Juicy, succulent and incredibly good looking – there’s no excuse not to grow these stunning tree fruits, says Anthony Bennett
Few foods can compete with peaches when it comes to juiciness. Their plump, sun-ripened fruits are positively bursting with sweetness, making this month the height of the fruit grower’s calendar. If you’re lucky enough to have a warm, south- or southwest-facing wall then this is the fruit for you, but even if you don’t there are plenty of dwarf varieties available that are perfect for growing in pots on the patio.
Peaches and nectarines are closely related but peaches perform better in the cooler British climate and are the less troublesome to grow. Both are self-fertile, which means you can grow one tree on its own and it will still produce enough fruits to keep a family well-stocked. Peaches and nectarines are also worth growing for their decorative value – their attractive pink blossom is followed closely by thin, almost glossy leaves that catch the light.
Originally from China, peaches have been grown in Britain for at least a thousand years, so they are not particularly new or exotic to our shores. If you have a sunny, reasonably sheltered spot then a peach tree is worth growing and will pay you back many times over with year after year of delicious fruits.
Select only the warmest, most sheltered spot to grow peaches. Bear in mind that although the trees need a cold spell to induce flowering, frost pockets should be avoided at all costs. The blossom itself can be damaged by freezing weather, particularly as the trees flower very early in the year. Peaches are best grown against a south-facing wall or fence as a fan shape, but in exceptionally mild and sunny parts they may also be grown as a free-standing bush.
In August or September prepare the ground by digging it thoroughly at least a month or two before planting to give it enough time to settle back down. Dig in plenty of well-rotted garden compost or similar organic matter to improve drainage and fork in a couple of handfuls of bonemeal or other slow-release general purpose fertiliser. Dig down to a minimum of two spade’s depth and at least 90cm out from walls to ensure the roots have plenty of prepared soil to get stuck into. If the earth is not very well drained because it has a high clay content then completely dig it out and place a layer of rubble into the bottom of the hole before back-filling with the soil and compost mixture. This will help to prevent waterlogging.
Autumn is the best time to plant peaches as the soil is still warm from the summer and regular rain will reduce the need for watering. Roots should break out into the prepared ground well before winter arrives, allowing new introductions to settle down in good time. Buy either container-grown or bare-rooted trees and space them at least 3.5m apart.
Because of their requirement for sun, both peaches and nectarines are best grown as a fantrained tree. These trees will need supporting, so stretch horizontal wire supports across your wall or fence before planting. Space these about 15cm apart and secure them using vine eyes. Bear in mind that your tree will get considerably taller and wider with time. Look for partly trained twoor three-year-old plants with at least eight branches (known as ‘ribs’) – these will form the basis of your fan and will be ready to tie in to your supports.
To plant, dig a hole capable of comfortably taking all the roots. Spread these out in the hole then fill back the soil so the tree is buried to the same point it would have been in the nursery. Tread down the earth with the heal of your boot to firm it in and make sure the tree angles slightly towards the wall or fence. The base of the tree should be about 22cm away from the wall to give it enough room to expand, and so the roots are not too badly affected by the rain shadow that a wall invariably casts.
Tie each of the eight or so ribs to a bamboo cane for additional support, then tie these canes onto the horizontal wire supports. The two main left and right ribs should be at an angle of about 45° to the ground with the remaining ribs spaced out evenly over the wall.
Towards the end of the winter following planting, apply a general purpose fertiliser and thoroughly mulch around the base of the plant with a generous layer of well-rotted organic matter to lock in the moisture and suppress weed growth.
Peach trees are at their most vulnerable when in flower. At all costs blossoms should be protected from frost or they may not produce fruit. Be prepared to cover wall-trained trees with fleece if frost threatens but remove this by day so that pollinating insects can easily get at the flowers. If you have screen protection against peach leaf curl then this may be sufficient to prevent any frost damage (see box: peach leaf curl).
As peaches flower so early in the year they may need a little help to ensure successful pollination and fruit set. Use a soft artist’s brush or a cotton wool bud to gently brush the centre of each flower. Move between flowers and do this every day during the flowering period. Once the fruits have begun to form you will then need to make sure they are correctly watered if they are to swell properly. Thoroughly soak the ground around each tree in dry weather (this will be particularly important for young trees). Mulching around the base of plants every spring will help to guard against excessively dry soil.
While it is possible to leave every fruit intact, the size of each peach will be smaller as a result; far better instead to thin them to leave fewer larger fruits on each tree. Begin when they are the size of marbles and reduce each cluster of fruits to leave one at each position. Any facing the wall should also be removed as these will not be able to swell properly. When the fruits have grown to walnut size thin them again to leave about 20-25cm between each one. If birds are a problem, cover plants over with taught netting as soon as the fruitlets appear. Check the nets regularly to make sure there are no trapped birds.
