Advice on northern peach growing

franktank232(z5 WI)August 2, 2007

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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?).

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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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Wow, excellent article. Thanks for sharing Frank. I know there is an awful lot of great information on the Nafex site, but I find it very difficult to navigate. Do they even have a forum, per se?

    Bookmark   August 3, 2007 at 9:21AM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

Not sure. I just get the email, which is annoying, because i can't keep up with it and some times there is very little in each message.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2007 at 11:26AM
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Thanks for posting this. I'm glad to see that Madison is considered hardy. The injury on my peach tree that I have now is on the south west side of the trunk. Maybe I'll use a white tree guard on the next tree and it will last longer.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2007 at 1:39PM
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