Last night I attended a fun lecture at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. Dr. Mike Parker (Mike), a pomologist at NCSU, talked about growing peaches in NC.
He discussed how to determine when a peach is ripe, the types of peaches suitable for NC growers, as well as some tips for growing peach trees. Then we had a tasting, yum.
How to choose a ripe peach.
Color: Don’t look at the red color on a peach. Look at the “ground” color. The ground color is the color under the red, usually most easily seen at the stem end of the peach. It should be white or light yellow. If it’s green, it’s not ripe and if you pick it, it may never be.
Swelling: The peach should be uniformly swollen on the sides of the “suture”, that’s the line from stem end to tip. It should be plump looking on both sides.
Softness: This is harder to determine—we don’t want to bruise our peaches. A hard peach may never soften. In fact, Dr. Parker said that Chilean growers want to breed harder peaches so they can ship better. He also said he likes a crisp peach, others may think that’s a bit sacrilegious because if the juice doesn’t run down your chin, you’ve got a bad peach.
Peaches for NC growers.
Peaches are grafted fruit trees. That means a portion of the desired fruit tree (scion) is attached to and grown on a rootstock well adapted to our soils. There are three good rootstocks for NC; Lovell, Halford for the Piedmont and Guardian for the Sandhills.
It is important to choose cultivars that have a long chilling period, over 750 hours for us (1000 hours is even better). The chilling period is the length of cold weather (under 45°) required for blooming. Some peaches have short chilling periods which allow them to bloom when we have warm winter days. Then, after a nice balmy day, the blooms get zapped with low temps and you’ll get no peaches for that year.
If you have room, grow more than one type. That way, you’ll extend your harvest as most peaches ripen at different times.
Some recommended varieties are: Contender, Redhaven, Norman, Carolina Belle (white-fleshed), Winblo, Summer Pearl (white-fleshed), Cresthaven, Encore and Legend. These are all self-pollinating so you only need one tree for fruit. Others are Norman, Intrepid, Clayton, Derby, Challenger, Jefferson, Biscoe, Carolina Belle, China Pearl (white-fleshed) and Carolina Gold.
Peach trees require some care to get a good harvest. It’s important to thin young fruits so that the fruit isn’t too heavy to break the branches. Fruits should be spaced about 6 inches apart on the branches. Dr. Parker showed a few ways growers do this; a toilet brush (unused for its intended purpose, of course) on a stick to run over the branches, a plastic baseball bat to knock young fruits off or simply climbing on a ladder to thin by hand.
Proper pruning is also important during both the winter and summer. A well pruned tree will allow light and air to get into the center of the tree as well as support the heavy summer fruits.
A problem with peaches is a syndrome called Peach Tree Short Life (PTSL). It might be caused by nematodes in the soil. In an area where this has been a problem, soil fumigation before planting new trees might be helpful.
Dr. Parker said there are no completely organic ways to fight a few peach pests. But he reminded us that organic, meaning no synthetic chemicals, doesn’t imply “safe”. Nicotine is organic, but it’s a potent pesticide requiring respirators and other protective clothing.
Weed control around peach trees is also important. He showed some photos of 5 year old trees surrounded by grass and bare soil. The trees surrounded by bare soil were much larger than the others. Someone asked if mulch was OK and Dr. Parker said that it would be most of the year, but in winter it could harbor pine voles that could damage your trees. Pull the mulch back 2’-3’ away from the trunk. He also recommended painting the trunks white (using latex paint) in the winter to discourage borers.
It’s good to plant bareroot trees in January. Container grown trees could be planted any time.
Dr. Parker and his colleagues have produced a publication called Producing Tree Fruit for Home Use. Check it out for more information about growing peaches.
Finding Peaches for your garden
When asked about sources for trees, Dr. Parker said that glossy catalogs probably won’t have plants that meet the requirements above. (By the way, there are no dwarf peaches with good fruit.) Neither will big box stores. If you find plants for sale you should find out the tree variety and the variety of the rootstock. North Carolina Foundation Seed Producers in Zebulon (919-269-5592) grows trees on Guardian rootstock and sells bareroot plants. Pat McCracken of McCracken’s Nursery, grows trees in 1 and 3 gallon containers. You can reach Pat at 919-365-7878, he’s also in Zebulon. If any readers know of other growers, please provide info in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.
After learning all this fantastic information the peaches smorgasbord was unveiled. Here’s a pic of them all ready for sampling. That’s Dr. Parker in the background.
We got to try 10 varieties. Norman, a unnamed white fleshed variety, White Lady (white fleshed), Winblo, Challenger, Intrepid, Contender, China Pearl (white fleshed), Carolina Gold and a Peento or doughnut type (white fleshed).
My favorites were Intrepid, Challenger, Contender, Norman and Carolina Gold. As you can see, I’m not a big fan of white fleshed peaches.