Peaches need cooler temps soon

Published 2:41 pm Tuesday, January 17, 2012

While most people don’t mind the mild winter we have had so far this year, Chilton County’s famous peaches do.

Peach trees need a certain amount of cold weather each winter to produce a good crop come summertime. Growers measure the time, called “chill” or dormant hours, from Oct. 1 through the middle of February.

The number of chill hours needed varies depending on the kind of peach, but all trees need the temperature to be below 45 degrees for at least 900 hours. Some varieties need up to 1,200 hours.

The trees are expected to have only about 650 chill hours by this weekend, said Jim Pitts of the Chilton Research and Extension Center.

“We are not getting enough hours. We are behind,” Pitts said. “It doesn’t look like — unless the weather patterns change — we are going to have all we need. It’s never been cold enough.”

The hours are needed to help the trees develop blooms and leaves in the spring. The leaves are especially important because they supply the trees with energy.

In other years with few chill hours, trees won’t put out leaves until late in the season, even as late as harvest time. The result can be smaller fruit and less of it, Pitts said.

There is also concern about the quality of chill hours this year. It’s never gotten cold and stayed cold, Pitts said.

“We are concerned about the quality of hours,” Pitts said. “With the fluctuations in temperature, it’s hard to say. That’s why we are concerned about the 650 (chill hours we do have).”

Growers are still hopeful for a long cold snap this winter, but have some tools to use as a backup plan.

As long as trees have gotten at least 70 percent of the chill hours they need, there is a chemical that can be applied that helps the plant blossom and grow leaves, Pitts said.

“You can apply the product, and it will fool that tree into thinking it has had enough dormant hours,” Pitts said.

But the chemical is expensive and can make the tree blossom earlier, magnifying the threats of a late season freeze, Pitts said.

In the meantime, growers will have to take the next few weeks a day at a time.

“We just don’t know…it’s one step at a time,” Pitts said.

Regardless, 2012 will be a big contrast to almost ideal growing conditions last year when the only negatives were a little hail damage in the spring and drought near the end of the season.

“Last year was as perfect a year, through the winter, spring and early summer that I have ever seen,” Pitts said.