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Nectarine Tree: Sweet, Smooth Summer Fruit

Nectarines are a fantastic addition to the home garden for their sweet tasty fruit with the added benefit of making beautiful trees. Growing a nectarine tree will decorate your garden with lovely fragrant pink blossoms in the spring, provide a mouthwatering scent of ripe nectarines during the summer, and present a fiery display signaling the start of fall. 

A nectarine is a smaller sweeter version of a peach with smooth skin. Like peaches, there are clingstone and freestone varieties. Clingstone means the flesh clings to the center pit. Clingstone varieties are most commonly used for processing and canning. Freestone means the flesh easily separates from the pit. Freestone varieties are most commonly used for consuming fresh and freezing. Nectarines are commonly eaten fresh but can be used in salads, smoothies, ice creams, cobblers, and jams.

Nectarines have been grown for thousands of years, so there are a lot of cultivars available to grow. Cultivars have been developed to grow in zones 5-9. Dwarfing rootstocks make it possible for gardeners with limited space to grow nectarines. They can be planted in the ground or containers. 

Growing a nectarine tree requires a lot of care and maintenance, which may be intimidating for newbie gardeners. The key to successfully growing delicious nectarines is following a maintenance schedule. This guide will take all the guesswork out of growing a nectarine tree making it easy for anyone to grow a healthy plant with an abundance of yummy fruits. When searching for the perfect nectarine tree, head to a local nursery. They will offer cultivars adapted to your local climate. 

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Quick Care Guide

Nectarine tree
The nectarine tree might be the perfect addition to your food forest. Source: sand_and_sky
Common Name(s)Nectarine
Scientific NamePrunus persica var. nucipersica
Days to HarvestAnnually June-August
LightFull sun
WaterModerate
SoilWell-drained nutrient-rich
Fertilizer10-10-10
PestsAphids, red spider mite, peachtree borer, scale
DiseasesPeach leaf curl, brown rot, bacterial spot, powdery mildew

All About The Nectarine Tree

Flowering nectarine
Nectarine flowers are gorgeous early in the year. Source: Jason Fiori

Nectarines or Prunus persica var. nucipersica share the same botanical name as peaches but are classified under the variety nucipersica. Both peaches and nectarines originate from China and were discovered over 2,000 years ago. The fuzz-less trait of the nectarine is the result of a genetic mutation seen on peaches. The smooth skin was highly desirable so the genetic mutation was continuously bred leading to numerous cultivars of nectarines available today. The genus, Prunus, includes several other fruits and nuts such as plums, cherries, and almonds. 

Mature nectarine trees range in height from 6-30 ft depending on the rootstock used. Prunus persica is a deciduous tree with lanceolate leaves. The flowers are pink and have five petals, similar to cherry blossoms. Nectarines have green skin when developing and turn to a combination of yellow, orange, red, or white when ripe. The flesh is either yellow or white and there is one large brown pit in the center.

Nectarine trees are dormant during the winter. In the spring the tree breaks dormancy with beautiful pink blossoms that cover the canopy of the tree. The leaves emerge shortly after. Nectarines are self-fertile so they do not require pollination but pollination will increase the amount of fruit produced. Fruit develops, ripens, and is harvested in the summer. Nectarine trees lose their foliage in the fall after harvest and prepare for dormancy. Each cultivar has a chill requirement to produce fruit for the following season. Chill hours begin to accumulate when temperatures drop below 45°F.

There are a ton of great varieties available to home gardeners. Varieties have been developed for zones 5-9, so it is important to choose a variety adapted to your climate. Fantasia is a popular yellow freestone cultivar adapted to zones 5-9 with a low chill requirement of 250 hours. Mericrest is another yellow freestone cultivar recognized for its disease resistance to brown rot and leaf spot. It is hardy to zones 5-8 and has a chilling requirement of 800 hours. If you are a fan of white nectarines, Goldmine is a white freestone cultivar adapted to zones 5-9 with a chilling requirement of 400 hours. For those with extremely mild winters, Desert Delight is a great variety to consider. It’s a smaller nectarine tree that produces semi-freestone yellow fruit and will only require 100-200 chill hours. 

