Peaches, easier than you think

You have not fully lived till you have eaten a luscious perfectly ripened home grown peach still sun warm from the tree. Home grown a peach is so much better than the shop bought item which may look similar but can never be as perfumed or fully matured. Indeed if it were it would not survive the transport home as a ripe peach almost bursts in your hands like a balloon full of syrup. Although you may not realise it they are also rich in vitamins and so health giving as well as a pleasure to eat. And, if you choose the right way, they are easier to crop than you think.

Peaches come in many varieties varying in skin colour, flesh colour, perfume and season but all have a delightful fuzziness on the skin. Some are cling and some free stone depending on whether the flesh is easy or not to tease off the nut's shell, or rather out of the small holes in it. Very similar are nectarines which are a more tender sub-group of peaches with smooth skins and a vinous flavour somewhat like a rich plum. Almonds are another sub-group as they are effectively peaches with a thin inedible flesh and a big edible kernel instead of vice versa.

Almonds can be grown just like peaches but should not be grown anywhere near them to prevent cross pollination and bitter nuts. There are several ornamental versions of the almond and other closely related species as most have spectacular pink blossoms. The flowers on most cultivated peaches are just as showy most carrying big blooms in flushes but some are less showy, the Peento squashed peaches have amongst the best flowers. Most peaches are self fertile however the early flowering may miss the insects so pollinate by hand with a small brush at least a percentage of flowers in the best places.

Of all the variations only two peaches; Peregrine and the very similar if more yellow fleshed Rochester, will reliably and consistently ripen fruit outdoors as bushes or small trees but then only in the south and east of the UK. Even so they often suffer from frosts and diseases. On a warm wall trained as fans these two can crop further afield, and under glass will do almost anywhere. However fan training is a little tedious and difficult to keep going, and peaches housed permanently on walls and under glass succumb to many complaints particularly red spider and often fade away from the lack of a winter chill.

So if you live in the south east with a favoured warm site then it is really worth growing these two varieties of peaches as bushes. Planted out they will flower and try to crop in only a year or two, hand pollination will help but is not necessary if you have bumble bees about. As the plants get bigger over the years they will crop on average three or four years out of five and more if you are lucky and if you can keep spring frosts off the flowers and fruitlets. I've gone as far as building temporary car tyre walls behind some bush trees to throw up extra warmth.

As with plums and apricots during the years that they do crop they tend to over crop so then they need thinning so that those left can swell to decent sized fruits. Thinning also prevents the plant exhausting itself- don't leave peaches where, once full size, they might touch and ideally so they end up a hand's breadth or more apart.

Their soil needs to have some lime, be moist and well fed with compost and really thick mulches. Peaches can enjoy richer conditions than most other fruits, excepting blackcurrants, without being forced into rank growth. More important though is plentiful and constant soil moisture, but of course never waterlogged, thus the importance of mulches. They are rarely grown on their own roots; on the plum type stocks such as St Julian A they make up to thirty feet across in as many years but the latest dwarfing stocks and containerisation keep them much smaller. And they can be hard pruned.

Proper peach pruning can be rigorous, and needs to be if they are to be trained, usually as fans, as the unfortunate tendency is for the 'dead' centre to expand. Constant removal of fruited and older wood with it's replacement by young shoots is needed to keep a fan productive. And you must find young growth to cut back to as the old wood never sprouts -so you cannot let it go and then catch up later. However as long as you keep them vigorous they do respond well to hard pruning and the more compact plants are easier to cover with sheets and nets. Alternatively peaches can just be let go almost unpruned as bushes and small trees and will often crop, grow and eventually peter out at between fifteen and thirty years old when the limbs are so long they break off.

Hard pruning every year as for a fan but done to a tree or bush will keep it more compact and easier to keep fruitful however it will still suffer the same eventual problem. It is almost impossible to get old wood to sprout or even accept buds or grafts and the centre inevitably becomes unproductive whatever method of pruning, or not, you choose. But as peaches are not long lived anyway and so need replacing after a couple of decades or so they just needs be regarded as expendable as with, say, blackcurrants. However you should have many years of excellent crops before they expire.

Grown outdoor peach trees often get attacks of peach leaf curl which distorts, reddens and puckers their leaves weakening growth and even killing young specimens. I used to treat it successfully with Bordeaux sprayed in mid and late February but as my bushes got bigger and tougher I've been able to desist as they can now survive despite the damage. The leaf curl can also be prevented by covering the bushes with plastic to keep them dry but that is only achieved when they are still small or on a wall. Plastic sheets can also keep the frost off the flowers but can be troublesome during intermittently cold and windy periods. Peaches may occasionally suffer earwig infestations in the fruits, ripe fruits may quickly bruise and rot, and silver leaf can get in through cuts and damage- but all these are nothing compared to the bird and wasp damage that can happen some years. Fine netting or individual paper bags are the only cures.

So although you can grow at least two varieties with regular success as bushes outdoors in the south east this can still be risky and anywhere else it takes much more work as it really requires warm walls and fan training. If you want to grow choice varieties then they may succeed in the south east as fans but anywhere else and you really need to grow them under glass but that brings the problems of fan training, lack of a winter chill and a build up of pests. And the plants, even fan trained, take up a lot of space under glass. But there is a way round- the best alternative for any variety anywhere in the UK is Orchard house cultivation. This is using large but movable pots going in and out of a greenhouse, polytunnel or conservatory so they are housed for only part of the year. By this means many more tender varieties can be grown, more varieties can be squeezed into the same space, the bushes are kept naturally dwarfed and so need little pruning, a winter chill can be given and most indoor and outdoor pests and diseases are outmanoeuvred.

The peaches on dwarfing stocks are planted in twenty five litre plastic tubs of rich well drained compost. They are housed outdoors all summer, autumn and early winter. This gives them adequate winter chill to go properly dormant. From mid to late winter they are brought under cover, all at once or this can be done with several of the same sort one coming in every other week or so to spread their season over many months. Coming under cover jolts the plants from their dormancy into early flowering and cropping even if the space is not heated. Hand pollination with a brush is obviously necessary and then thinning the crop is essential and best done is several stages. DO NOT LEAVE TOO MANY! Feeding with their water is important as the plants are hungry and I use a home made comfrey/borage mixture alternating with fish emulsion and seaweed. The plants must be well ventilated at all times and the occasional misting helps deter red spider from getting established.

Being under cover keeps off the leaf curl, which can only get in as the buds unfurl. The cover also keeps off the frost problems ensuring crops every year and the bird damage though not the wasps, though as the plants crop so early the wasps are usually not too troublesome. Once the fruit is off the plants can go out again to a sunny corner. Then the long sojourn outside cleans up the plants from red spider and other pests so they are clean once more when brought in again.

Of course the crops are light from small bushes in pots compared to the cropping potential of a whole tree but then many varieties can be got into a small space, and they do crop every year like clockwork. The only down side is the extra watering and feeding which you have to do -but this is balanced by the bushes rarely needing much pruning. And the choice of variety is worth it as any of the more tender sorts such as Bellegarde and Royal George, the Peento flattened peaches, and especially the luscious nectarines such as Pine Apple and Lord Napier, are all attainable this way almost anywhere.