Containerized peach tree seedlings are being grown by more nurseries. Photo courtesy of Brent Burky

by Courtney Llewellyn

Peaches are high in fiber, contain prebiotics and support immunity and eye health with their vitamins A and C. If they’re not part of your fruit tree orchard, you may be considering adding them, and to guide you toward what varieties to consider comes the advice of Brent Burky, director of sales and inventory for Sierra Gold Nurseries in Yuba City, CA. Burky presented “Peach Tree Trends: A Nursery Perspective” during the recent virtual Great Lakes Expo.

He reviewed the past to begin. “Peach tree orchards have not seen a lot of modernization over the years,” Burky noted, mentioning both the varieties planted and the way orchards are managed and harvested. “Orchard architecture and pruning systems have seen small changes, but not the type we’ve seen in other crops, and there’s been some repercussions because of that. In California, fresh fruit for stone fruit has decreased, and labor costs are a big part of that. Workers are still on ladders instead of platforms.”

What has changed in peaches? Thanks to the National Clean Plant Network, there are cleaner, (mostly) virus-free trees available. There’s even been successful virus elimination – plum pox has been eradicated from peaches.

Fortunately, new variety development has been fairly constant. Specifically, Burky noted variety improvements with Flamin’ Fury and the Stellar series (both from Michigan peach breeders) as well as Zaiger Genetics and public university breeding programs (both in California). “It seems like every day you hear about something new, so that has been good,” he said.

“Part of the reason the apple industry has expanded so successfully is the number of rootstocks available,” he said. Meanwhile, 80% of nurseries’ peach stock will be of the following short list: Lovell, Bailey, Krymsk 86, Nemaguard and Guardian, and in smaller amounts Citation, Viking and Halford.

Burky said Lovell, Bailey, Nemaguard, Guardian and Halford have been the industry standards for more than 40 years. They’re higher vigor rootstocks and can be trained to higher density systems, but they are fairly susceptible to soil-borne diseases (Phytopthora, Armillaria and crown gall), but have varying levels of tolerance. “They’re not perfect by any means, but there’s a reason they’re still grown,” he said. Krymsk 86 is a peach/plum hybrid, tolerant of wet feet, cold hardy, with a high pH tolerance, impressive root strength and good performance in replant conditions, according to Burky. This variety tends to do well in northern California.

In dwarfing rootstocks, USDA, the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center (ARS) and UC-Davis are collaborating on the Controller series of peach/peach hybrids. They require reduced inputs (specifically, pruning) and trials have shown good fruit size and yield. However, their ability to handle cold weather is still being tested.

USDA-Georgia is also working on MP-29, a semi-dwarfing peach/plum hybrid. Its popularity in the Southeast is rising, but its performance is still being studied. While it’s Armillaria resistant, it has been challenging to grow in nurseries.

The Rootpac series is being developed in Europe, with super high density orchards being planted with these varieties. They seem to have good adaptability to a wide range of soil conditions and cold hardiness, so they may be coming to the U.S. as well.

“Some people don’t think dwarfing rootstocks are the way of the future; others do,” Burky said. “And what works in California may not work everywhere. That’s why we need to study these.” There is no apparent “game changer” for peaches at the moment, he added, noting regional differences create unique and specific demands for certain types of rootstock.

Burky explained that more and more nurseries are growing containerized trees as an alternative to traditional, field-grown nursery trees, especially in California. It keeps field fumigation costs down and allows more flexibility for both growers and orchardists. He said Ellepots are popular, made of biodegradable paper or membrane, and they can be planted directly into the ground, resulting in much easier transplanting.

Container trees do have their pros and cons. The pros include flexible planting timelines, especially in mild climates; shorter lead times to delivery; reduced transplant shock; and trees have fully intact root systems. The cons are that they’re inefficient to ship long distances and they’re also technically more challenging to establish, with better irrigation management needed.

The per capita consumption of fresh peaches in the U.S. has decreased from about 5.3 pounds annually in 2000 to 2.13 pounds in 2019. With advances in varieties and growing techniques, growers and sellers may be able to reverse that trend.