Neil Sperry: Feeling peachy keen

01/17/2014 12:00 AM

01/16/2014 11:12 AM

A bowl of fresh peaches and ice cream would sound pretty good about now. It’s January, and thinking about peaches takes us to June. School’s out. No more icy roads for a while. No more flu. Lots more fun. Yeah. That would be nice.

However, June peaches begin with January plantings (several years earlier). If you’re serious about having peach trees, this is the month when you will need to set those wheels in motion. We’ll have the guidelines in a few moments. Before that, however, you need to be forewarned that peaches are a medium-maintenance crop. They’re not trees that you can plant and forget, so if that’s likely to happen, you are better off buying fresh peaches at the store.

In the more likely chance that you will want to try growing a couple of trees, here are your prime steps to success.

• Peaches must have full sun and reasonably good soil. Black clays are fine. Sandy loam, if you’re lucky enough to have it, is even better.
• The trees will grow to be 9 or 10 feet tall and 16 to 18 feet wide. I’ll explain the height thing in a moment, but you have to have at least that much ground space per tree, because crowded peach trees will never bear well.
• Buy either bare-rooted trees from a local nursery or farm store, or order them online from a Texas-based growing operation. You may even be able to find peach trees in nursery containers. Whichever way that you buy them, choose trees that are 3 to 5 feet tall. Buying taller “bearing-size” trees is a mistake, because they’re set back more at the time that they’re planted.
• Plant peach trees immediately after you get them, and set them at the same depth at which they had been growing before. Don’t worry about adding soil amendments to their planting holes, since their roots will soon outgrow those holes anyway. Water the loose soil slowly after you plant, then add more soil, compact it gently and water again.
• At the time that they are planted, peach trees should be pruned to 22 to 26 inches from the ground. That will allow you to select those limbs that will become the main branches for the tree for the rest of its life.
• As the new growth begins to develop just below the initial pruning cuts, select three scaffold branches that originate at slightly different heights on the trunk. They should be spaced roughly 120 degrees from one another.
• As the tree grows and develops, your goal should be to produce a low, spreading cereal-bowl shape. Each winter you will prune to remove any strongly vertical shoots, leaving only branches that face outward, more or less parallel to the ground.

That kind of horizontal branching will be stronger and better able to support the weight of the developing fruit. The peaches will get better exposure to sunlight, so they’ll ripen more uniformly, and handwork that you’ll have to do such as thinning and harvesting will be much easier, since most of it can be done while standing on the ground.

• You’ll begin to have peaches after three or four years, and at that point you’ll have to start spraying to protect them from the insect and disease pests that will try to invade them.

Each year’s spray schedule starts with horticultural oil in the winter for scale insects, and proceeds with spraying at seven- to 10-day intervals from late February almost until harvest to prevent loss to plum curculio (worms that invade the fruit), brown rot fungus (causes deterioration of fruit) and several other pests.

Texas A&M spray guidelines on the Aggie Horticulture website will give you the precise schedule for protecting peaches and plums. (They share the same pests.) Make special note of any available means of stopping entry of peach tree borers. They are serious threats to the trees themselves, and most insecticides that prevent them have disappeared from the consumer market.

• All this information, and yet I saved some of the most critical for the end. Which peach varieties are best in North Central Texas? The answer lies in the number of chilling hours we get here in the Metroplex.

For simplicity’s sake, “chilling hours” refers to the average number of hours to which the tree will be exposed to temperatures lower than 45 degrees. That exposure is what determines when the tree will be prompted by its own internal hormones to pop into bloom when a warm spell rolls in. You don’t want a “low-chilling” variety (intended for South Texas), because it will try to bloom too early, perhaps even in January. You don’t want a Midwest variety that requires much more cold than we get, because it may never bloom or even leaf out.

Our area receives, on average, 750 to 850 chilling hours each winter, so those are the numbers you need to match. George Ray McEachern, fruit and pecan specialist with Texas A&M University, told me recently that his variety suggestions here include (in rough general sequence of ripening): Springold, Surecrop, Sentinel, Harvester, Ranger, Redglobe, Dixieland and Redskin. That collection can give you fresh peaches from late May/early June through mid- to late July.

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