How to Plant, Grow, and Care for ‘Contender’ Peach Trees

‘Contender’ peaches are large and sweet and tolerate colder temperatures than most varieties. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss will tell you how to grow and care for these wonderful trees.

A close-up captures the foliage of a 'Contender' peach tree, showcasing its lush leaves sprouting from brown branches. Among the verdant foliage, ripe peaches in shades of pink and yellow add a splash of vivid color to the scene.

Contents

If you live in a cold climate yet still want to grow peaches, ‘Contender’ peach trees offer ultra- sweet fruit to gardens as cold as Zone 4. This disease-resistant fruit tree doesn’t mind frigid winters and reliably produces peaches in late summer. Let’s take a look at these sturdy and cold-tolerant peaches. 

‘Contender’ Peach Tree

‘Contender’ Peach Trees:

  • are disease-resistant and cold-hardy
  • feature beautiful pink blossoms in spring
  • produce luscious, juicy fruit in summer
  • self-pollinate

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‘Contender’ Peach Tree Overview

A close-up of a 'Contender' peach tree branch adorned with lush leaves and ripe, fuzzy-skinned peaches. The vibrant green leaves contrast beautifully with the soft, peachy hues of the fruit, creating a harmonious and inviting scene.
The ‘Contender’ peach tree is a deciduous tree belonging to the Rosaceae family.
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Family Rosaceae
Genus Prunus
Species Persica
Native Area Hybridized in North Carolina
Exposure Full sun
Height 12’-15’
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests and Diseases Brown rot, peach tree scab, peach leaf curl, borers, aphids, mites
Maintenance Moderate
Soil Type Loamy, well-drained
Hardiness Zones 4-9

What Are ‘Contender’ Peach Trees?

‘Contender’ peach trees are a hybrid first introduced in 1988. They boast excellent cold tolerance and are highly disease-resistant. Finding a peach that will survive winter in Zone 4 is unusual. So, if you thought you couldn’t grow a peach tree in your cold climate, this is a great peach to try. 

This self-pollinating cultivar will grow fruit when planted independently, but a companion tree may increase your yield. Planting two peach trees near each other is a surefire way to have a bumper crop of fruit.

Native Area

Abundant, elongated leaves cascade gracefully from the 'Contender' peach tree, offering a verdant canopy under the sun. Among these leaves, clusters of delicate pink peaches nestle, promising a sweet and succulent harvest.
The ‘Contender’ peach was bred in Raleigh, NC in 1988.

The objective of breeding ‘Contender’ was to grow a peach tree with better cold tolerance. The hybridization of this tree took place in Raleigh, North Carolina. Introduced in 1988, this award-winning cultivar also boasts excellent disease resistance

Characteristics

A close-up of ripe 'Contender' peaches nestled among leaves. The intricate details of the branch come alive against a softly blurred backdrop of lush greenery, evoking the essence of a bountiful harvest.
This mid-sized peach tree produces abundant, non-browning fruit.

‘Contender’ is a mid-sized peach tree, which makes it great for picking fruit. You can harvest this tree completely without too much hassle. It grows to a height and spread of 12-15 feet and produces tons of pretty pink flowers in the spring. 

This peach tree will take about two to four years from planting until it bears fruit. The peaches are medium to large, with sweet, yellow flesh. They are freestone peaches, meaning the pit comes away from the fruit easily. 

This tree is a great producer of large, tasty fruit. The peaches are non-browning, making lovely slices on a fruit platter or in the lunchbox. ‘Contender’ peaches need 1,000 chill hours. This is the amount of dormancy hours the tree needs to produce fruit. Chill hours need to take place between 35°-45°F (2°-7°C) or colder. 

Propagation

You can propagate peaches by seed or softwood cuttings. A tree propagated from seed will typically take longer to bear fruit. But, the success rate of germination is fairly high. 

Seed

A close-up of a 'Contender' peach seed resting on a gray countertop, its intricate details visible under the light. The soft illumination accentuates the subtle textures and contours of the seed, creating a captivating focal point.
Begin propagating a peach tree from seed by drying the pit after enjoying your peach.

If you are propagating a peach tree from seed, the process is simple.

1. Prep and Dry Your Pit

After presumably eating your delicious peach, remove the pit and wash it well. Remove all bits of flesh from the pit, and allow it to sit in an airy spot to dry out.

2. Remove the Seed

This might come as a surprise, but the pit is not the seed, it is actually the seed pod! In order to retrieve your seed, you’ll have to crack that pod. Do this with care to avoid damaging the seed. Don’t crush the pit to remove the seed. Instead, use a nutcracker or pair of pliers to gently open it. The seed inside should be white and will look a bit like an almond.

