A short guide to growing peaches, including methods of planting, pruning, and harvesting.
Peaches present the paradox that they'll grow in almost any part of the country, but can be grown well in very few. Still, the smallest peach from your own tree will be tastier than most store-bought ones, even though peaches ship better than many fruits.
The peach needs both cold (below 40°F.) and warmth. Without a winter cold snap, the trees skip their dormant period and become too exhausted to bear. On the other hand, the early-flowering buds are very cold-sensitive. One frost and you're wiped out. And without summer warmth the fruit will not mature. Even so, the geographical range for homegrown peaches is almost nationwide, so try a few trees if at all possible.
Since peach trees are so widespread but variable in adaptation, it's important to get stock suitable for your region. There are literally thousands of varieties, and although there is none best suited for downtown San Francisco or mid-Manhattan, there is a variety best for your farm. The trees are for the most part self-pollinating. But it's never a good idea to have less than two or three trees of any given fruit.
You'll get your first peaches after three or four years . . . the big yields will take another three. At that stage of the game you can count on four bushels per healthy tree. Spring planting is the best. A sandy or gravelly loam is preferred. Use a northern slope to delay blossoming if you're in an area of late frost.
Prepare to butcher your peach tree when you plant it. Peaches don't take too well to transplanting, so you will have to cut back the tops severely in order to encourage root development. Trim the leader back almost a third of the total plant height, making sure to cut just above a branch. The new leader will emerge from the junction and you don't want dead wood above it. Prune all the branches back to one and two-inch stubs. The effect you want is a spiked mini-flagpole. From the stubs eliminate all but three or four of the new buds that appear in the summertime. The object of the game is to develop a tree with three or four main branches rising together . . . in other words, a treehouse tree rather than a climbing one.
Regular spring maintenance pruning is the same as for other trees. Get rid of dead branches and shape the tree to be open and without crisscrossing branches. Also, when the tree begins to bear, you will have to thin out fruit growing too close together. One peach to every four or five inches of branch is plenty for it to bear. Even so, if a mature tree lets its branches droop heavily with fruit, you may have to support the branches with braces. Peach trees are prone to natural pruning; that is, branches break off from the weight of too much fruit.
Most peach tree problems will not strike a healthy tree. And those that are serious enough to destroy the tree won't be stopped by all the chemicals or anything else around, unless you kill the tree first anyhow. So sit back and let nature take its course. Fertilize your trees with nitrogen-rich compost in early spring to boost plant growth. Mulch the orchard, but keep the mulch at least two feet from the trunks to minimize peach tree borers. Prune away dead branches and those with injured bark, and pick off any strange bugs or their nests that you spot.
Pick peaches when soft enough to give slightly under light thumb pressure. You've squeezed peaches at your local green-grocer's. Same principle, different fruit . . . the ones you pick ripe off the tree are much more nourishing. Twist fruit up and out as with others.
Peaches not fully ripe can be picked for storage if the season is running out on you, but be sure not to bruise them. Even gently harvested, they won't store for more than three or four weeks in a cool cellar. Make jam of the extras . . . peach jam rivals apricot for sheer lusciousness.