Sweet, juicy peaches within your reach
Growing peach trees takes commitment, but produces a tasty reward.
Frank Gouin examines a peach tree branch laden with red, fuzzy fruit, tests one for ripeness and twists it off. Soon peach juice is running down my chin. This orange-fleshed variety, Ernie's Choice, is meaty, sweet, and the freshest peach I've tasted.Skip to next paragraph
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Peaches are as much an iconic fruit of high summer as the tomato; indeed, in 18th-century America it was a far more popular treat. Peach trees, originally from China but brought to the New World by Europeans, became so prolific, both in orchards and in the wild, that even the great botanist John Bartram "assumed the peach was a native tree," writes Peter Hatch in his book "The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello" (University of Virginia Press, 1998).
As with a lot of plants grown to excess, pests and diseases moved in, and by the early 19th century peach farmers in Virginia were, as Hatch notes, battling a deadly virus named peach yellows and two insects, the plum curculio and the peach tree borer. These pests are still around and make the prospect of raising peach trees at home a challenge, even for dedicated gardeners.
In 1995, Gouin retired as head of the horticulture department at the University of Maryland to grow peaches (and Christmas trees) on his 11-acre farm in Anne Arundel County, Md. "I'm having a ball," he says, meaning he goes to a lot of effort to raise luscious peaches. His 132 peach and nectarine trees produce about 200 bushels of fruit each summer, starting with Sentry and the Garnet Beauty varieties in early July and ending with the late-season Redskin in mid-August.
There are three aspects of peach cultivation that discourage casual growers, he says: pruning, thinning, and spraying. But if you commit to them, perfect peaches can be within your reach.
Peach trees fruit on wood that grows the previous year, but they must be pruned in late winter to keep them healthy and productive. Gouin removes any new growth that is shorter than 12 inches. He trims longer stems back to 18 inches. He also removes wayward or unneeded stems that might erupt from the branches. There goes his March.
Thinning blooms and fruit
A little later, when the pretty blossoms appear, Gouin is out there with a toilet brush on a stick. A branch might have three ranks of blossoms, and he simply rubs out the top row with the brush when the flowers are at "popcorn stage" — just about to open fully.
Both the pruning and thinning reduce the fruit set, and without those steps the trees will produce hundreds of congested fruits about the size of a golf ball. When the fruits begin to form, Gouin goes back and removes them by hand to leave desired fruit four to six inches apart on the branches. "No one wants a peach less than 2 1/2 inches" in diameter, he says.