Planting

Young trees can be planted in the ground or in containers. Choose a sunny location that receives at least 8 hours of direct sunlight. Avoid planting in an area with high wind. Adequate drainage is essential to growing a healthy tree. If the desired planting location does not provide good drainage, trees can be planted in a raised bed. Raised beds should be 5-6 feet in diameter and 10-12 inches in height. 

Nectarine trees should be planted as dormant trees in the late winter or early spring. Whether planting in the ground or a container, keep the graft union at least 2-3 inches above the soil and mulch. Thin trees may need a tree stake for support. If planting multiple trees, space trees 8-12 feet apart. 

To plant in the ground, dig a hole twice the size of the rootball. Fill in with loose soil and top with mulch. When planting in a container, use a 15-20 gallon pot and a high-quality potting mix.

Care

Nectarine orchard
A nectarine orchard flowering in the spring. Source: Muffet

Nectarines grow well with an established maintenance routine. Failure to follow a maintenance schedule can result in disease and pest issues as well as poor-quality fruits. 

Sun and Temperature

Nectarine trees require full sun or a minimum of 8 hours of direct sunlight. Nectarines can be grown in zones 5-9. Hot summers and cool winters are ideal for optimal growth. Nectarines require a certain number of chill hours for blooms to develop. Chill hours begin to accumulate when temperatures dip below 45°F. If gardening in an area with mild winters, it’s crucial to choose cultivars with a lower chill requirement.

While dormant, some cultivars can tolerate very low temperatures down to -15°F. Although the tree is very frost tolerant, flower buds are much more sensitive to damage. Fully bloomed flowers can tolerate temperatures down to 28°F before damage occurs. Frost damage to flower blooms will reduce the amount of fruit produced for the season. 

Nectarines are commonly grown in areas with high summer temperatures consistently above 95°F. Sunburn can occur, but the damage is usually mild.

Water and Humidity

In-ground trees should be watered once a week. Keep the soil moist, but not saturated. Irrigate early in the morning to avoid extended wet conditions during the night. High humidity and wet conditions will create an environment favorable to disease development. Use drip irrigation and soaker hoses to avoid wetting the trunk and foliage. Check the soil moisture throughout the winter and rainy season and reduce irrigation as needed.

Soil

Nectarines grow best in well-draining sandy loam soils with a pH between 6.0-7.0. Nectarines are very susceptible to disease and pest issues, so quality soil is essential to growing a healthy plant.

Fertilizing

Fertilize new trees one week after planting with 10-10-10. Trees should be fertilized with 10-10-10 every March, May, and after harvest. Broadcast fertilizer 8-12 inches from the trunk. 

Pruning

Pruning is required annually while the tree is dormant. The goal when pruning is to keep the canopy open, remove weak or damaged limbs, and encourage fruit production. Nectarines should be pruned to keep an open center with 3-4 scaffold branches. Maintaining an open center maximizes sunlight and allows airflow which reduces disease pressure. Fruit thinning is also important to prevent breakage and to produce quality nectarines. 

At Planting

Young nectarine trees should be planted as a single whip and pruned down to about 30 inches. Pruning the top of the tree will promote side branching. 

1st Year

Select 3-4 branches to become scaffold branches. Select scaffold branches that are at least 3-4 inches apart on the main trunk and pointing in different directions. Scaffold branches should never overlap and should have about a 45° angle from the main trunk. Remove all other growth. 

2+ Years

Start by removing all damaged and diseased twigs and branches. If any fruit or leaves are remaining, remove and discard. 

Next, remove branches growing in the center of the tree keeping the center open. Examine each scaffold branch. There will be a lot of newer shoots from the spring and summer that will be next season’s fruiting wood. Fruit develops predominantly on one-year-old wood. One-year-old growth is distinguishable by color. One-year-old twigs do not have a woody exterior like older growth and they are light brown, green, or red. 

When pruning, expect to prune off about 40-50% of the new wood growth to maintain a good shape and to prevent the tree from overproducing fruit. Without pruning, the tree will grow a lot of weak limbs, and breakage will occur as the fruits develop. Select strong branches in an alternate arrangement to the right and left of each scaffold branch. Prune off any branches facing directly inside or outside the tree’s canopy. Prune new shoots to 18-24 inches at an outward-facing bud. 

