Peach Trees vs. Apple Trees: Which Should You Plant?
Are you a stonefruit fan? Maybe you prefer the classic crisp bite of an apple instead? When it comes to peaches and apples, there are a few differences, but many similarities, in these popular edible trees. Gardening expert Madison Moulton compares peaches and apples, allowing you to choose which one is right for your garden.
There is nothing nicer than a ripe juicy peach or apple straight off the tree that you have nurtured through the seasons. One of each tree can produce more fruit than a family can eat, so it’s well worth the investment.
There are also many similarities to growing apples and peaches, besides being very tasty and useful in the kitchen. As fruit trees, their planting and uses are remarkably similar. However, there are some fundamental differences in growth habits and care, as well as the obvious differences botanically.
Ultimately, they are both certainly worth the small effort it will take to care and maintain them for the best fruit production and an abundant harvest year after year.
Botanically, apples and peaches are quite different. They do come from around the same parts of the world, with apples originating in central Asia and peaches from China, but that’s about where these similarities end.
Apples – Malus domestica – are part of the Rose family (Rosaceae) together with fruits like pears and quinces. They are considered fleshy fruits (pomes), the thick layer we all love to eat, surrounding a core (seed-bearing ovary).
Peaches on the other hand belong to the genus Prunus and cover stone fruits that may have fuzzy skins like peaches (Prunus persica) or smooth skins like nectarines, plums, apricots and cherries. The fleshy middle layer is the bit that is juicy and delicious. This forms around a woody layer that protects the seed in the center.
Peaches are also further divided into two groups: clingstone and freestone. These terms refer to the flesh either clinging to the stone or easily coming free.
Under these basic varieties fall many hybrids that are bred for their specific characteristics to grow under different conditions. The wide range of cultivars will ripen at different times during the season, offering fruit from mid-summer to mid-spring and ensuring there will be a cultivar to suit many soil and climatic conditions.
Peaches grow into medium-sized trees with the size depending on the cultivar. They can grow to at least 25 feet tall and wide, but with proper pruning can be kept to a height of 10 – 12 feet tall and wide. In fact, for good fruit production, it is essential to keep them well pruned.
They need to be planted at least 15 – 20 feet apart. Different cultivars will grow uniquely, however as a general guide, they grow about 25 inches per year, which is considered quick and will begin producing good fruit in around 3 to 4 years. Peak production comes at around 10 years and they will start reducing production after about 15 years.
Apples, on the other hand, can grow 10 – 30 feet tall and nearly as wide, although there are dwarf varieties that grow only 7 – 10 feet high (ideal for containers). Like peaches though, it is advisable to prune annually. Properly pruned apples will stay between 10 and 12 feet tall.
Standard-sized trees will take longer to produce good fruit than peaches, about 6 – 10 years. However, they produce for a longer time and have a life expectancy of 35 – 45 years. Some apple trees can last far longer, over 100 years. In fact, one of the oldest apple trees in the world, The Old Apple Tree in Vancouver, Washington, planted in 1826, died quite recently at 194 years of age.
Peaches are self-fertile so it’s possible to obtain a fruit crop from just one tree. They are pollinated by insects, but due to the lack of insects around when they flower, hand pollination using a soft brush is sometimes necessary.
Almost all apples will not set a good crop of fruit with their own pollen. They crop consistently when pollinated by comparable cultivars, so it’s best to grow two different varieties at the same time. For good cross-pollination, select cultivars from the same group if possible. Apples from adjacent groups that flower at similar times will also serve as good pollinators. Trees grown in neighboring gardens if close by can also serve as cross-pollinators.
Both peaches and apples have varieties that will suit a wide range of conditions. There are peach varieties for USDA zones 4 – 9 (although they do better in zones 6 – 8) and apple varieties for USDA zones 3 – 8.
Plant trees, especially bare-root trees, on the same day they are bought to avoid the stresses of transplantation. Prepare the area for the tree in advance by mixing in compost and removing all weeds before buying. Once bought, you will then be able to plant straight away. Choose a young tree that looks healthy with no marks or dead patches with a healthy root system.
The best way to choose any fruit tree is to ask your local nursery. They will be selling varieties that do well in your particular area (or they wouldn’t be in business very long).
Both peaches and apples require a period of low temperatures in order to flower and produce fruit, known as chill hours. The number of hours will depend on the variety of the tree, but peach trees typically require slightly fewer chill hours due to the warmer climates they prefer.
