Caring for a Peach Tree Starts at Planting
A peach tree will never produce a good crop of fruit unless it is carefully planted in a good location in the correct planting zone. Careful planting involves:
- Choosing a peach variety with the correct chill hour requirements for your planting zone.
- Selecting a planting site with as much sun as possible.
- Properly preparing the soil for planting.
- Carefully placing the tree into the planting hole.
- Pruning the young tree shortly after planting to establishing a good branch structure.
Chill Hours and Planting Zones
Peach trees can be planted in USDA planting zones 5 to 9, but zones 6 and 7 are most ideal. Whatever planting zone you are in, understanding chill hour requirements for peaches is important before you go out and buy a tree.
Chill hours are the amount of hours a fruit tree needs within a critical temperature range during dormancy in order to set fruit. Different varieties of peaches have different chill hour requirements ranging between 100 and 1,000 hours where the temperature stays between 32º and 50ºF (0º and 10ºC).
Here are the chill hour requirements for a few popular peach varieties:
- August Pride – 100 to 200 hours
- Gulf Queen – 100 hours
- Saturn – 300 hours
- Early Treat – 300 to 400 hours
- Suncrest – 500 hours
- Elberta – 600 hours
- O’Henry – 750 hours
- Angelus – 800 hours
- Indian Blood – 800 hours
If a peach tree does not spend sufficient time in the chill hour range for the given variety, it will not completely break dormancy, bloom, and set fruit. Select a peach variety with chill hour requirements suited for your planting zone. Consult a USDA planting zone map to find out your zone number and chill hours typical for your location.
Sun and Soil Requirements
Peaches need full sun in order to produce a good crop. Full-sun means as much direct sun as possible falling on the tree. Anything less than six hours of direct sun is too little.
Peach trees also need good soil drainage for their root systems to develop properly. Poor soil drainage leads to fungal problems in the roots, which can then also affect the entire tree, including fruit.
Check the drainage of the site by digging a test hole approximately one cubic foot (28 cubic liters) in volume and filling it to the top with water. When the water drains out, fill the hole again and measure how fast the water drains out the second time.
If the water drains out of the test hole at a rate between 1 and 4 inches (2.5 to 10cm) per hour, drainage is adequate. Faster or slower draining soil needs to be amended before planting the tree.
If drainage is slow, you can dig a large planting hole approximately 3 cubic feet (.9 cubic meters) in volume and mix sand in to improve drainage. If soil drains too quickly, add extra compost to retain moisture.
Peach trees need a slightly acidic soil in the range of pH 6.5. Use a soil test kit or meter to check the pH level. Add amendments as needed to get your soil into the correct pH range before planting your tree.
Agricultural lime and wood ash make soil less acidic, and sulfur makes soil more acidic. However, add these amendments slowly and carefully, mixing them thoroughly into the soil, being careful not to add too much.
Consult with the local Agricultural Extension office in your county for detailed information on the soil in your area and how best to amend it for growing peach trees.
Planting the Tree
Soak the tree’s roots in water for about six hours before setting it into the ground. Dig a hole approximately twice as large as the root system and carefully spread out the roots as you place the tree into the hole.
Back-fill the soil into the hole and gently firm it down as you go. Keep the tree’s graft line about 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5cm) above the soil surface.
Water the tree thoroughly immediately after planting, and keep the soil moist, but not soggy, while the tree becomes established. A week after planting, prune the tree to about 30 inches (76cm) in height, and trim side branches into a vase-shaped branch structure.
Summer Irrigation is Crucial for a Good Harvest
Peach trees need plenty of water during the growing season in order to establish a deep root system and then produce good crops of peaches. An average amount of irrigation for a mature peach tree is 36 inches (91cm) of water over the course of spring and summer. However, soggy soil encourages fungal problems in the roots. Monitor watering by checking the soil frequently and keeping a record of how much you irrigate.
You can water a peach tree with frequent drip irrigation or by soaking the area with a sprinkler every two to three weeks. Be sure to deeply soak the entire area around the tree, allowing the soil to dry out to a depth of 3 to 4 inches (7.6 to 10cm) between watering for established trees.
During the first year of growth, peach trees need approximately 5 to 10 gallons (19 to 38 liters) of water per week.
Peach Trees Need Seasonal Fertilizing
Fertilize the planting hole at the time of planting by mixing a 5 gallon (18 liter) bucket of compost or well-rotted manure to the soil. A handful of bone meal added to the bottom of the hole provides nutrients for root development.
After the tree is growing, fertilize in early spring just before bloom and again in the summer by spreading compost or well-rotted manure around the tree or by applying a 12-12-12 fertilizer according to directions on the package.
Peach trees need a fertilizer with balanced amounts of nitrogen for vegetative growth, phosphorus for flower and root health, and potassium for disease and pest resistance.
Spread the fertilizer around the base of the tree, keeping it 6 inches (15cm) back from the trunk and evenly distributed within the drip line of the tree. Water the fertilizer into the soil after applying it.
Timely Thinning of Fruit is Important
Peach trees start producing fruit for harvest in their third year after planting. If the tree produces fruit earlier than this, pluck it off, so the tree’s energy can be used for root, leaf, and branch growth.
After the third year, you can start harvesting fruit from your tree. However, it is common for these trees to set too much fruit, and this is why fruit thinning is important. When there is too much fruit, each piece of fruit is smaller and less tasty.
When fruits are about 1 inch (2.5cm) in diameter, thin excess fruit, leaving at least 6 inches (15cm) between fruits. The remaining fruit will then have enough nutrients and sunlight to get large and juicy. Thinning also helps protect the branches from breaking from too heavy a load of fruit.
Pruning a Peach Tree for Next Year’s Harvest
Pruning peach trees removes old fruiting wood which is no longer productive. Peach trees only produce fruit on branches which are one year old. By trimming older branches, you spur greater fruit production for next year.
Pruning also eliminates dead and diseased branches and keeps the tree at a lower height, making harvesting easier. Prune peach trees after they lose their leaves and go dormant for the winter.
Other Peach Tree Care
Keep the area around the tree free of weeds. Mulching around the base of the tree helps keep weeds down and also retains moisture in the soil. Make sure to keep the mulch from butting against the trunk to prevent disease and pest problems.
Peach trees are susceptible to a variety of fungal and other diseases, and spraying trees with a lime-sulfur solution when they are dormant can prevent many of these problems.
Picking-up fallen fruit from the ground and raking up fallen leaves at the end of the season also helps prevent many disease problems in peach trees.