At this time of year we tend to get a bit tired of strawberries. Through the efforts of growers, who can produce a long supply of fruits through staggered planting and the use of poly tunnels, we now expect fresh, home-grown strawberries for months. Locally produced strawberries, with few food miles are almost as good as home grown and I am lucky to live in Co. Wexford, known for strawberry production, where almost every road has a strawberry stall at this time of year.
I have always been a glutton for good strawberries but I think that home-grown peaches are almost better. In the same way that you just haven’t eaten an apricot unless you have had a ripe one fresh from the tree, you have not eaten a peach if all you have had if one from a plastic punnet that was picked weeks away from being ripe. It makes sense that these fruits, from Spain, are picked when rock hard: a ripe peach bruises as you pick it and needs to be eaten immediately before the flesh browns. Then you need a napkin, or a bucket, to catch all the juice that will flow from your mouth.
Peaches are easy to grow. The tree is completely hardy. There are a few issues though, that need to be thought about before you start:
Peaches are vigorous and take up a lot of space. The best way to grow them is fan-trained against a sunny wall.
They flower very early, when frosts are likely and there are few bees around. Hand pollination is necessary.
They need warmth in summer, to ripen the wood and to ripen the fruits.
The biggest problem is peach leaf curl, a fungal disease that starts from spores on the trees in spring when wet. If it gets hold the leaves turn red and curl before dropping prematurely. Keeping the tree dry in spring is the best way to prevent it. After May you can wet the foliage – good to keep down red spider mite.
So, if you have been paying attention, you can see that a greenhouse or polytunnel is the best place to grow a peach. I emphasise that heat in winter is not necessary and is harmful so a conservatory attached to the house is not suitable. Outside on a sunny wall is fine if you can erect a plastic cover in winter or you can buy a dwarf, patio peach and put it in a plastic greenhouse in winter.
There are many varieties but these are ‘Peregrine’ which is the most common, white-fleshed peach. All this advice applies to nectarines too, which are simply bald peaches and NOT hybrids with plums.
Of course, there is more to it than that. After pollinating the flowers, you need to thin the fruits, so they are about 15cm apart to mature. Once picking is over you need to prune – remember you never prune peaches or cherries, or plums, in winter. Next year fruit will be produced on the new stems that are growing now so I will soon prune out a lot of the old, fruited branches and tie in the new ones.
Feeding is useful, and plenty of water while the fruits are swelling. If the soil is acid then adding lime is important too, to help stone formation, as with any stone fruit.
It sounds like a lot of work but it is not really, and the rewards are truly delicious.