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Natural Awakenings Naples and Fort Myers

Just Peachy: Growing Peaches in Southwest Florida

Oct 31, 2011 09:39AM ● By Beth Davis

There’s no denying the beauty of a peach tree. It is as much revered for its attractive and fragrant blossoms as for its tasty fruit. Until a few years ago, though, growing peaches in our subtropical climate was nearly impossible. Today, with a little work and a lot of love, Collier and Lee County residents can enjoy this delectable treat right in their own backyard, thanks to some newly developed varieties that will produce fruit here in warmer climes.

“The problem with some peach trees is that they will grow and flower, but won’t yield fruit,” says local master gardener Frank DeNardis. He explains that the key to growing peaches successfully in Southwest Florida is, “Chill hours—a certain number of winter hours below 45 degrees trigger a peach tree to start blossoming.” In Georgia and South Carolina, for example, 300 chill hours are normal. South Florida only gets about 100. To combat Florida’s more balmy winters and fewer chill hours, the University of Florida (UF) developed a handful of varieties that require less chill time, so Sunshine State residents can enjoy fresh peaches in the spring.

With names like Florida Prince, Tropic Beauty, UF Sun and Flordago, these Florida peach trees were more than 45 years in the making, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Developed by UF researchers with cooperation from Florida’s growers, the trees were specifically created to prosper in our warmer climate. The result is a delicious and juicy early-season peach.

However, those peaches don’t come without challenges. DeNardis warns growers to be aware that the trees require considerable maintenance, and a number of insect pests and diseases can cause problems. The Caribbean fruit fly is particularly bothersome, laying eggs in the developing fruit and spoiling it. The website recommends putting a bag over each individual peach to control the flies—a rather tedious task, but well worth the effort when harvest time arrives.

Soil chemistry is another challenge faced by gardeners. In high pH (alkaline) soils, certain nutrients are chemically unavailable to peach trees. This causes deficiencies of iron, zinc and other nutrients. DeNardis suggests planting the trees in a rich, lightly acidic soil that is well drained and mulched and in a location that receives plenty of sun.

Another potential problem is root knot nematodes that live in Florida soils. They damage the roots of many cultivars, so gardeners may need to use resistant rootstocks such as Flordaguard, Nemaguard or Okinawa. “Although they do take some work and willpower, Florida peach tree varieties are capable of producing bountiful and delicious crops for the determined grower,” states DeNardis.

Small, deciduous specimens that can attain heights of 20 to 25 feet, Florida peach trees are hardy and fast growing, but need annual pruning to enhance growth. Tree condition, cultivar and the history of past spring freezes should be considered when determining the best time for pruning. The UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) says that laterals and suckers should be removed to a height of two feet to form a strong central leader, and three or four vigorous shoots should be selected to form the major branches. A tree of bearing age should be pruned while it is dormant, when growth and development are temporarily stopped.

DeNardis explains that thinning of immature fruit is typically required, because excessive fruit density reduces the size of the peaches. “The goal of the gardener should be to leave one fruit per six inches of branch length,” he advises.

Florida peaches ripen from late April to July—two to three months earlier than a traditional Northern peach crop. The fruit should be picked when it’s still relatively firm and the ground color of the skin has changed from green to greenish-yellow. It is scrumptious when consumed fresh, frozen or even dried, and can be used in an endless number of healthy recipes, from salads and smoothies to preserves and sorbets. Rich in fiber and vitamins A and C, peaches are also a good source of niacin and potassium.
“Growing your own peaches is well worth the effort,” notes DeNardis. “They are sweet, soft and juicy—nothing like what you taste with store-bought fruit.”

For more information or to make an appointment to visit Frank DeNardis’ nursery, located at 108 Viking Way, in Palm River Estates, in Naples, call 239-597-8359.

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