Fruit Thinning

Fruit thinning is best done about one month after bloom while the fruit is still small. Start by removing the smallest fruit. Then, thin to keep larger fruit 6-8 inches apart. 

Propagation

Nectarines can be propagated by seed, cuttings, and grafting. 

Seed propagation is predominantly used to propagate rootstocks, but may also be used to propagate fruit trees. Propagating from seed is time-consuming and the characteristics of the tree and fruit are not guaranteed. This method may be acceptable to the patient gardener with space for multiple fruit trees. It will take 2-4 years for a tree grown from seed to produce fruit. To propagate from seed, first, remove the seed from the pit. Seed removed directly from the fruit will be dormant and requires stratification to break dormancy. Place the seed in a container or bag with moist soil and keep it in the refrigerator between 34-40°F. Check regularly for germination. It may take up to 3-4 months for germination. 

Cuttings are generally used to propagate rootstocks that do not produce true-to-type seed, but they can also be used to propagate fruiting varieties. Collect hardwood cuttings from last season’s growth in October-January. Cuttings should be 10-12 inches long. Use a rooting hormone to encourage callous and root development. Stick the cuttings in soil and keep moist until roots develop. Protect the cuttings from direct sunlight. 

Grafting is the preferred method for propagating nectarine trees. With grafting, you can select the most appropriate rootstock and cultivar for your growing area. Rootstocks offer benefits such as height control and nematode resistance. Lovell is currently the most commonly used rootstock because of its cold tolerance and it grows well in a wide range of soil types. Rootstocks are grown from seed or cuttings and are grafted using the chip budding method in May to early June or late July to September. 

Harvesting and Storing

Ripe nectarines
Nectarines are firm and brightly-colored when ripe. Source: Rhian de Kerhiec

A fully mature nectarine tree will produce an abundance of delicious fruit. Below are some handy tips to determine when the nectarines are ready for harvest and how to store extra fruit that isn’t eaten fresh.

Harvesting

Nectarines are ready to harvest between June and August. Some early and late varieties can extend the season from May-September. The first sign of readiness is color. Fruit is harvested ripe when they are showing full color without any green leftover. Fruit should come off the tree easily with a gentle pull or twist. Before harvesting all the fruit at once, it’s best to do a taste test to confirm they are ready. Fruit will be firm and crunchy when first harvested and will soften a few days later. Do not pick up fruit from the ground. They may be bruised and could contaminate the other fruit.

Storing

Store in the fridge for 1-2 weeks. At room temperature, they will store for just a few days. 

There are several options for storing long term. They could be stored frozen, canned, freeze-dried, dehydrated, or used for jams and jellies. 

Troubleshooting

Unripe nectarines
Unripe nectarines range from dark to light green. Source: UnconventionalEmma

Growing a nectarine tree is incredibly rewarding, but they are susceptible to a handful of problems. Luckily, there is a lot of information on growing nectarines so preventing and resolving many of these issues is easy with proper care.

Growing Problems

Poor weather during the bloom season can harm nectarine production. Excess wind can damage blooms or cause premature drop. Late frost may also damage the flower blooms. Although we cannot change the weather, we can still protect plants from unfavorable conditions. Do not plant trees in a windy area. If the wind is a concern, plant in a sunny location near a fence or wall that can provide a barrier from harsh winds. During late frost events, bring the tree indoors or cover it with frost fabric. 

During warmer winters, the chilling requirement may not be met preventing the blooms from fully developing. This will result in little to no nectarine production for the season. It’s essential to choose varieties that have chilling requirements that coincide with your climate to prevent this from becoming a recurring issue.

Excessive nitrogen can cause soft fruit, poor color, reduced shelf life, and increased pest pressure. Do not over-fertilize. If you suspect the tree is over-fertilized, reduce the rate. Zinc deficiency is also common. The most common symptom of zinc deficiency is small new leaves. Incorporate a fertilizer that adds zinc and other essential micronutrients to the blend. 

