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Advice on northern peach growing

16 years ago

Found this over on NAFEX. Must pass it on to some people here with questions. I found this information to be excellent. Plan on using it in the future. Its long, but a very good read...print it and keep a copy. This should be a sticky or in a FAQ.

Welcome to the asylum.

I've been finishing up the hurry-up, freeze-up! work and haven't been able

to get to this until now.

I have been experimenting with growing peaches and other tender fruit

trees in zone 4a, central MN, pretty intensely since 2000 and less so before

that. I am a collector, tester, grower and breeder and have an experimental,

mostly one of a kind, collection of over 350 trees. Many of these are hardy

here (I think I may now have the largest collection of hardy plums in the

US) but some are tender and would not survive without some modification to

standard "plant and wait" horticultural practices. I have apricots, sweet

cherries and European plums that fit this description but the largest number

of these tender trees and the most tender of them are the peaches. Still, I

have been able to test around 85 named cultivars and have around 55

survivors currently, both named and private selections. They are growing as

branches on 45 hardy peach seedlings that are offspring of the Bear Creek

Siberian C based material, which are also the basis for my testing and

breeding. (Some of you have contributed material for testing or have

provided information that has helped me to track down promising material and

I am grateful.) I know that growing the test branches is not a true measure

of absolute hardiness but it gives me an indication of relative hardiness.

If a cultivar survives as a branch then I make up trees to plant out for a

second test, if not, I am through with it.

Meanwhile, the branches provide me with breeding material which I use to

make crosses on the better selections of the seedlings. Breeding trees have

been selected based on fruit size and quality and on early ripening, which

is important for hardiness as early ripe trees have more time to harden off.

These are the seed parents for crosses made using pollen from the good

quality named cultivars with a known track record for hardiness and/or those

having a long chill hour requirement, which is linked to hardiness. For

pollen parents, I have chosen from the older cultivars of commercial and

backyard/farmers market types rather than from newer commercial ones. This

is because hardiness and other desirable characteristics seem to have become

secondary considerations in contemporary breeding programs to firm flesh and

other commercial qualities. My goal is to produce a peach that I can grow

and eat in MN rather than one that looks good on the shelf in a grocery

store half way across the country. I also use pollen from the private

seedling selections I have collected and, of course, I am making reciprocal

crosses on the good quality branches when their flower buds survive the

winter. The first planting from the crosses of selected seedlings x Harrow

Diamond made in 2004 were grown out this year. They made around 3' of growth

and should provide a small amount of first fruit for evaluation in two more


Here are some things I have learned, many the hard way, about growing

peaches in a cold climate:

  1. Hardiness is much more complex than minimum winter temps. Especially

    so are the conditions in the fall when trees are going dormant, which is

    almost never given the attention it deserves and may be at least as

    important as winter minimums. Many trees thought to have been killed during

    a late Jan/early Feb deep cold spell may have already been dead from a

    sudden change to cold in Dec/ Nov, even though the temps were less severe.

    Of course when they don't leaf out in Spring the mid winter cold is blamed.

    Last years minimum was only -23 F with good snow in late Jan, which should

    have been easy for my trees, but we had sudden unusually cold temps for a

    long period in December before there was snow cover and so there was a lot

    of damage and mortality in the peaches.
  2. The weak link in peach tree hardiness is the trunk. A tree goes

    dormant from the top down and the last thing to harden off is the trunk. An

    early cold snap that comes in before the trunk hardens off can kill the tree

    trunk without damaging any other part of it. I have learned to delay

    celebrating tree survival in spring beyond an examination finding green twig

    cambium right out to the tip of every branch and plenty of live buds. Too

    many times I have seen those buds break into lush growth only to then stop

    growing abruptly and then dry up. This is because, as it has turned out too

    many times, the trunk was dead just above the soil line. I am experimenting

    with budding and grafting 2'-3' high on the rootstock in hopes of providing

    a hardy trunk.
  3. Bailey rootstock is not the answer to hardiness problems. It may well

    be a vigorous rootstock that is itself hardier than most peaches, but it

    grows too long into the fall and induces the scions grafted on it to do so

    as well, delaying senescence. The common peach seedling rootstocks Lovell,

    Halford and Nemaguard also have this effect, as does Pumiselect and the

    plums St. Julian 'A' and Mariana 2624. Siberian C based peaches defoliate

    early and induce the scion grafted on them to do so when used as a

    rootstock, or at least it doesn't get in the way. Some other plum

    rootstocks including P.americana and, less so, P. bessei so the same. I am

    experimenting with various cherry plums as rootstocks for peach with this in

    mind. Scion overgrowth? Sure, but the tree will probably be dead from other

    causes before this becomes a serious problem and staking is easy. Suckering?

    Its easy to cut off the suckers. An additional benefit of using plums is

    that you can then grow peaches in heavier soil than you otherwise could.
  4. Warm wet weather in fall trumps rootstock in the battle to get the tree

    to shut down. Tarping off the roots seems to help but sweating and the

    continual presence of the tarp does not permit drying out of the soil

    between rains. I wish I knew how to do this without having to roll the tarp

    up in good weather. Anybody?
  5. Southwest injury is a big problem. For those who are blissfully

    ignorant of SW injury, here is the story: its a cold day in January with

    high pressure in control. There is only a light breeze and a few white puffy

    clouds in the the clear blue sky. At 2:00 PM the high temp for the day of

    minus 15 F is approaching but while the low sun angle doesn't provide much

    heat to the earth (thats why its winter) it feels warm on your face despite

    the cold. It is also warm on the vertical tree trunks and their temperature

    has risen to way above 0 F. Then the sun dips behind one of those clouds for

    just a few minutes but that is long enough to make you feel cold and to

    bring the trunk temp suddenly goes back to -15 F. Sun, shade, hot, cold...

    repeat until cambium is completely dead on the southwest side of the tree.