3. Soak the Seed

Fill a ziplock bag with room temperature water. Place the seed in the bag and allow it to soak for three to four hours. Then, without emptying the water out, fill the bag with soil so that the soil is moist.

4. Cool it Down

Peaches need chill hours in order to germinate, as well as bear fruit. Place the bag into your refrigerator at a temperature no higher than 42 °F (6°C). Leave the bag in the fridge for five to six weeks, checking regularly for a sprout. Once the seed sprouts, it is time to pot your seedling.

5. Plant your Seeding

Plant your seeding in a pot, the type or material is not important. Use a potting mix of 1/2 potting soil and 1/2 compost. Place the container in a space with partial sun, gradually increasing to full sun as the tree grows more leaves.

Softwood Cutting

A close-up of a 'contender' peach branch revealing a grafting site where blue plastic secures it. In the background, lush greenery is softly blurred, providing contrast to the focused branch detail and hinting at a garden setting.
When seeds are unavailable, softwood cuttings can be used to propagate fruit trees.

Propagating from softwood cuttings is a great method if you don’t have fresh fruits to harvest seeds from. However, it is unusual to grow a fruit tree this way. The usual way to propagate fruit trees is by grafting a softwood cutting onto a hardy rootstock. But peaches can successfully grow from cuttings with their own roots. 

It is important to take your cuttings from a healthy tree that has an abundance of new growth. Using rooting hormone is optional, but will result in better success. 

1. Sterilize Your Container

If you are using a container that has been used for any other purpose, it’s best to sterilize it first. You can do this with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. Let it soak for 20 minutes, and then rinse the pot and allow it to dry.

2. Take Cuttings

Take your cuttings from new wood. Look for branches that are around four to six inches long and have some leaves on them. Cut your branches right at the node, closest to the trunk, and cut at an angle. Keep your cuttings moist between cutting and planting. You don’t want these cuttings to heal over in the meantime.

3. Prep Your Cuttings

Use a sharp blade to remove any leaves that will lie below the soil. You’ll want about two inches of bare stem. Use your blade to scrape some bark from the bottom of the stem, and cut the end at an angle.

4. Plant Your Cutting

Rooting hormone is optional, but I recommend using it. Simply dip the end of your cutting into some rooting hormone before you plant it. Fill your container with a mixture of 1/2 potting soil and 1/2 compost, and stick your cutting powder side down. It’s a good idea to work with more than one cutting at a time because this gives you a better chance of success.

Planting

A hand gently spreads rich, dark soil around the base of a thriving peach sapling, nurturing its growth. In the background, the lush foliage appears blurred, hinting at the flourishing ecosystem supporting the young tree's development.
Plant peach trees in late winter or early spring for minimal transplant stress.

The best time of year to plant your peach tree is late winter or early spring, depending on your climate. When the ground is workable, it’s a good time to plant. This is when the plant is dormant and will experience the least amount of stress from transplanting. 

Choose a place with good drainage that receives six to eight hours of direct sun daily. If your tree is bare-root or has been in transit for days, soak the roots in water for four to six hours prior to planting. It is important to keep your tree’s roots moist while waiting to plant it. 

If you’re planting a bare-root tree, dig a hole that is 18″x18″. Form a mound of soil or compost in the center of the hole. Then, spread the roots over the soil mound. If your tree is grafted, the graft should be two inches above the ground. For trees that are not grafted, make sure the entire root system is covered. 

Your young tree is likely to need some support initially. Use a stake to support your young tree and help it grow straight. Then, backfill the hole with soil and compost and water it deeply. 

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How to Grow

While I wouldn’t consider peach trees to be high maintenance, they do require some tending if you want a good harvest. It is important to keep them moist, fertilize them sufficiently, and prune them correctly.

Light

A peach tree branch adorned with lush leaves and ripe peaches, showcasing a beautiful blend of red and yellow tones. Behind it, the sky paints a serene backdrop with billowing clouds against a soothing shade of blue.
Grow peach trees in areas with six to eight hours of full sun daily.

Most fruit trees are fans of sunlight. Peach trees need full sun in order to produce a large quantity of sweet fruits. Planting your tree in full sun will also help combat fungal diseases. 

Choose a spot that receives six to eight hours of direct sun daily. This is a minimum, so don’t worry about your tree getting too much sun. In terms of exposure, the earlier in the morning, the better. 

Water

A silver watering can pours a gentle stream of water onto the leafless yet blooming peach tree. Below, the ground is neatly mulched, providing a protective layer for the tree's roots and retaining moisture for growth.
Regularly water newly planted ‘Contender’ peach trees to establish roots.

