Peaches and nectarines are genetically almost identical, indeed nectarines are really just smooth-skinned peaches. Both peaches and nectarines have similar nutrient values and identical growing needs, but peaches are slightly hardier than nectarines, and therefore better suited to the UK climate.
How to grow peaches
Grow peaches in fertile, moist but well-drained soil in a sheltered sunny spot, preferably against a south- or west-facing wall. Mulch annually to feed the soil and suppress weeds, and prune in late summer, after fruiting.
Where to grow peach trees
Peach trees are hardy in the UK (apart from the far north) but they blossom early in the year and are therefore vulnerable to frost. For the best chances of success you should therefore grow your peach tree against a south- or west-facing wall and fan-train it so its branches extend out to absorb as much of the wall’s heat as possible.
Alternatively, buy a dwarf peach tree and grow it in a large pot, so you can move it under cover for winter. For the rest of the year it will need to be positioned in a sunny, sheltered site such as a patio, ideally in front of a sunny wall.
You can grow peaches in an unheated greenhouse, either in the ground or in a pot. Pot-grown peaches can spend some or all of the year in the greenhouse, while those in the ground will live there permanently.
How to plant peaches
Plant bare-root peach trees on a mild day any time from November to March. Container-grown trees can go in at any time, although avoid planting into frozen ground or in periods of extreme heat or drought.
Before planting dig in plenty of well-rotted garden compost or manure. If you have clay soil, improve drainage by filling the bottom of the planting hole with rubble. Plant your tree so the top of the rootball sits level with the soil’s surface and the stem is at least 20cm away from the wall. Prepare a framework of wires ready to tie in the stems as they grow.
To plant a tree in a pot, choose a large pot at least 45cm in diameter. Add pea gravel to the bottom to improve drainage and stability, then use a soil-based compost such as John Innes No. 3, and plant your tree so the rootball sits level with the soil’s surface. Leave a gap between the compost and top of the pot for easy watering. Water thoroughly and allow to drain.
Caring for peach trees
Water regularly during the growing season. Mulch annually – in spring or autumn – with garden compost or well-rotted manure.
Peaches flower early in the year, usually from March but sometimes even earlier, when the risk of frost is still high. To protect peach flowers from frost, cover at night with two to three layers of horticultural fleece or hessian, or ensure potted peach plants are under cover.
Peaches often flower before pollinators have emerged from hibernation but you can encourage fruiting by hand-pollinating flowers using a soft brush.
When fruits are cherry-sized, thin them out to one per cluster. When the fruits are swelling, apply a high-potash liquid fertiliser, such as an organic tomato feed, once a week.
Prune in late summer, after fruiting. Peaches flower and fruit on one-year-old shoots, so remove as much of the old growth as possible. Cut back a fruit stem to where a new shoot has grown, then tie in the new growth as a replacement.
How to harvest peaches
Peaches are ripe when they have coloured up and feel slightly soft. They should come off the branch with a gentle twist.
How to store peaches
Peaches bruise easily and don’t store well. You can freeze peaches but when defrosted they should be used for cooking.
Pests and diseases
Like many stone fruits, peaches are susceptible to several pests and diseases:
Peach leaf curl causes puckered, distorted leaves that eventually fall, which can reduce the tree’s vigour and potential to crop well. This fungal disease is spread by rain splashes in late winter and spring. To protect the tree from rain splashes, move potted trees undercover and cover outdoor-grown trees with polythene.
Silver leaf disease is another fungal disease that enters the tree via cut stems or wounds. Look out for silvery leaves and dieback of branches, then remove affected branches immediately and disinfect pruning tools to prevent spreading the disease elsewhere.
Bacterial canker causes brown spots or small holes on the leaves, along with dieback of shoots and sunken, dead patches in the bark. Remove affected growth if you can and disinfect pruning tools afterwards.
Peaches can attract aphids, which have many natural predators such as birds and wasps, so should be left for them to eat. Peaches grown in a greenhouse or conservatory could be affected by red spider mite. This mite thrives in dry conditions so increase humidity by misting regularly.