Days to germination: Seedlings are usually purchased
Days to harvest: 4 to 7 years
Light requirements: Full sun
Water requirements: Will tolerate dry conditions
Soil: Fertile and loose
Container: Not really ideal
Dates are a very common fruit in the Middle East, and most crops are grown there or in northern Africa. The fruit is grown on a date palm tree, and it should be no surprise that they thrive only in hot dry climates. For North American growers, only zones 9 to 11 would be suitable for date palms. The most common variety is the Medjool date.
They are not the easiest trees to grow and harvest from, but growing your own dates can be a fun challenge if you enjoy trying new fruits in your garden. Just be prepared for a little more work than usual.
Dates are extremely nutritious, and have been an important food source for centuries. They are high in fiber and several B vitamins but low in calories.
Starting your Tree
Date palms are either male or female, and you will need one of each in order to have any fruit. If you want to grow several trees, you can get by with one male and any number of female trees. So when you plan out your locations for date palms, make sure you have room for at least 2 trees.
Because you need a male and female tree, people generally don’t start their trees from seed because you would never know what the gender will be for many years. Purchased seedlings are usually cuttings from an existing palm, so they should be properly labeled by their gender.
Choose a sunny location and plant as you would any other kind of tree, digging a hole large enough to hold the roots. Each tree will grow to more than 50 feet tall, and up to 30 feet across. If that is excessive, try a 10-foot dwarf variety.
As mentioned, you need 2 trees but because you will be pollinating by hand (see more on that in the next section), you don’t necessarily have to plant the trees next to each other if your space doesn’t allow it.
Dates are very slow growing trees, so don’t be discouraged if your trees aren’t doing very much each season. It’s easy to over-water a date palm, which will kill it. Regular rainfall is usually sufficient, unless it’s been dry for a prolonged period of time or your tree is still getting established.
Date palms are not pollinated by insects or birds, but by the wind. With only a few trees, you are taking a risk that nothing will pollinate and therefore will produce no fruit. That means part of your annual gardening routine will have to be hand-pollinating your date trees.
Early each year, the male trees will produce sheaths of pollen. You will have to collect it (it’s just a fine powder) and then dust it over the female flowers once your female trees are in bloom. Ask at the nursery where you get your trees for more details on this. It’s really not a difficult task.
Date palms will grow very long and sharp thorns or spines along its base, so either plant your trees somewhere away from regular walkways or cut the spines off as they grow. It won’t hurt the plant to snip them off.
Once your fruit starts to set, you will want to thin it out by picking some of the smaller fruits before they ripen. Otherwise, you will have a big harvest of tiny dates. It’s not uncommon to take out half or more of the growing dates to get a better final crop.
While dwarf varieties of date palm do exist that can grow in very large pots (half barrels or larger planters), it’s not a practical option. As mentioned, you will need to have 2 trees which may not be suitable if you are trying to grow in a small space.
Pests and Diseases
Most of the insect pests that attack the date palm are not found in North America, so anyone growing dates in America will probably find their trees to be fairly insect-free.
Birds, mice and squirrels can be a problem once the fruit starts to ripen though. Date farmers usually put mesh bags around the strands of dates so they can ripen without being stolen.
Harvest and Storage
You may have to wait until your date palm reaches 4 to 7 years of age before you start to see any fruit development. Dates don’t all ripen at once even within the same cluster of fruit, so you will have to harvest several times during the season. Each palm tree can produce 150 to 200 pounds of fruit each year, once it has matured to full capacity.
The are ripe when brown and soft, though they can be picked while still hard and left to ripe off the tree. If you have problems with birds eating the fruit, this may be a better option. Given the height of the tree, you will need ladders or other equipment to harvest once your palm reaches full size. Dwarf palms are more reasonable in this respect.
Fresh dates can be stored in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks, or frozen for up to 4 months. For sweeter (and longer lasting) fruit, you should dry them rather than store fresh.
Before you dry them, you will have to slice each one open to remove the seed or pit. Most people just slice each date in half and dry them in 2 pieces. They can take a long time to dry, and should be dried in a proper dehydrator or the oven. The sun is not a reliable method for such thick fruit. It can take more than 20 hours to dry, and the dates will be soft and leathery when done.
Once dry, you can keep dates at room temperature in an airtight container for 6 months. Store that container in the fridge, and you’re good for a year.