Pests

Aphids are small soft-bodied insects that feed on the sap of tender growing tips. Feeding damage causes curling and yellowing of the leaves and premature leaf drop in extreme cases. Aphids also produce sugary excrement that leads to sooty mold. Creating an environment that encourages beneficial insects will allow for natural control of the pest. If beneficials are not keeping populations down, early infestations can be removed manually with water from the hose. In severe cases, horticultural oil and insecticidal soaps are effective organic treatments. 

Red spider mites are small arachnids that feed on individual cells in the leaves causing stippling damage. High infestations can lead to leaf drop. Mites are very small so the damage to the tree is typically noticed before the pest. In general, mites are attracted to stressed or over-fertilized trees. Maintaining a healthy tree is the first line of defense against mites. There are naturally occurring predatory insects and mites that keep populations under control. When the balance is disrupted and red spider mites become out of control, horticultural oil and insecticidal soaps can be used to knock down heavy infestations. 

Peachtree borer is a moth with clear wings, a blue-black body, and an orange band across the abdomen. Eggs are laid on the trunk or the crown of the tree. Larvae are a creamy color with a brown head. Larvae bore into the crown and trunk of the tree damaging the cambial layers. One sign of an infestation is gumming on the trunk and base of the tree. Larvae can easily girdle and kill young nectarine and peach trees. It may take several years of untreated infestations to kill mature trees. Moths can be seen from May-September while larvae remain in the tree year-round. It is impossible to treat larvae inside the trunk, so treatments should deter adults from laying eggs and preventing them from hatching. Spray neem oil or spinosad on the trunks to prevent the moths from starting another cycle. Both products will need to be applied every 1-2 weeks between May-September. Pheromone traps can also be used to monitor and trap adults. 

Scales are typically found on twigs and branches of fruit trees. There are several species of scale in a variety of colors such as yellow, green, brown, and black. Damage from scales is usually minimal. However, their excrement causes sooty mold to develop covering the foliage. Sooty mold inhibits photosynthesis and can lead to leaf drop. Scales are usually controlled by natural predators. If treatment is necessary, spray with organic horticultural oil.

Diseases

Peach leaf curl is caused by the pathogen Taphrina deformans. Symptoms include red or yellow thickened, curled leaves. The pathogen favors cool wet conditions so white spores may be noticeable on twigs and buds after it rains. Prevention is key when managing peach leaf curl. Spray organic copper fungicide on December 1st and February 1st to prevent infection. Without treatment, the disease can infect and kill entire branches. 

Monilinia fruticola, or brown rot, causes blossom and leaf blight. Gumming may also be present at the base of infected flowers. This pathogen overwinters as mummified fruit on the tree and the ground. Remove old fruit and leaves during the fall and winter to prevent future infection. 

Bacterial spot caused by Pseudomonas syringae favors cool, moist conditions and is most prevalent in the spring. Pseudomonas syringae is spread by splashing water. Young nectarine and peach trees are most susceptible to infection. Symptoms of infection include leaf spots, limb dieback, cankers, and a blast of young flowers and leaves. To prevent this disease, follow pruning and fertilizing schedules to maintain a healthy vigorous plant and avoid splashing water. 

Spaerotheca pannosa is commonly known as powdery mildew. Powdery mildew favors cool, moist nights and warm days. The most obvious sign is white powdery fungal growth on the leaves, shoots, and fruit. Infected leaves become misshapen and the fruit is scarred. To prevent powdery mildew, keep the tree as dry as possible going into the night by avoiding wetting the leaves and surrounding soil a few hours before sunset. Spray with an organic sulfur fungicide to treat. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Nectarine blossoms
Nectarine blossoms range from white to a rose-pink hue. Source: dsleeter_2000

Q: What time of year do nectarine trees produce fruit?

A: Nectarines are ready to harvest in the summer between June and August. Exact timing varies depending on the cultivar and climate.

Q: Do I need two nectarine trees to produce fruit?

A: No, nectarines are self-fertile. Having two trees will increase the amount of fruit, but it is not necessary.

Q: How tall does a nectarine tree grow?

A: Tree size varies, but nectarine trees can grow up to 30 feet. There are some dwarfing rootstocks available to maintain a height of 6-10 feet. Size management can also be achieved through pruning.


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