Water your newly planted tree regularly to help it establish roots. A newly planted tree should get a deep watering two to three times per week in its first few months. During the hot summer months, expect your tree to need some supplemental watering as well. 

Once your tree is mature, it needs between one to one-and-a-half inches of water weekly. If this happens with rainfall alone, there is no need for supplemental watering. However, peaches are not drought-resistant and will need watering in times of drought. 

Water your tree deeply when you water. Allowing the water to soak deeply into the ground will encourage deep roots. Applying a layer of mulch around the base of the tree is a great way to help with moisture, as well. 

Soil

A rich, brown fertile loam soil in close-up, displaying its intricate texture and organic matter. This soil appears crumbly and well-aerated, promising optimal conditions for plant growth and nourishment.
Optimal soil conditions for peach trees include well-draining, slightly acidic soil.

Peach trees grow best in loose, loamy, well-draining soil types. They also prefer soil that is slightly acidic (6.0-6.8). Avoid heavy soil types, and amend if needed. Clay soil will work best if amended with plenty of well-rotted compost or other organic material. 

It is very important that your soil drains properly. Peach trees do not tolerate wet roots. Although they do like a fair bit of moisture, soggy soil will lead to root rot and other fungal issues. 

Temperature & Humidity

A close-up captures vibrant red peaches, their surface adorned with delicate white fuzz, inviting a tactile exploration. Behind them, a lush backdrop of blurred greenery sets the scene, hinting at the orchard's abundant bounty.
The ‘Contender’ variety thrives in cold climates.

When it comes to temperature, different varieties work in different climates as a result of breeding. ‘Contender’ is a highly cold-tolerant variety, so it can handle quite a lot of low temperatures. This tree is cold hardy to USDA Zone 4, so the roots are hardy all the way to -40° F/C. In fact, without a certain amount of cold weather, this peach won’t bear much fruit. 

Peach trees like an elevated humidity level in spring and summer. The optimal humidity level is between 50-70%. If there is an excess of moisture in the air, fungus can be an issue. Proper pruning and planting ensure good air circulation to help prevent fungal issues. 

Fertilizing

Hands cradle fertilizer granules, a mix of red, white, black, and blue, promising vibrant growth. In the backdrop, a blur of additional granules hints at abundance and productivity, ready to nurture plants to their fullest potential.
Fertilize weekly in the first spring for healthy peach tree growth.

Feed your newly planted peach sapling once per week during the first spring, and then every month and a half through the summer. Stop fertilizing in the fall to prevent new, tender growth that is vulnerable to frost. A balanced formula of 10-10-10 should do the trick

For established peach trees, fertilize once in early spring at the beginning of the growth season. This will give your tree the nutrients it needs for a big bloom and a big harvest. Fertilize again in late spring to early summer as your fruits mature. 

Maintenance

A close-up of the textured bark of a peach tree trunk, with intricate patterns visible. Pruning shears in action, neatly slicing through a branch, creating a clean cut and promoting healthy growth for the tree.
Pruning in late winter or early spring can improve fruit yield.

A peach tree will survive without pruning, but pruning it will help it produce more, healthier fruits. Prune in late winter or early spring before any flowers bloom. Pay attention to the buds, though. Peaches bear fruit on wood that grew the summer before. If you remove too much new growth, you will reduce your harvest. 

Begin by removing dead or damaged branches. Next, remove any water sprouts. These are shoots that grow straight upward and do not produce any fruit. They are useless to the plant and will only use up valuable energy. 

Identify your scaffold branches, which are the main branches that form from the trunk. Ideally, these branches are strongest when they grow at about a 60° angle from the trunk. These are the best support for fruit. Prune off branches that have an angle of 45° or less to thin out and maintain the integrity of the tree. 

Remove any other small branches growing from the main trunk. If you want to reduce the overall size and manageability of the tree, you can prune the length of your scaffold branches. When cutting back these branches, cut them just above an outward-facing bud. This will give your tree a nicer shape that is more conducive to harvesting.

Finally, prune the shoots on your scaffold branches. You want to have one branch at every 12-inch interval, ideally. 

Once your tree has fruit on it, you may want to thin the fruit to prevent broken branches. A branch that has too many peaches on it can snap under the weight. You want to aim for one peach every six inches on a branch.

Harvesting

An assortment of peaches, their skins painted in rich crimson and sunny yellow, forming a colorful mound. Each peach exudes ripe freshness, promising a juicy burst of sweetness with every bite, a tantalizing symphony of flavors.
They typically ripen in mid-to-late August.

