load the odds in favor of their tree (and future bragging rights.)
Pruning your peach trees
Proper pruning from the start is very important for peach trees. A well-shaped tree is stronger and healthier, and you don’t have 40 years to re-shape your tree. When purchasing a tree, chose one with three well-spaced, wide angled branches growing in different directions from the trunk. Or after planting, prune the tree to an open vase shape by selecting three such branches and heading back any central leader. The tree should be like an open bowl. The branches should be well-spaced along the trunk as if in a whorl.
Pruning and fruit thinning are keys to longevity when you grow peach trees. Peaches are vigorous growers. They initiate flowers on one-year-old wood. Pruning as much as half of the secondary branches (branches that are not part of the tree’s frame) will reduce the stress of a high fruit load, as well as allowing fruit to fill out well and color nicely. Thin peach clusters to one peach when they are marble-size or slightly larger. Allow 5 to 6 inches between fruits to develop ideal size. An overbearing tree puts less energy into next year’s fruit buds, which begin forming following bloom. Even a well pruned tree can become too heavy with fruit. Prop up weighty branches with a sturdy plank, since broken limbs invite disease.
Peaches grow vigorously. They also need to stop growing in time to harden off for winter, since too much soft growth going into winter can kill a tree. If your tree needs to grow less, minimize or avoid feeding it. A mown sod base instead of mulch will slow growth. Feed only in early spring, leaning toward trace mineral supplements, especially potassium, calcium and lime, while avoiding nitrogen. I have heard of root pruning with a shovel to slow vigorous fall growth. On the other hand, a mulch applied in winter can keep the ground frozen and cool into late spring, delaying bloom time and avoiding possible frost damage to blooms.
Peaches are prone to some disease, though they usually are disease-free in the north. Many cultivars have disease resistance bred into them. Powdery mildew, peach leaf curl, valsa canker and brown rot fungus can be avoided with proper feeding and preventive measures, all well explained in most fruit growing manuals. Tree borers bore into the trunk base. They can be killed with a wire poked into their entry hole.
So you have wowed the neighbors with your ability to grow peach trees. You’ve kept away the raccoons, the local kids, and the escape artist goat next door. Now, it’s harvest time! Peaches are ready to harvest when they come free with a slight, gentle twist. Handle with care as they bruise easily and damaged fruit rots quickly. Keep peaches in a cool place, either the refrigerator, a cool basement, or a root cellar. They will continue to ripen in a warm room. Peaches lend well to canning, drying, freezing, jam, butter, chutneys, pickles, pies and on and on. Don’t forget ice cream. Home made, homegrown peach ice cream. Invite the neighbors!
Now that you know how to grow peach trees, it’s time to start your own orchard.
By Roberta Bailey
Bunker, John, Fedco Trees.
Hall-Beyer, Bart and Jean Richard, Ecological Fruit Production in the North, 1983.
Hill, Lewis, Fruit & Berries for the Home Garden, Storey, 1992.
——, Pruning Simplified, Storey, 1979.
Page, S. and J. Smillie, Orchard Almanac, AgAccess, 1995.
Phillips, Michael, The Apple Grower, Chelsea Green, 1998.
Otto, Stella, Backyard Orchardist, Ottographics, 1993.