Because peach trees (Prunus persica) need winter cold to produce their fruit, only Floridians in the state’s northernmost regions could enjoy dooryard peaches until recent years. Peach varieties were limited to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5b through 8.Then new introductions made homegrown peaches a reality in Central and South Central Florida’s USDA zone 9, with some gardeners pushing the envelope further south into USDA zone 10. Growing peaches successfully in Florida starts with varieties closely matched to your garden’s winter conditions and growing zone.
Understanding Winter Chill Requirements
Peach varieties rely on a set amount of winter cold — called chill units — to spur them out of dormancy and back into growth. In areas with insufficient cold, peaches bloom late and fruit abnormally. With too much cold, they meet their quota early, bloom too soon and forfeit their blossoms and fruit. When purchasing peach trees, look for your USDA hardiness zone and winter chill units. Select trees with a chill requirement slightly lower than your area’s average chill. North and North Central Florida provide peach varieties with 450 to 300 chill units. Central and South Central Florida need low-chill peach varieties that tolerate just 225 to 150 chill units per winter.
Selecting the Right Spot
Peach trees adapt well to Florida’s various soils, as long as they get good drainage. Hurricane season proves challenging; the trees are very sensitive to standing water. Deep, sandy soil in full, direct sun is ideal. Peaches prefer slightly acidic soil in the 6.0 to 6.5 pH range. Good air flow is important, too. Avoid planting peach trees in low lying areas where cold air accumulates and frost settles. This is particularly important for low-chill varieties grown in more northerly regions. Keep the area under your tree’s canopy free from vegetation. Grasses and weeds compete with peach trees and steal nutrients and moisture.
Watering and Fertilizing Peaches
Florida peaches ripen in late April and May when natural rainfall is low. Trees need at least 1 inch of water per week to achieve normal fruit quality and size. Trees in sandy soils may need more. Irrigate as needed to supplement rainfall; never let peaches become visibly stressed. Fertilize your trees with granular 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 citrus fertilizers containing additional elements peaches need, such as iron and zinc. Feed trees in three equal applications: late February, late May and late July. Use a total annual fertilizer amount equal to 1 cup for each year of the tree’s age, up to an annual 9-cup maximum. Never fertilize beyond July; you risk stimulating new, freeze-vulnerable growth.
Pruning to Enhance Fruit Quality
High-quality peaches depend on good pruning. At planting, cut trees cut back to a single, 20-inch-tall stem. As lateral branches form, keep three to five main branches and remove the rest. In the first winter, cut back the primary branches by one-third; this forces lateral branches. The next year, do the same with secondary branches that formed. Keep mature trees free from crossing or crowding branches to promote an open-centered, bowl-like shape. Prune annually, right around the new year. Use sharp bypass loppers or a pruning saw, and sterilize the blades with household disinfectant before and after you prune. As your trees set fruit, thin the peaches to one fruit per 6 to 10 inches. The sacrifice pays off in fruit quality and size.
Hobbiest Gardening – Growing Fruit Tree Plants from Seed
Most fruit trees are best grown from grafted trees that cost $25 to $35 each. But with peaches, nectarines and apricots, you can cut your cost to zero by growing fruit trees from seeds.
Because cross-pollination between varieties produces variable results, apples and some other fruit trees are usually not grown from seeds. (Instead, cuttings or buds of the best varieties are grafted onto rootstocks to produce trees that bear fruit just like the parent tree’s.) But the almondlike seeds in pits from peaches, nectarines and apricots do a good job of carrying on the desirable traits of their parents. You can simply sprout and grow a seed from a great-tasting specimen, and you have a good chance of sinking your teeth into sweet, juicy fruit from your own tree in only three to five years.
Summer is the best time for growing fruit trees, because you can seek out mid- or late-season varieties grown in your region. The best seeds come from fully ripe fruit. Avoid seeds from early maturing varieties because their seeds may not develop enough to sprout. Locally grown varieties are more likely to prosper in your garden compared to varieties grown a thousand miles away, and looking for likely candidates is tasty fun! Eat lots of peaches from farm stands and farmers markets, and save the pits from those that taste like peach heaven. And if you live where you can get local apricots and nectarines, you can try growing them from seeds too.
Cracking in Safely
Let the pits dry on your kitchen counter for a few days. Drying allows the seed inside the shell to shrink slightly so it’s easier to get out. The shell also becomes more brittle and easier to crack as it dries.
When the pits look and feel dry, you can crack them open to harvest the actual seeds, which look like almonds, a close botanical cousin. You can hold pits on edge and tap them with a hammer, which works well for a few pits but can cause high casualties in terms of accidentally smashed seeds (and fingers). You will lose far fewer seeds by cracking the pits with a vise, lodging both sides of the pit’s long seams between the opposing jaws. (See photo in the Image Gallery.) Crank the vise closed slowly — be careful for your fingers! — until the pit cracks.
If you don’t have a vise, try a nut cracker. Or you might get enough pit-cracking compression from another type of screw clamp, including the one that holds your food grinder, juicer or hand-cranked grain mill to your kitchen counter — you never know until you try! After you get the seeds out, put them in a closed container in your refrigerator or other place cool enough to store raw nuts.