Nothing says summer more than biting into a ripe peach, especially if you are lucky enough to buy some from a local farmers' market. Even better is being able to enjoy this favorite fruit by growing your own peaches (Prunus persica). While they are not difficult to grow, they do require attention to produce bumper crops of the fruit.
Peach trees are deciduous trees that produce pink or white blooms in the early spring. The fruit follows soon after and will ripen from June into August depending on the local climate and the variety planted. Standard-size peach trees can reach heights of up to 25 feet, although it is recommended to prune to a top height of about 10 to 15 feet to maximize fruit yield and to keep the fruit within reach when harvesting. Dwarf varieties, such as Prunus persica 'Parade,' can reach 6 feet in height.
Peaches have either white or yellow flesh depending on the variety. The fruit is also classified by the type of pit it contains. Freestone peach pits separate easily from the flesh. They are the type most commonly found in grocery stores. Clingstone peaches have pits that stick to the flesh. They are commonly used in jellies and for canned peaches. There are also donut-shaped peaches as well as nectarines. And if you prefer a smoother fruit, nectarines are peaches without the fuzz.
Best Uses for Peaches
Peaches are the unofficial fruit of the summer — perfect for delectable desserts like peach cobbler and peach pies, but also can be used as an unexpected addition to a savory food such as salsa or even grilled and served alongside a pork chop. Of course, the best and most classic way to enjoy a peach is to pull one out and enjoy for an afternoon snack in the sunshine.
As with any fruit tree, you will be planting peach trees where you can easily get to the fruit. While proper pruning should keep the tree about 10 feet tall, it will be as wide as it is tall. Keep that in mind because peach trees need full sun, and they cannot be planted near another tree or building that will shade them for part of the day. If you are planting multiple trees, plant them 15 to 20 feet apart. Dwarf varieties should be spaced 10 to 12 feet apart.
Dwarf peach trees can be planted in pots and placed on patios or decks. Start with a 5-gallon pot. As the tree matures, it may become root bound. You can then transplant it to a larger pot.
Most peach varieties are self-pollinating, which means the tree will produce fruit when planted alone. A different variety planted within about 50 feet can increase the yield.
How to Grow Peaches
- Common Name: Peach
- Botanical Name: Prunus persica
- When to Plant: Late winter or early spring. If the ground is frozen, wait until it thaws. Do not plant when the ground is soggy.
- USDA Zones: 4-9
- Sun Exposure: Full sun
- Soil Type: Fertile, well-draining soil that is slightly acidic with pH 6.0 to 6.5
- When It's in Trouble: The leaves have a whitish tint and may curl, usually due to poor pruning practices that contribute to inadequate air flow.
- When It's Thriving: Leaves are glossy and deep green. Trees should produce 12 to 18 inches of new growth during the spring and summer.
Starting a Peach Tree From a Pit
It is much easier to plant a peach tree from bare-root stock or a potted plant, but there is something satisfying about snacking on a peach and then turning the pit into a new tree. If possible, use a peach from a local source. Peaches you buy in a grocery store may come from across the country and may not be a variety that will do well in your area.
Use a nutcracker or even pliers to remove a number of kernels from the pits. Place the kernels in a plastic bag that contains moist potting soil. Place the bag in the refrigerator. This simulates winter conditions for the kernel. It's a process called stratification, and it helps the kernels develop root systems.
After two to three months, the kernels should produce roots that are about 1/2 inch long. Discard the ones that don't develop roots. Transfer the kernels to small pots filled with potting soil. Place the pots in a sunny location and keep the soil moist.
Once leaves appear, the plants are ready for the garden. Let them grow indoors until the last frost date has passed. Select the strongest to plant. Then, harden off the plant or plants by exposing them to the outdoors in a sheltered area, such as a porch, for part of the day. Increase the time the plants are outdoors daily for about a week.
Then, plant the seedlings deep enough to accommodate the root system. A peach tree started from seed should take about three or four years to produce fruit.
Starting Peach Trees From Saplings
Peach trees can be purchased as young peach trees (often seen as potted plants) or as bare-root stock. The basic procedures for planting trees apply to peach trees.
For bare-root trees, try to plant them at your planting site as soon as you receive them. Unwrap the roots and place them in a bucket of water for about one hour. Dig the hole deep and wide enough so that the roots can be spread out, usually about 18 inches deep and wide.
Have a helper hold the trunk while you fill the hole about halfway. Give the trunk a gentle shake to help distribute the soil among the roots. Continue filling the hole, gently tamping down the soil to eliminate air pockets. There may be a bump near the bottom of the trunk where the peach tree was grafted to the root stock. The bump should remain 2 or 3 inches above the ground when the tree is planted.
Water thoroughly until the soil is saturated. Apply about 3 inches of organic mulch around the base of the tree but do not place mulch against the trunk.
Many nurseries will pre-prune bare-root trees before they send them to you. If your dealer did not, prune the main trunk to about 30 inches high and the branches back to three or four buds. The pruning gives the delicate roots time to establish themselves in the soil before they need to supply nutrients to the top growth. The tree should produce fruit in two to four years.
Another way to start a peach tree is through cuttings from established trees.
In What Zone Do Peaches Grow Best?
In general, peaches can grow in zones 4 to 9, but most cultivars do best in zones 6 to 8. If you live in a colder region, look for cultivars that are bred to withstand the colder winter temperatures, such as Prunus persica 'Contender.'