Peach and apple trees should be planted when they are dormant in late winter or early spring, but after the frozen ground has thawed.
Sunlight is important for fruit production and the best for peaches and apples is all-day sunlight. Morning sun is essential as this helps remove any dew sitting on the fruits, preventing disease. This is more important for peaches than it is for apples, as the small hairs tend to cling to water droplets more than the smooth skin of the apple fruits.
Avoid a position that is windy, or install a structure to protect your apples or peaches from high winds. Fruit trees require shelter to avoid flowers from being blown off, thus limiting your harvest.
Good drainage is essential to growing healthy trees. Standing water can result in disease and rot and is totally unsuitable for fruit trees.
In general, all fruit trees will struggle in heavy clay soil. For both apples and peaches, the ideal pH in the soil is slightly acidic at 6 to 6.5. Moderately fertile soil is okay for these fruit trees, but the soil should always be enhanced with loads of compost before planting.
Dig a hole at least 3 inches wider and deeper than the tree and place the bare rooted tree on a mound before filling it in with soil. Young trees may require staking – it’s best to do this at planting so the stake does not disturb root growth later on. Make sure the graft union – where the grafted tree meets the rootstock – is at least two inches about the soil line.
Water is essential for large fruit and healthy trees. For both peach trees and apple trees, rainfall should take care of much of your watering once the trees mature. However, in the early stages of growth, regular watering is needed to establish strong root systems.
Control weeds around the trees to stop them from competing for water and fertilizer. Applying organic mulch around the trees will help retain moisture and keep weeds away. Freshen the mulch periodically, making sure there is no mulch against the trunk of the tree, which can cause rotting.
Young trees need to be pruned in order to develop a strong framework. Light pruning can be done any time of the year to keep the trees in shape and take off any damaged or dead branches. Heavy pruning for apples and peaches should be done in the dormant season in winter. Most of the fruit will yield from wood that grew the previous year and this wood is regrown year after year.
The open center pruning method is recommended. Instead of having a central leader branch, the tree should have 3 – 5 major limbs coming out of the trunk. This allows adequate light to reach all parts of the tree, encouraging fruit production on all parts of the tree – not just the outside areas that receive the most light.
When the trees begin to produce fruit, you may also need to thin out the fruit by removing any abnormally shaped or damaged ones so that the tree is not too burdened. The tree can then give all its energy to the remaining fruit.
Apples and peaches have different needs when it comes to fertilizer. Apples only need an annual feeding in the fall once all the leaves have dropped. Peaches require feeding twice a year – in the early spring and in late spring or early summer. Use a 10:10:10 formulation for both, but keep an eye on growth and fruit production as there may be a need to add more nutrients like boron or calcium.
For young apples and peaches, feed in a circle at least 18 inches away from the trunk. This encourages the roots to grow outwards. Extend this as the years go by, remembering that the roots below the soil can extend outwards one and a half times the diameter of the canopy of the tree. Feeder roots that sit in the top foot of soil will find the food, so the depth is not an issue, just the width. Extend your feeding every year, a foot away from the trunk and beyond the dripline.
Harvesting of fruit is dependent on the variety you have chosen to plant and the climatic conditions you live in. Generally, peaches are harvested between June and August and apples from August to October.
Timing is critical for picking fruit from the trees. Peaches are ripe and ready for picking when the color of the fruit changes from green to completely yellow. They should also come off the tree easily with only a slight twist. The fruits on the top and the outside of the tree will ripen first. Be careful with them as they can bruise easily.
Apples need to be fully colored and a slight twist should remove the fruit from the stem easily – no tugging necessary.
Peaches are a versatile fruit that can be eaten fresh, used in a lovely fruit salad, baked with a touch of brandy and ice cream, bottled for an out-of-season treat, or baked into a decadent peach cobbler.
Similarly, apples form the base of sweet apple butters and apple sauce, and can be baked into the iconic apple tart or simply used as a quick, portable snack that is packed with vitamins.
There is nothing nicer than a fresh piece of fruit, picked at the optimum time off your very own, well-cared-for fruit tree. The taste is nothing like you find in refrigerated store-bought fruit. Besides a few differences in climatic conditions and care, you can plant both apples and peaches without fuss. Plant an apple or two and a peach tree together and reap the rewards they offer year after year.