    Even if the tree isn't killed outright the tree is doomed because there is

    now an entry point for insects, bacterial canker, you name it. Pertinent

    contributing factors: when the weather is the coldest the sun angle is near

    its lowest, and, the farther North you are the lower the winter sun angle

    and the bigger the danger of SW injury. By all means paint the trunks white

    as high as you can reach and put on white tree wrap/guards (why do they even

    make brown tree wrap?).
  6. Don't plant a tender tree in a "protected" site. I wish I knew how many

    times someone has told me about the peach that died in spite of their having

    planted it in this great warm and wind protected site right up along the

    south side of the house. Absolute cold kills peaches not wind chill unless

    you are in a prairie climate with dry snowless winters, and then that is bud

    desiccation, not wind chill. And minimum temperatures come around sunrise,

    way after any benefit from yesterday afternoons buildup of slightly warmer

    temperatures in the tree's little heat island is long gone. Once in a while

    I even hear about someone who has tried to espalier a peach against the

    south wall of a building in an effort to get it through the winter - Geez!
  7. Plant your peach on the north side of a shade source - building, row of

    evergreens, etc. It should be located far enough away so that it gets full

    sun in the summer but close enough so it is in the shade through the coldest

    winter months and up to bloomtime. Tender trees can survive severe cold,

    often colder than they are rated for, if they remain in deep dormancy. I

    found that many zone 5 trees were hardy in my zone 4a temperatures when they

    survived -29 F during the winter of '03-'04. Often the zone 5 rating

    reflects a trees inability to resist de-hardening in a warm spell and/or to

    recover from it and re-harden when the weather turns cold again... rather

    than its susceptibility to cold midwinter temperatures. Winter shade helps

    keep the tree dormant during winter warm spells, delays its breaking

    dormancy in the spring, and delays bloom. In addition, no winter sun on the

    trunk = no SW injury.
  8. Peaches and apricots are a good risk in cold climates. They are very

    vigorous and so recover quickly from winter injury. Since they bear fruit on

    one year old wood they are always just one good winter away from a crop. So

    for an established peach that has died back to the snowline in winter, it

    would not be unreasonable to see 6' of new growth during the next summer

    which would then bear fruit the following summer after a mild winter.

    Madison and Hardired are good choices in spite of tender flower buds because

    they are very wood hardy and the tree is more likely to survive a cold

    winter in good condition even though the flower buds may die, then they can

    produce a full crop the next year if a mild winter follows. By contrast, my

    sweet cherries need two mild winters to get fruit - one to form spurs and

    another to get fruit. Every cold climate gets occasional mild winters but 2

    in a row is rare.
  9. Don't plant a peach tree thinking that at some time in the distant

    future, grandchildren at your side, you will be able to look back and fondly

    recall this day. Plant peaches like you do tomatoes expecting their demise

    and planning for their replacement. Even in ideal climates and conditions

    peaches are not an icon for longevity and for sure they are not going to be

    when you plant them on the fringes of their range and beyond. Better to

    take heart in the fact that they are vigorous and precocious (I've had a

    partial crop on peaches in their second growing season from the graft ) and

    you might get lucky for a while with a few unpredictable crops before the

    tree dies... and that they are so very good that when you do get them it is

    worth the risk and work.
  10. Reliance is not the hardiest cultivar, and it doesn't have to be. There

    is a group of relatively hardy varieties, named and unnamed, that includes

    Reliance but also Veteran, McKay (at least as hardy for me as Reliance in

    flower and wood) and Madison and Hardired Nectarine (might be a little more

    wood hardy). Within this group, planting site and horticultural methods are

    much more important than which cultivar you choose to grow. The "Haven"

    peaches from MI have done well for me as have the "Prairie" series from IL

    and the Harrow varieties. 'Sunapee', the other peach besides Reliance out of

    NH, has done well as have WI Balmer, Champion, and Polly. But again, let me

    emphasize, its not which cultivar you choose within this group but how you

    grow it. Somewhere warmer than here the choice of cultivar may be enough to

    make the difference but in my location this alone is not enough as my pile

    of dead trees will attest. From what I have learned by listening to the

    problems people have growing peaches in zone 5 and even warmer, any place

    that has serious winter to the extent that they hope to have a white

    Christmas - whether they get one or not - could benefit from some or all of

    these growing principles.
  11. For those of you planting seeds and making your own grafts, no one

    year old peach tree is hardy regardless of cultivar. You could get lucky

    with heavy snow cover or a mild winter but to ensure survival for the first

    winter you have to dig it up a tree and heal it in at an angle with mulch

    over the top, or protect it some other way. Any hardiness a peach may

    eventually have comes about with age and is not present the first year. I

    don't mind killing trees if I learn something from it but nothing is learned

    from losing a one year old tree.

Good Luck and remember that grow is a verb.


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