Fan-trained peach trees require a careful pruning regime to get the best results. The process may seem complicated at first but it is quite logical and works on the principle of replacing previously fruited branches with new shoots so that a constant cycle of productive wood is tied in to the supports. Pruning should be carried out on a dry day when the fresh cuts are less likely to be infected by fungal or bacterial pathogens. Disinfect secateurs between pruning each tree to reduce the chances of cross-infection.
Initial fan pruning begins the first February after planting when each rib should be cut back by about a third to a healthy bud. Further ribs will develop as a result of this and these should be tied in as they grow to the wire supports until the entire wall area is evenly covered.
Once trees are established they will require pruning in two stages every year. The first stage, in spring, is carried out once the trees have flowered. At this time, remove shoots growing towards or away from the wall by simply rubbing them out with your thumb. The remaining growth buds should be removed to leave just three per rib: one at the base (this will form next year’s rib), one at the tip and one about halfway along. In May, the three shoots that were left in place will have put on a growth spurt and should be cut back with secateurs to leave around six leaves per shoot.
Once the fruits have been harvested in late summer the final pruning can be made. Cut back all fruited ribs to the shoot at each rib’s base. This will form the new rib to produce next year’s flowers and fruits. Take this opportunity to cut away any other wood that is overcrowding the framework or is diseased.
If your tree has been infected by peach leaf curl in the past, spray the branchwork towards the end of the month with Bordeaux mixture.
Repeat an application of Bordeaux mixture to make sure the disease is under control. Begin pruning new trees as soon as the buds begin to break. Apply a mulch.
Protect blossom from frost damage using fleece but remove it during the day so that pollinating insects can gain access. Hand pollinate if there are few insects about.
Begin harvesting peaches as soon as they are ripe. Check ripeness by gently pressing the apex of each fruit and seeing if it gives slightly.
Enjoy your crop of juicy peaches. As soon as harvesting has finished, summer-prune fantrained trees to remove old, fruited wood. Tie in younger replacement shoots.
Continue pruning fan-trained trees so that the basic framework is in place for the following year. Prepare the soil for new introductions later on in the autumn.
Peach Leaf Curl
One of the the most notorious diseases of peaches, peach leaf curl is a fungus that causes young leaves to blister and turn red then dusty white, eventually causing them to drop from the tree. Although the plant eventually recovers, often growing a second flush of leaves, it will have been severely stressed and any fruits that have formed should be removed so that the tree can concentrate its energies on recovering.
The fungus overwinters in cracks in the bark and is spread by rain droplets and wind. If your tree has been infected then a spray of Bordeaux mixture in January and then again a few weeks later will kill the spores. You can prevent these from germinating on your plants by covering them over in late winter with a polythene screen. The screen will keep the tree dry and should be left in place until about May, when the young leaves will be fully expanded and able to resist the fungus. Make sure any screen you use is open at both sides so that pollinating insects can still gain access. Alternatively, roll up the polythene in dry weather, which will also enable easy hand pollination of flowers.
Related Forum Topics
Peaches: Varieties To Try
With its resistance to peach leaf curl, this variety is the one to pick for worryfree growing. The blossom is a particularly attractive pink.
This is a very slow-growing variety that’s ideally suited to containers. It needs no pruning and produces good-sized fruits.
One of the most popular peaches in Britain thanks to its reliability and excellent yields of big, full-flavoured fruits from early August.
If you are searching for a more unusual-looking peach try this one. It has flatter fruits with a white flesh and a honey taste.
Like ‘Peregrine’ this is a tried and tested outdoor variety that’s unlikely to disappoint. The yellow-fleshed fruits are ready in August.
Handsome, dark red fruits are produced on this late variety that has some resistance to peach leaf curl.
A dwarf variety that’s perfect for container growing. It bears yellow-fleshed fruits of fine flavour and is ready in August.
Beautiful, creamy white flesh can be enjoyed from ‘Amsden June’. It is an early variety ready in July (not June as the name suggests!).
Duke of York
An early variety that’s ready by July. It produces a heavy crop of deliciously flavoured, yellow-fleshed peaches.
One of the most delectable of all peaches, with a pale pink skin and tender white flesh that’s sure to have mouths watering!
Not everyone has the luxury of a wide expanse of wall to grow their peaches. For people with a modest plot a potted peach is an excellent option and it also means the tree can be moved into a cool greenhouse or conservatory from mid-December until early May when the danger of peach leaf curl or frost damage to blossom is at its greatest.
Pick a dwarf variety of peach such as ‘Bonanza’ and pot it up using a soil-based compost such as John Innes No. 3. Dwarf peaches will need hardly any pruning, so this really is a lowmaintenance, easy-care option! Place your tree in full sun and keep it well watered and fed throughout the growing season. An organic liquid feed high in potash will help fruits to swell, and a tree that is four years old will produce up to 20 fruits by the end of the summer. Re-pot trees every few years into fresh compost and keep containers weed-free.