Saturday, 3 September 2011

Growing Peaches in Yorkshire

Much to the surprise of many people, I've had a lot of success growing peaches outside all-year-round in Yorkshire.  I haven't been brave enough to plant any out directly in the garden, but the 3 in pots are doing so well, that the doughnut shaped peach "Saturn" and dwarf "Redwing" may have accidentally fallen into an online shopping cart the other day. Oh dear, there's going to have to be some shuffling around on the patio.

Here's a run down of how to get delicious, incredibly juicy, fuzzy peaches like the ones from my tree in the picture below.  We grow-your-own types are well known for saying "there's nothing like a freshly picked ..."  about everything we grow, but really, really, there is nothing like a sun-warm peach picked fully ripe and eaten right there next to the tree (take a kitchen towel).

Peach Tree Avalon Pride in full fruit
What variety of peach:
If you have space for only one peach in a pot (you'll find more space once you get started!) my recommendation is Avalon Pride simply because it's the only peach leaf curl resistant variety. I've left Avalon Pride outside all year round, completely un-sprayed for 2 years, and it's shown no sign of being touched by the horrible peach leaf curl fungus (see below for more about peach leaf curl). In the same location other peaches and nectarines, even though sprayed with copper fungicide (organic-permitted), have all been affected either slightly, or quite badly.

If you really only have room for a dwarf peach, I've been growing a very happy little peach called Bonanza, which produces full size juicy peaches on a pretty, dwarf, mop-head tree. This November new peach arrivals will be Redwing, which has some leaf curl resistance, and Saturn - a flat white-fleshed asian peach. I'll let you know how the other peaches get on next year and whether I'd recommend either of them!

My Peach Tree Suppliers:
I bought the three peaches I've written about here as bare root trees:
Thompson & Morgan - Avalon Pride, Bonanza
Blackmoor Fruit Nurseries - Avalon Pride

Where to grow them:
Peaches in the North are really best grown near a sunny south-facing wall. I don't grow them as fans, as I've no suitable place to plant them. Instead I grow them as free standing bushes in containers. You don't have to go for a dwarf variety to grow a peach in a pot. I've got 2 Avalon Pride trees, growing happily in 2 large airpot containers. They've not outgrown their welcome and since they are quite precocious and will probably bear a small crop the summer after you plant them, and a good crop the year after that, it's worth the chance that some day they'll get a bit too big and need cutting back. During the summer put your potted peach in the sunniest spot you've got.

Peaches are fairly hardy and like blueberries, need a period of chilling over winter in order to break dormancy properly in spring. All of my peaches growing in pots have survived -8C winters, but they are grown close to the house wall. House walls produce a warmer microclimate. Extremely low temperatures can damage flower buds (in the region of about -15C), but I've never had that problem. So, keep your peach near to a South wall if you can and wrap up in horticultural fleece only if the weather is likely to be particularly severe.

Another advantage of growing peaches in pots is that they're less likely to get waterlogged - peaches don't like to have their roots in waterlogged soil for any length of time.

Watering peach trees in pots
The only disadvantage of growing in pots is that the tree is reliant on you for a regular water and nutrient supply. In summer they may need to be watered every day. When you water give the peach a good soak so that water gets all the way down to the bottom of the pot. As a rough guide about an inch of water on top of the compost will soak down around 6 inches. Irregular watering will cause peach pits or fruits to split and the fruit may spoil quickly on the tree. If you can, give them a good drink in the morning before you go to work.

Feeding your peach
Peaches are quite hungry trees and crop better with a plentiful supply of nitrogen. In spring apply a good handful of fish, blood and bone fertiliser lightly ruffled into the top inch of soil, then cover with a inch of compost or other organic mulch. In autumn after the fruits are harvested, lightly work some bonemeal into the mulch. Bonemeal helps to harden the plant up in time for winter.  After the fruits have set and are about the size of a big marble, feed with an organic liquid tomato food every couple of weeks until harvesting starts.

Nectarine Blossom and newly emerging leaves in March - Nectarine Flavour Top
Making sure you get a good fruit set
Peaches flower early in the year, sometimes as early as late February, but generally in my garden in the first week or two of March. You could bring them indoors into a cold greenhouse or a cool conservatory, but pots can be heavy and awkward to move, and the peaches then have to cope with the rather extreme temperature changes that occur under glass. I find it best to keep them against the house and cover them with fleece if the weather forecast says it's likely to drop below 2C when the flower buds are opening.

There aren't many insect about at that time of year in Yorkshire, so I hand pollinate the flower every day or every other day, by gently sweeping a small soft paintbrush over the flowers. Peaches are self fertile so you can just brush over all the flowers on one peach without having to worry about having two different sets of pollen.
Fruit thining

Yes it's heartbreaking to cut off those tiny fuzzy peaches before they get a chance to grow, but you'll have to trust me on this - steal yourself and thin out the fruit to only 1 peach every 6 inches. Yes,  every 6 inches, no "spares." Avalon pride seems to get a lot of funky-looking twin peaches, so I thin those out first to warm myself up to the idea. Thin out at about marble sized, then again golf-ball sized. You'll have much bigger and better peaches by thinning them out.

Peach Problems - Peach leaf curl
Peach leaf curl is a horrible-looking fungal infection that occurs anywhere where peaches are grown in cool damp conditions. It infects leaves just as they are emerging, so there's no point trying to control it once you've seen it. Infected leaves curl and form large dark red lumpy sections, and eventually are shed early by the tree. Extensive infections weaken the tree, may cause twigs to die bag and will seriously affect the harvest.

If you can't keep your peach tree inside and dry, the most effective things I've found, in order, are:
1. 'Full' natural resistance  - Avalon Pride - no sign of curl so far
2. Slight natural resistance, plus organic-approved copper fungicide (e.g. Bordeaux mixture) spray in February -  Nectarine Flavour Top only one or two leaves showed curl. Several other peaches and nectarines show slight resistance
3. Spray in February and wishful thinking, Bonanza had a few leaves curled, dwarf nectarine Nectarella showed about 50% leaves curled and a few twigs died back, Peregrine peach was about 75% covered (then a tree surgeon dropped a big old branch on it and that was the end of it!) :(

Other things that I've found don't make a difference are covering with fleece (but still necessary for protecting flowers from frosty weather), and picking off affected leaves - you might as well leave them on, the tree will drop them when it's ready. Don't let peach leaf curl put you off, if you don't want to spray at all, give Avalon Pride a go.

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