‘Contender’ peaches ripen in mid-to-late August. This is on the late end, as the average falls somewhere in July. These sweet, juicy, and tangy peaches are medium to large and have a flavor often compared to mangoes. They are yellow with a pink blush that covers about 70% of the fruit. 

You will know when your peaches are ready to harvest by feeling them. A ripe peach should be just slightly soft. A hard fruit is unripe and won’t be nearly as sweet. Be gentle about squeezing your fruits, though, as peaches bruise easily. 

Another indicator of a peach’s ripeness is how easily it breaks free from the branch. Gently grasp the peach and pull it away from the branch, giving it a little twist as you pull. A ripe peach will come away fairly easily. A peach that is hard to pull from the branch isn’t ripe yet. 

Uses

A slice of peach pie sits temptingly on a white plate. Adjacent lies a succulent peach and neatly sliced segments, arranged with precision on a rustic wooden cutting board, promising a delightful fruity indulgence.
‘Contender’ peaches are ideal for eating fresh and baking.

While peach trees are pretty, their main function isn’t typically ornamental. We plant them for their delicious fruit! ‘Contender’ peaches are large and sweet. They are great for eating straight off the tree. 

These particular peaches are also great for baking. They make a wonderful pie or cobbler. They stand up well to canning, too. The fact that these peaches don’t brown easily makes them excellent for serving sliced and ready-to-eat.

Common Problems

Anyone who has grown fruit before can tell you that it’s not without a set of challenges. Humans aren’t the only ones who like to snack on sweet, juicy peaches. 

Pests

A squirrel nestled in lush green grass clasps a ripe peach in its paws. Before the squirrel, a peach tree branch bends under the weight of its bountiful foliage, adorned with succulent peaches ready for picking.
Peaches are vulnerable to significant damage from squirrels.

When we talk about pests, we usually mean the insect type. However, I’ve found that the most destructive nuisances for my peaches are squirrels. Those furry little stinkers will wait until the day before your beautiful peaches are ripe and eat as many as they can manage. 

It’s difficult to manage squirrels, as they don’t seem to give up no matter what barriers you put in their way. Baffles can be effective for taller trees that are not close to any other trees. I plan to cover my trees this year with nets to keep out birds, squirrels, and insects.

Some other pests that you may encounter in growing peaches include borers, aphids, and mites. Covering your peaches with mesh bags will help keep pests away. Neem oil is another safe treatment if you find an infestation. There are physical insect lures that are fairly effective as well as methods of spraying your fruit with diatomaceous earth. 

Diseases

Sunlight filters through green peach leaves, now tinged with crimson and curling from peach leaf curl disease. In the background, blurred foliage hints at a thriving orchard, contrasting with the afflicted leaves in the foreground.
Manage diseases through proper pruning and fertilization.

Some of the diseases common to peaches are brown rot, peach leaf curl, peach scab, and perennial canker. These issues tend to be more of an issue during hot, humid, and rainy weather. Keep your trees healthy by pruning to maintain airflow through the branches. Fertilize to keep them strong. 

Lack of Fruit

A peach tree stands bathed in sunlight, its leaves curled from peach leaf curl disease. In the backdrop, tall grasses sway gracefully under the warm embrace of the sun, painting a serene rural scene.
Excessive pruning and fertilization can hinder flowering and fruit production.

If you have a very young sapling or one that you planted from seed, expect the tree not to bear fruit for the first three or four years. If, by five years old, your peach is not producing an ample amount of fruit, there is another issue. 

One cause of a lack of flowering and bearing fruit has to do with the vigor of the tree. Too much pruning and too much fertilizer can lead to the plant focusing more energy on green growth. When this happens, there is a shortage of energy to expend on flowers and fruit. Make sure you’re fertilizing and pruning in a healthy manner, and the issue should correct itself.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will ‘Contender’ Peach Trees Grow in Florida?

Except for the small swath of North Florida that is on the cusp of Zone 8, I recommend going for a more heat-tolerant variety. This tree is not bred for very hot summers and it needs a significant number of chill hours.

Are Peach Tree Roots Invasive?

Not especially. A fully mature peach tree’s root system will not exceed a 20-foot radius. They can interfere with pipes but are unlikely to affect your home or other concrete slabs.

Are Peach Seeds Toxic?

Peach trees are stone fruits, so their seeds contain a small amount of cyanide. One seed isn’t likely to harm an adult human, but any amount could be dangerous for a child or animal.

Final Thoughts

If you want a peach that thrives in cool climates and bears large, tasty fruit, ‘Contender’ is a great choice. This mid-sized tree produces great fruit and is easy to manage and care for. Who doesn’t want homegrown peaches straight from the garden?

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