Yes, you can grow peaches in Britain — so long as you know a few simple tips. Mark Diacono explains more.
The first homegrown peach I ever ate remains as clear in my mind as the day I ate it. Every time I eat one from the shops, I think of it; it’s like looking at a photo of the one you love when they are elsewhere.
That first peach fell at my feet. Idling in the shade of the tree, drawn by the fragrant scent of its fruit, I was disturbed by a dull thud and the rustle of dry grass. The tree had ripened a peach all it could — and let it go. It smelled like heaven, sweet, rich and good. I inhaled its perfume as I do a good single malt.
Eating a perfectly ripe peach is an experience: it is as much a drink as food. The juiciness as much as the flavour made me laugh; they are almost impossibly fine. I quickly learnt to lean forward, my mouth beyond my feet, to avoid soaking trousers and shoes.
Much of the splendour of home-grown peaches and nectarines is owed to being able to harvest them at their peak, rather than early and firm, many days ahead of perfection, so they can stand the trip to the supermarket shelves. A peach or nectarine will tell you it’s approaching its peak with its scent — you can smell it from yards away and nectarines will often deepen in colour as the moment to pick them nears.
Sadly, we can’t sit under the tree waiting for them to fall. Once that scent draws you in, it’s time to cup each ripening fruit in the palm of your hand and turn it with as little grip as possible; when it’s ready, it will drop with no persuasion. A gentle hand is vital. Don’t squeeze the fruit — any pressure damages the flesh, accelerates decay and draws the wasps.
Peaches and nectarines are marginal for most of the country — they are unlikely to produce heavily every year — but every mouthful justifies their space in the garden. Happily, both are self-fertile, so one tree will give you fruit and, if space is an issue, both take well to fan training.
There are some seriously dwarfing trees — 6ft tall at most, that can be grown in 20in pots. There are plenty of varieties available, but I find Peregrine and Rochester peach, Lord Napier and Pineapple nectarines take some beating for flavour.
Their marginality is not so much that our summers are too short or cool — peaches and nectarines usually ripen in July and early August outside — but rather that the flowers have to avoid late frosts. The easiest way to ensure this is to grow them in a polytunnel or greenhouse, or against a sunny wall. Fleece can be effective in softening the potential damage of a late hard frost.
Spring rains can bring leaf curl, a fungal disease that causes the leaves to blister and can weaken a tree sufficiently to cause it to drop developing fruit. It is a nuisance that’s hard to treat, so is best avoided by growing undercover or using a temporary cover — fleece or a sheet of transparent plastic — to keep the rain off. Rochester peach has a little leaf-curl resistance, too.
Small details accrue to improve your chance of success with peaches and nectarine. Give them the sunniest, most sheltered of well-drained spots, feed them fortnightly from flowering to harvest with a high-potassium liquid feed — you can spray this on the leaves.
As painful as it seems, it’s good to thin the fruit when they are small to ensure fruit are 4in apart to direct the plant’s energies to ripening fruit that have light and air to develop.
Prune in summer, on a dry warm day immediately after picking, to minimise the likelihood of canker and silver leaf. Bear in mind that peaches and nectarines fruit on branches and shoots grown the previous year, so prune out older wood and crossing branches to allow newer growth to take over.
Prune to a growth bud: you can tell these from plump fruit buds, as they are more pointed. This encourages new shoots to form, which will hopefully fruit the subsequent year.
The combination of being early flowering and using a cover can make pollination by insects patchy, so I tend to use a soft brush to dot pollen from flower to flower — it makes a huge difference to fruit set. Dodge frost damage and leaf curl and you should have every chance of juicy summer fruit.
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