Peaches, like most other fruits, require a certain number of chilling hours each winter so that they can produce fruit when the weather warms. Chilling hours are temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. There is a wide range of chilling hour requirements among peach varieties. Some require as little as 350 hours, while others need over 1,000 hours.
Determining the chilling hours in your area isn't an exact science because winter temperatures can vary from year to year. It's best to contact your local county extension office or talk with someone at a local garden center to determine the peach varieties that are best for your area.
When Should You Plant Peaches?
In warm climates, you can plant new trees in late winter. For colder areas, it is best to wait until spring, especially if the ground freezes during the winter. Plant when the soil is workable but hold off if you expect a hard frost. Avoid exposing the roots of young trees to freezing temperatures.
If you are starting a peach tree from seed, you can start the stratification process around Thanksgiving of the previous year or earlier in warm climates. This will give the young tree time to develop a strong root system before transplanting it to the garden.
Soil, Sunlight and Water Recommendations for Peach Trees
Peach trees prefer well-draining, fertile soil that is slightly acidic to neutral on the pH scale. The pH is a measurement of the soil's acidity and alkalinity on a scale that runs from 1 to 14. A reading of 7 is considered neutral. To determine the condition of your soil, including what nutrients it may lack, have the soil tested at a garden center or the county extension office.
Newly planted trees do not require fertilizer until the tree starts bearing fruit. If the soil is lacking, apply a balanced fertilizer about six weeks after planting. Once the tree begins bearing fruit, its nitrogen needs will increase. Plan on applying a high-nitrogen fertilizer in the spring of each year.
Peach trees require full sun for six to eight hours per day. Place them so that they are not shaded by other trees or buildings.
Water peach trees weekly for the first year unless there is adequate rainfall of about 1 inch per 10-day period. After that, natural rainfall should be all the tree needs except during dry spells. During drought periods, water every week or so.
Thinning peaches once they reach about 1/2 inch in diameter boosts the overall health and size of the crop. Thin by hand so that remaining peaches are 6 to 8 inches apart on the branch.
How to Winterize Peach Trees
Peach trees require annual pruning. There is a marked difference in fruit production and overall health between a well-maintained tree and one that is not pruned regularly. Pruning occurs when the tree is dormant, so early spring is the best time for those in colder climates, but for those who live in southern regions where it's warmer, late winter is also an acceptable time to prune.
The goal is to prune the tree into an open-center vase shape. This opens up the tree for maximum sunlight penetration and airflow. It also makes it easier to harvest the peaches.
During the first pruning that occurs in the first dormant season after planting, you will remove the center leader and direct growth to three or four outward-facing branches. When the tree begins to bear fruit, it is important to remember that the fruit grows on second-year wood. Branches that grow during one season will support fruit the next. As the tree matures, the pruning requirements change, so it is a good idea to consult an arborist or extension office for advice.
How to Harvest Peaches
Harvest ripe peaches from June through August depending on the variety. A peach is ripe when all traces of green are gone, and the peach gives a little when squeezed. Be sure to lift the branch or the fruit to check the color on the underside. Cradle the fruit in your hand and twist gently to remove the fruit from the tree.
Peaches will last for up to two weeks in the refrigerator but keep them out of the refrigerator for as long as possible. If some of the harvest is a little hard, place them in a paper bag for a few days to soften them.
Common Pests and Other Problems for Peaches
Peach trees are susceptible to a number of pests. Among the insects that are easy to spot because they are 1/4 inch and larger are stink bugs and lygus bugs. They harm both blossoms and fruit. Lygus bugs can also inject a toxic substance that can deform roots. There are insecticides to remove the pests, and you can also use stink bug traps.
Aphids are tiny pinhead-sized bugs that cluster and feed on the underside of leaves, causing the leaves to curl and die. You can remove them with a strong spray from a hose, but you will need to check back frequently to make sure they don't return. You can also remove them with insecticidal soap.
Tent caterpillars and webworm caterpillars encase sections of the tree in webs, where they feed on the leaves. You can remove the insects and their webs with a broom or rake and then burn the webs.
Many insects overwinter in garden debris. To help prevent an infestation, clean up the area at the end of the season.
Common Diseases for Peaches
Crown gall is a bacteria that causes galls, or clumps of plant tissue, to form on roots, root crowns, stems and branches. The galls interfere with the transfer of nutrients throughout the tree, causing stunted growth and decreased fruit production. There is no cure except to remove infected plants as soon as you notice them.
Powdery mildew occurs during humid weather. It turns the leaves gray and forces them to curl. Prevent this fungus with careful pruning to provide adequate air circulation.
Crown rot and root rot often appear as dark areas on the tree around the crown and upper roots. The areas may ooze a gummy, saplike material. Careful water management and planting in well-draining soil can help prevent the fungi. Consult a county extension agent for fungicide recommendations.
Fran Donegan is a writer and editor who specializes in covering remodeling, construction and other home-related topics. In addition to his articles and blogs appearing in numerous print and digital media outlets, he is the former executive editor of the consumer magazine Today's Homeowner and the managing editor of Creative Homeowner Press, a book publisher. Fran is the author of two books: Paint Your Home (Reader's Digest) and Pools and Spas (Creative Homeowner Press).