“But Georgia is the peach state!”
This is the frustrated and confused response that I often receive when explaining peaches are one of the most difficult backyard fruits to grow in Georgia. Every year, folks who were hoping for sweet and juicy peaches from backyard trees call me to get a diagnosis on their failing crop. They tell me there are worms in their peaches (plum curculio), they are rotting on the tree (brown rot), the tree is oozing (gummosis), and something is eating the tree trunk (lesser or greater peach tree borers). Sometimes, the correct answer is all of the above.
What do I need to do?” they ask.
”Plant blueberries!” I enthusiastically reply.
Backyard growers can produce peaches, and the odd magical year happens when insects may not do significant damage, but that is the exception. In Georgia it is hot and humid, and for pest management that means we have prime conditions for all the bugs and all the diseases. Commercial growers have a very detailed plan for managing those insects and diseases. So know that if really want that peach crop, you are going to have to work hard for it. If you have made it through that intro and are still interested in planting peaches, here are a few key details that will help you get it right. Of course, this is a very brief description of recommended practices. For more information on these recommendations, see the UGA Extension publication, “Home Garden Peaches,” at uga.edu/extension/publications.
•Rootstock: Production peach trees are comprised of a shoot of a particular variety grafted onto a particular rootstock. Rootstocks that are good for Georgia include Guardian, MP-29, Halford and Nemaguard.
•Chilling hours: As for the cultivar grafted onto the rootstock, consider chilling hours. Peach trees will not bloom until they’ve experienced a certain amount of cold; it is a mechanism for protecting delicate flowers from frost kill. For success, you want to match a cultivar’s chilling requirement with the chilling hours in a typical winter. For our area, select trees with a high chill requirement, 750-900 hours or more.
•Thinning: Thinning is an easy management strategy to improve the size and quality of fruit. Remove fruits once they reach three-quarters of an inch to one inch, leaving one every 6-8 inches. Although for fruit enthusiasts it may be difficult to pluck off a would-be peach from the branch, failure to do so will result in fruit that is more pit than flesh.
•Management for peaches: All crops have recommendations for management that are crop-specific. The site-preparation recommendations are similar to other fruit crops, but fertilization and pruning are different for peaches than for blueberries or apples. For example, peaches pruned to an open vase or V-pattern provide air flow that will minimize fungal disease pressures and maximize yield. Trees need to be pruned after planting, so review the technique, and refresh before pruning each January. Over the years, horticulture scientists have conducted numerous trials in different regions of Georgia to determine the soil fertility needed to maximize yield. Conduct a soil test and follow the timing and fertilizer rates recommended. You can always substitute an organic fertilizer option if desired, but meeting the plant nutrient requirements is essential to grow a strong crop.
•Insect and disease management: The greatest challenge for producing home garden peaches is pest and disease management. At the minimum, apply appropriate fungicides during blossom time and 2-4 weeks before harvest. Prevent plum curculio, which lay eggs in immature fruit that develop into larvae that eat the mature fruit, becoming the worm in the wormy peach, by applying pesticide after petal drop into early April. Or, apply a fungicide to the fruit after thinning, and then apply a peach bag, which protects the fruit until harvest.
Home peach production is certainly a challenge, but it is not impossible. Take time to do your research before planting. Getting started with the right cultivar, rootstock and site preparation will put you on good footing to begin. If followed with appropriate fertilization, pruning, and pest management, a harvest is possible, and it will be all the sweeter for the work put into it.