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Q. My peach trees struggled this year. The fruit set was very sparse, and the fruit that did make was inedible due to disease and bug holes. Can you provide some tips to hopefully prevent a repeat of last year?Photo credit – Chris Becker, Alabama Extension
A. I am so glad that you asked this question now. For some folks, their peach trees are the last thing on their minds in fall and winter. However, there are some steps that you can take now to help alleviate a lot of problems when spring does roll around. Also, now is a great time to develop an annual maintenance plan to make sure that each season is a “fruitful” one.
Right now, you should be thinking about steps to controlling insects and disease. If any fruit fell to ground this year, pick it up and dispose of it. Diseases can over-winter on fallen fruits. Fungal diseases are prevalent in our climate so it’s difficult, even with cleanliness, to grow peaches in Alabama without a spray program. More backyard fruit trees die from pests that could have been prevented with dormant sprays than from any other cause. In mid to late winter, you should make your first “dormant oil” application, making sure that the air temperature is above freezing. Three weeks later, you should make a repeat dormant oil application. As winter moves into spring, peach trees should be sprayed with a fungicide (like copper or chlorothalonil), just prior to flowering. This step should be repeated every 2 weeks until harvest. Additionally, an insecticide should be applied in 2-week intervals AFTER the blooms fall from the trees. This prevents peach curculio, fruit moth, and others. These applications should occur until harvest, as well. Timing of the insecticide application is crucial so that beneficial pollinators are protected.
Another important step in proper peach maintenance is correct pruning. Peaches should be trained to the open-center system. A properly pruned peach tree will have an upside-down umbrella shape. Remove any diseased or broken branches as well as all vigorous shoots growing upward or crossing over the middle of the canopy of the tree. Now, you know how to prune, but what about timing? Peach trees should always be pruned in mid- to late February, after the threat of freezing weather has passed. This process should take place just before trees leaf out. Pruning too early in the season encourages bacterial canker and could lead to tree death.
Adequate fertilization is essential to peach tree success. In early March, you should apply a cup of 10-10-10 (or similar analysis) fertilizer per year of tree age. Do not exceed a maximum of 10 cups for mature trees. In August, after all fruit is harvested, apply a cup of calcium nitrate per year of tree age, not exceeding 4 cups for mature trees.
One other tip is directly related to fruit size. The greater the number of peaches on the tree, the smaller those peaches will be. To prevent limb breakage and ensure fruit quality, you should thin peaches about four weeks after full bloom, or just after the natural “May” fruit drop. Hand-thin peaches, leaving about 6” between the remaining fruit on the tree.
I hope these tips are helpful. Yes, I know that it might be a little early to talk about peaches, but developing a maintenance plan now is essential to ensuring a bountiful harvest later. Happy gardening!
Written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES).
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