Growing Peaches – A Farmer’s Challenge

by Gary Mount

Growing peaches has always been a challenge for me here at Terhune Orchards. And it’s not just because the farm where I grew up had only apples. It’s more than that. To explain why, I’d better start where every farmer starts – with the soil.

Our soil on Cold Soil Rd. has a high clay content, is somewhat acid, and does not drain well. In fact, our road was named in the old days and I suspect that “Cold Soil” is a polite, farmer way of saying “wet soil”. Farmers are touchy about their soil. When I go to educational meetings and hear another farmer speak, they almost always say, “Our soil is a very strong soil” or “Our soil is a very good soil.” Never do they say, “Our soil is a poor soil.” But anyhow – the challenge for me is to adjust my soil conditions so our peaches will flourish. Before planting and periodically thereafter, I add ground limestone to the soil to adjust the acidity. Peaches like a ph of 6.5 to 7.0, whereas our natural soil ph is 5.5 to 6.0. Ph affects root function – at the lower ph levels, peach roots cannot pick up the nutrients that the tree needs from the soil.

I improve the drainage in the peach orchard by scraping soil into long ridges and planting each row of peaches on top of a ridge. I sometimes wonder what future archeologists will think lies under these ridges. But anyhow – excess water can drain away from the tree roots into the lower row middles. This makes tractor driving more difficult in wet weather, but the trees like it.

I counteract the tightness of the clay soil by planting cover crop which is plowed under, thus increasing the organic matter and loosening the soil.

The next challenge with growing peaches is another thing every farmer starts with – sunlight. Peaches need to be planted so the leaves and the fruit on the limbs can get the maximum amount of direct sunlight. Take a look at our young peach orchard across Cold Soil Rd. from the main farm. The trees are wide and spreading – even though quite young. This is very different from our more upright apple and pear trees. I have learned that I have to give the peaches space to spread out. Putting the trees close together may give more peaches in the short term, but the trees become quite upright. Bigger and more flavorful peaches come from the more spreading trees. This calls for patience – always a special challenge for me.

Then there is the growing of each year’s crop. Peaches require a lot of care! Fertilization and weed control are annual chores. Growing a crop depletes nutrients from the soil. I evaluate the amount that I need to replace by doing an annual soil test to see what is actually left in the soil and doing an annual leaf analysis test to see what the tree is actually getting from the soil. Under fertilization leads to weak trees and small, tasteless fruit. Over fertilization not only wastes my time and money, but results in green, mushy peaches and overgrowth of the tree. I try to get it just right.

Peach tree roots are very close to the surface (most are less than twelve inches) and susceptible to competition from weeds for water and nutrients. Using a herbicide that prevents weed seed germination allows me to reduce the fertilizer by two thirds and lets the soil moisture be used only for the tree. Without weed control, many of our peach trees would have died during last summer’s drought.

Pruning and thinning are also part of the annual growing cycle. Pruning removes broken and diseased limbs, allows sunlight to penetrate throughout the tree and focuses the nutrients from the roots into the remaining branches and fruits. I like the challenge of pruning. It’s me telling the tree where and how I want it to grow. Right or wrong, I’m in charge. But thinning is a nerve-racking challenge. A peach tree can have 30,000 fruit buds, each one capable of flowering and then becoming a peach. Some are removed by pruning and some of the flowers do not “set” into fruit, but still there will end up being 2000-3000 peaches on the tree. Whoops – the tree can only hold and grow about 700 peaches to good size and flavor. Thinning is the process of removing the excess peaches and is done when the peaches are the size of cherries. This is one job that I can’t stand. Even though I know it has to be done, it is very hard for me to throw those baby peaches on the ground.

The final part of the growing process is control of disease and insects. Diseases may cause the fruit to rot or they may mark the fruit. Control of diseases is sort of boring. Diseases are funguses, which proliferate rapidly in the moist, warm conditions of New Jersey. While we can help in their control by never allowing a diseased peach or limb to remain in the tree, fungicides must be used. As I said, boring. Insect control is a considerably more exciting challenge. Developing and using methods to control harmful insects without insecticides involves some very interesting technology. At Terhune Orchards, two insects, the oriental fruit worm and the peach tree borer, are controlled through understanding their life cycle and interfering with it. Male moths of these insects are able to find and mate with the females by following the female’s scent or pheromone through the air. After mating, the females lay eggs, which hatch into worms that bore into the fruit or the tree. By hanging a small dispenser of this particular scent in each tree, we are able to confuse the males. They cannot find the females. No egg laying, no worms, no spraying.

There is also the challenge of picking and selling each year’s crop. In comparison to apples, which are picked, put in cold storage, and then sold over a period of months, peaches are picked and must be sold immediately. They do not store well, especially when picked at their peak of flavor and goodness. We pick peaches into small boxes, sort them by hand and put them out for sale as soon as possible. Many different varieties are grown which gives us a progression of maturity dates all summer long. The peaches on any tree do not all mature at the same time. Each picking, we just take the peaches that are ready. We keep the trees low so that it is easier to pick them 3 to 4 times over. Gentleness, attention to detail, and quick response to changes in growing conditions are all challenges for me. When the peaches are ready, they won’t wait. The farmer must be there.

The final challenge is a rather easy one to meet in New Jersey. That’s the Three “H’s”. Peaches seem to do best in the summer when it is Hazy, Hot, and Humid. The weather is often like that during our summers. It is a difficult time of year for us humans, but Terhune Orchards peaches just love it. They reach their maximum flavor and sweetness, we pick them and then they’re ready for sale. When that happens, I’ve met all my challenges and can end the day with a smile.