Peaches have a long history. Sweet, white-fleshed peaches have been consumed for thousands of year in China. It was the Spaniards who introduced these stone fruits to the new world when they landed in Mexico in the sixteenth century.
Even today, many cultures, including Asian and Hispanic, still generally prefer white peaches for their sweeter taste and lower acidity. Here in the United States however, many people prefer yellow peaches, which offer a hint of acidic flavor that balances the sweetness. And it's the yellow peach that grows best in Florida.
Home gardeners as far south as Fort Meyers may have luck growing peaches (Prunus persica). Trees planted in the spring can be expected to begin fruiting the following spring. When thinking about fruit production, keep in mind that these trees will not live and produce fruit in perpetuity. Peach trees in the home garden can generally be expected to produce fruit for 8 to 10 years when cared for well.
When looking into peach varieties you may stumble across some terms unique to fruit and fruit trees.
Melting or non-melting fruit — Melting or non-melting refers to the fruit texture. Melting fruit is juicy—it drips, it's stringy, and it won't hold up well on the kitchen counter for a long period of time. Non-melting fruits were typically used in carnning and processing, but newer varieties are firm and juicy with a longer shelf life.
Clingstone or freestone fruits — With clingstone fruits, the pit can't be separated from the flesh; while the pit easily pulls away from the flesh of freestone fruits. Melting varieties can be either clingstone or freestone, but non-melting types are always clingstone.
Chill hours — In order to bloom in spring, peach trees need a dormancy period in the winter with a certain number of chilling hours—nighttime temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The exact number of chilling hours depends on the fruit tree variety, but it can be anywhere from a hundred to more than a thousand. You want to look for total accumulated chill hours as of January 1st. If chill hours are not accumulating until later, say February or even March, fruit will not be setting at the proper time. This can happen if there is an unusually warm winter.
Varieties to Choose
Homeowners should look for non-patented stone fruit trees, as patented varieties will not be as easily available for them to purchase. 'FloridaCrest' and 'FloridaDawn' are two great, non-patented options for homeowners right now.
In the past, the recommendation for growing stone fruits in Florida was to look for trees that require between 400 and 500 chill hours; the new recommendation is to look for those that need something more in the 300-hour range. In the last five years, Florida has experienced fewer chill hours; we're simply not getting enough to meet the 400 to 500-hour requirements as we had in the past.
'FloridaCrest' needs 350 chill hours and is the best melting-flesh peach currently available for North Florida. This tree produces a melting-flesh, semi-clingstone fruit.
'FloridaDawn' also produces a melting-flesh, semi-clingstone fruit. This tree has a moderately high fruit set due to its extended bloom period, which can be beneficial to fruit set in the cases of early spring frosts. 'FloridaDawn' has the shortest fruit development period (FDP) of any named peach variety.
If you are looking for non-melting varieties, you may be able to find 'UFGold' or 'UF2000' varieties. While these varieties were patented, they may now be available to homeowners for purchase.
'UFGold' needs 200 chill hours and ripens about 80 days after blooming. These trees bear a heavy annual crop of large, non-melting clingstone fruit.
'UF2000' is another non-melting clingstone peach. These trees produce heavy annual crops of moderately large size fruit that ripen mid-season. 'UF2000' needs 300 chill hours and fruit are usually harvested 15 to 18 days before 'UFGold' fruits.
You can find more varieties in the UF/IFAS publication, Florida Peach and Nectarine Varieties.
Things to Consider
Pruning and Thinning
It is generally recommended to prune your tree twice a year. During the winter you are pruning to improve the structure of the tree; in the summer (after harvest) pruning lets sunlight in to the tree.
When making any cuts, it is important to keep the vase structure of your tree, which includes keeping the angles of your branches up swept. Never completely clear out the middle bowl of your vase shape; this can cause sunburn to your tree. If you were to look down at your tree from above you want it to have a spreading 360 degree structure.
For branch thinning and pruning, remove anything that is thinner than a pencil in diameter or has "blind" wood, meaning there are no leaf or fruit buds on a branch. Having leaves around your fruit is important; without leaves a peach will not have a desirable flavor or size. If a branch is producing fruit and no leaves, it's best to remove the branch.
Here's a planting step that many people aren't aware of: when you first buy your tree to put in the ground, you should prune off the side branches and a bit of the top; it will look as if you are planting a stick. This is done because those branches will never get any bigger, and they'll produce an unstable structure as your tree grows. You need to prune these off so that your tree can grow new, strong branches, forming the basis for that all-important vase structure.
You can more in the UF/IFAS publication, Training and Pruning Florida Peaches, Nectarines, and Plums.
Pests and Disease
With peach trees, it's important to manage preventively for disease, particularly peach rust. Florida's frequent summer rainfall can provide favorable conditions for fungal diseases like peach rust. If your tree defoliates because of disease it will stress bloom, producing fruit at the wrong time of year and be vulnerable to frost.
You can manage disease with the common fungicide sulfur, or products like Oxidate or Serenade, applied weekly or bi-weekly. Alternatively, a multi-purpose, stone fruit-safe fungicide can be used less frequently. Be sure to start these preventative sprays after you harvest your fruits. Fungicides will also help with peach scab issues. Scab won't affect taste or texture of the internal flesh, but it will affect the texture on the outer skin of the fruit.
Squirrels and raccoons can also be a problem as the fruit ripens; you can net your tree once the fruits start turning color to help keep it safe from industrious critters.
Growing peaches in your own back yard can be a fun and rewarding experience. For questions related to growing peaches in your particular area, contact your county Extension office.