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What to do this week –By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”
There has been a significant increase in the number of people adding fruit and vegetable gardens to their landscapes. Citrus trees are hard to keep in stock because so many homeowners are replacing older declining trees with new varieties they prefer to grow. Cocktail citrus trees, or citrus trees with several varieties on one tree, are becoming even more popular for small gardens where room to plant is an issue. However, there is a constant theme I am being asked regularly. What other types of fruiting trees can be grown in our area?
In this article I want to give you some information on a tree you can use in the garden that you may have not considered in the past. Peaches are excellent additions to any backyard garden and although they do require certain management skills to produce a good crop, peaches can be a rewarding addition. If you follow the few steps I am going to outline for you here, then you will be able to select, plant, shape, and eventually harvest a new crop you will be proud of right in your own backyard. Let us get started.
Peaches are divided into several categories. The first category refers to the chilling time required to produce fruit and second the skin texture. The chilling time for peaches is the amount of time required of temperatures below forty five degrees to produce a peach. Many peach varieties need over seven hundred and fifty hours below forty five degrees per year to produce their fruit. The typical time a “Georgia Peach” needs is about seven hundred hours below forty five degrees. If we tried to grow a peach tree here that grew in our yard in Georgia, the peach tree would grow but you would never get a peach. This is why we have had to breed peaches which require very low chill rates in order to produce a crop of fruit. Central Florida only gets about one hundred and fifty to two hundred hours per year of temperatures below forty five degrees. So you need to select a variety of peach with low chilling hours of one hundred and fifty hours or less. Fortunately, there are several varieties I can recommend to you. Look for TropicBeauty, FlordaPrince, and FlordaGlo. These varieties all do well in Central Florida. Another variety many of you may have heard of is called the Red Ceylon. Red Ceylon peaches did well years ago but the Caribbean fruit fly started attacking the fruit and many of us stopped growing that variety.
There is also another characteristic or category peaches fall into. These characteristics are called melting flesh, non-melting flesh or stony hard flesh. Melting flesh peaches get softer as they ripen and seem to melt in your mouth when fully ripe. Non – melting flesh are used primarily in canning. Stony hard flesh refers to the Asian varieties which are very crunchy or hard and never melt in your mouth. The varieties I recommended above are the melting flesh varieties most of us like to eat fresh. Unless you plan on using your fruit for canning purposes, I highly recommend the melting flesh varieties. Now that you have the basics, let us start picking out a tree for the garden.
Selecting a peach tree will depend on the time of year you plan on planting the tree, the type of tree you select, and your budget. If you plan on purchasing a small tree grown in a container, then you can plant the tree any time of year. Bare root trees are inexpensive and they are available at many of the garden centers and box stores. Most bare root trees look like sticks with roots which make them easy to plant but they require special care to make sure they grow quickly. You must plant bare root peaches during the dormant season while the temperatures are still cool so now is a good time to purchase them. Dig a hole in full sun twice the width of the root system and as deep as the roots are.
While holding the plant above the soil line fill in the dirt around the roots while making sure the roots are well spread out. Make sure the crown of the root system is above the soil line when you are finished adding soil into the planting hole. Do not add additional amendments such as peat or perlite to the soil as the new roots will not venture out of the planting hole if enhanced soil is introduced. You may need to add additional dirt from the area surrounding to the planting hole as the soil removed from a hole never seems to fill the hole completely. Lightly tamp the soil down with your hand to secure the plant trying not to compact the dirt around the new roots. Build a watering mound around the plant then fill with water slowly to allow the water to sink in filling all the air gaps around the roots. Mulch the watering mound and keep the roots moist at least once a week if we do not get any rain.
Containerized plants usually have a stable root system and can be planted throughout the year. You can purchase peach trees in several sizes however, I prefer larger trees as I like the instant gratification of producing fruit my first year but this will depend on your budget. If you are going to purchase a smaller tree you should look for at least a three gallon size for your garden. Remember, because peach trees only get to be about ten feet tall and are open growers you can plant them in areas that you may have not considered before. Also, because they are deciduous, you can plant other vegetable crops around the tree during the winter. Do not plant these winter crops directly beneath the tree but rather several feet away from the trunk as not to injure any roots running along the surface.
Now that the trees have been planted you will need to water and fertilize them regularly. Feed your trees a granular slow release 8-10-10 fertilizer every two months to ensure healthy root and bud growth. Peaches normally start producing buds and flowers in mid-February. Trees already established but lacking proper fertilization will bloom early, sometimes in November or December. If this happens to you, put your trees on a regular fertilizer program every two months. New plantings should not have this problem if you start your fertilization program on time.
In February as the flowers and small fruit begin to form, you can start thinning the crop. Peaches tend to overproduce so removing some of the crop will allow the rest of the blossoms to mature to full size. Remove flowers and small fruit which are clustered closely together leaving approximately six inches between the fruit. Fruit left to ripen in clusters will be small and may ripen unevenly. Some nurseries remove non fruit bearing branches which shade the bearing branches, this practice allows good air flow through the plant and reduces the incidence of fungal problems. This is also the reason we need to prune our maturing trees regularly.
Pruning is done in the winter between December and January on new and established trees. Because peaches want an open canopy with no central leader, you will need to prune your tree each year. On small trees select three or four wide angled shoots and remove all other branches. Cut back all branch tips (Heading Cut) to keep trees from growing too tall. On established trees make your heading cuts and remove all crisscrossing branches, suckers or water sprouts, or non vigorous branches. When you are done pruning your tree should have enough room between the branches for a bird to fly through without touching a branch. Pruning is necessary for proper fruit production and to give your tree a proper frame for a lifetime.
Peaches should be picked as they ripen in June or July. Once the rainy season starts, the fruit is susceptible to fungal problems so keep your eyes on the fruit. If the flesh starts to give a little to the touch it is time to pick. If left too long on the tree the fruit will be taken by birds and wildlife so make sure you monitor your crop as it matures.
Peaches have always been a favorite of mine and a great addition to the landscape. Whether you start with a small bare root plant or a large containerized plant, with a little care and time you will have a tasty treat for the kitchen table. Try to find the varieties I recommend and pay special attention to the pruning requirements. Thank you for your support and remember, without plants we would not be here!