Georgia is the peach state, and so naturally most folks assume that growing peaches is easy here. And fresh-picked peaches still warm from the sun is one of the most delicious things that you will ever put into your mouth. Who wouldn’t want a couple of trees laden with that drip-down-your-chin goodness in your backyard?
Unfortunately, growing peaches is not easy. It is an advanced gardening skill that, unless you are prepared, is fraught with sorrow, most of which occurs two weeks before harvest as hopeful gardeners see their crop destroyed days before harvest.
As a young and ambitious newlywed and new-home owner once upon a time, my husband and I planted two peach trees. By the time they reached production age we had a newborn. We decided we would enjoy the blooms that year and offered them no management; no pruning, no fertilizer and certainly no pest management. Out of the bounty of peaches that developed, I was able to nibble a few pieces cut around rotting and bug infested fruit flesh and to can three half-pints of jelly. Fifty percent of jelly is sugar, so you do the math on our harvest. This experience is not unusual for fruit gardener wannabes. Every year I get calls as peach season comes in from folks going, “what happened?”
But there is good news! You can produce quality peaches in Georgia. Commercial growers do it every year, and so can home gardeners. Pruning should have happened over winter, and if you have questions about that give me a call, but below I’m going to focus on three important pieces of management that should be happening during the growing season.
For fresh, nutrient-packed fruit, you need to feed the tree nutrients! For trees two years and older apply 2 pounds of 10-10-10 per tree, broadcasting evenly in a circle 6 inches from the trunk. In May, add 1.25 pounds of calcium nitrate. In July, put out another 1.25 pounds of calcium nitrate (1 cup equals about half a pound of fertilizer). Year three you can add another 0.15-0.25 pounds if the tree showed symptoms of nutrient deficiency the year before, and you can add a post-harvest application. This is maintenance fertilization, so I would still recommend a soil test so you can adjust this recommendation to your soil and adjust pH; If you amended soil at planting, you can hold off on the phosphorus and potassium (second and third 10s respectively in 10-10-10) for the first couple of years.
When fruit is close to 1 inch in diameter, remove fruitlets so that there is only one good-looking fruitlet every 6-8 inches. I know, removing a potential fruit will hurt your heart. I am with you. But it is necessary. Removing that excess fruit will direct more nutrient resources into each fruit, so that you will harvest large fruit with more flesh than pit. It will be worth it. This will also somewhat balance alternate bearing; the tendency of fruit trees to bear heavy one year, followed by a smaller crop the next year.
Pest Management, Pest Management, Pest Management
I have added extra headings because this is important. You can do all of the other right things and lose your harvest if you do not anticipate pests. There are many crops you can grow in Georgia with little to no pest management. But, if you are adverse to managing for pests, don’t grow peaches. When telling folks this, occasionally they’ll name an exception, or talk about great aunt so and so’s peaches back in the day, but for 99% of situations, these practices are necessary for a good peach production in Georgia. Below is a minimalist spray schedule (much less than commercial growers) for peaches in Georgia.
During bloom, make 1-2 applications of a fungicide, one with active ingredients captan or myclobutanil, to prevent the Blossom Blight phase of brown rot.
After blooming is completely finished (Never, ever, ever apply insecticides during bloom – you will kill the pollinators), apply an insecticide to control plum curculio, the worm in your wormy peach. These weevils lay their eggs in developing fruit, which in turn hatch and work on eating your peaches before you get a chance to. Apply an insecticide with active ingredients malathion, permethrin, or esfenvalerate. Apply every 7-10 days, making three applications in total. Note, the last two products have a bit more efficacy against other secondary pests. Apply again 7-14 days before harvest begins. Keep monitoring for curculio damage, as additional sprays during the growing season may be necessary. You will see crescent shaped blemishes in developing fruit if they are present, but those sprays after bloom and the one before harvest will drastically reduce damage from this pest in most cases.
Pre-harvest: Finally, apply a fungicide with captan, myclobutanil, or sulfur at fourteen and again at seven days pre-harvest. It you see any fruits with brown rot, remove and destroy them to mitigate spread. Again, peaches are prone to many pests and diseases, so feel free to reach out with other pest problems and we can fine tune this recommendation for your particular pest pressures. However, this should address two of the most devastating peach problems, plum curculio and brown rot and leave you with a much better chance of a successful harvest.
For organic growers, there aren’t many solutions for peach pests in Georgia (though it is doable in other places in the U.S., we just don’t have the right climate). However, you can take down that minimalist spray schedule even more by using Clemson Fruit Bags. For more information and instructions for use go to Clemson.edu/extension/peach/commercial/diseases/clemsonfruitbags.html.
Fresh homegrown peaches are in reach for a home gardener, but they take attention, patience, and continual care throughout the growing season. Let me know how it goes this year after you’ve implemented these solutions, or even better, bring me by a fresh peach to try!