Time to germination: Better to plant seedlings
Time to harvest: 15 years for seedlings, 3 for grafts
Light requirements: Full sun
Pecans are a nut tree suitable for warmer climates, such as the southern United States as well as Mexico and South America. Hardiness zones 5 to 9 are the best climates for growing pecans.
The trees will be quite large at maturity, easily reaching 100 feet in height and a branch spread of 50 feet or more. It’s not a tree that you can easily grow in a small yard.
Like walnuts, pecans are messy trees. Through the year they will drop male flowers and sap everywhere. So if you don’t mind the mess, the trees will produce a wonderful harvest of buttery tasting nuts with easy-to-crack shells.
Starting Your Tree
Select a sunny location with excellent drainage. Pecans will not thrive if their roots sit in water too often. Don’t plant your trees in any low-lying areas.
Like several other nut trees, pecans produce a chemical called juglone that is toxic to many other plants. You don’t want your pecan trees to be close to any other plants, especially a vegetable garden. When you rake your pecan leaves, don’t add them to your compost pile either.
Pecans have both male and female flowers, but they do not bloom at the same time. This basically means that a single pecan tree cannot pollinate itself, and will not produce nuts. To get around this problem, you have to plant at least 2 trees and they cannot be the same “type”. You have to have one type that has its male flowers first, and one type that has its female flowers first. Your local tree nursery should be able to explain in more detail to make sure you get the right trees. If there are pecan trees already growing in your area, you might be able to get away with just one tree.
Considering their size, you have to allow for 50 feet or more between your trees.
While you can start your own pecan tree from a fresh nut/seed, most people buy seedlings instead. Getting the seeds to sprout is a complicated process of drying, chilling and soaking. Seedlings or grafted saplings are really more suitable for the average home gardener.
The best time to plant a pecan tree is the late fall. Dig a hole large enough to hold the root ball, and water thoroughly once the seedling is planted. For grafted trees, the place where the two pieces of tree have been grafted should be about 2 inches above the level of the soil.
Once you’ve planted your new tree, you should prune some of the branches down to minimize the demands on the newly planted roots. About 1/3 of the branches should be trimmed back. You might want to ask the nursery where you buy the seedling about the correct techniques for this.
One of the biggest threats to your pecan trees will be the pecan weevil. These long-nosed little bugs usually make their appearance in the late summer, laying eggs in your developing pecans. The larvae hatch and eat away the nut, leaving through a hole they chew in the shell. You can take a few steps to protect your trees.
Lay out a sturdy tarp under your tree in late summer and give the branches a shake. Any weevils that fall out should be killed. Ideally, you will reduce the number of adults enough that fewer eggs will be laid in your tree. Various insecticides can also be used to kill of the weevils, but large trees will require a commercial service to adequately treat the entire tree. You can also try sticky traps around the trunk, which can stop the weevils (and anything else) from climbing up into the branches.
Like many other trees, tent caterpillars are another problem that should be able to deal with on your own. They’re also called webworms for the large and rather unsightly tented webs they spin. These caterpillars will eat the leaves of your trees, and can be damaging in large numbers. They live in the tents as they grow. Cut out the branches with tents and dispose of them. Burning will make sure the caterpillars are destroyed. Some people burn them right in the tree, but that’s not recommended unless you have some experience doing it.
Pecan scab is a fungus infection that can ruin your nuts as well. Look for dark green or black spots on the new leaves, and the black fungus can spread to the nuts, making the husks stick to the them. The tree needs to be treated with a fungicide. Many varieties are resistant, but grafted trees are more susceptible to scab.
Through the summer, make sure your tree gets enough water and you can also give it a feeding each spring with a standard fertilizer mix. For the first few years after planting a seedling, you should water your tree almost daily. A good rule of thumb is one gallon of water for each year of tree age. After they reach 5 years old, you can water them deeply once a week if it hasn’t rained.
Harvest and Storage
If you started your pecan trees from seedlings, you can look forward to your first light nut harvests about 15 years later. Grafted trees are usually made with older pecan stock, so you will start to see nut production after just 3 or 4 years. Harvest time for pecans is early autumn. Large trees can provide hundreds of pounds of nuts, but the exact yield will vary greatly from one tree to the next.
The pecan nuts are encased in a husk or “shuck”. When the shuck dries and splits open, that indicates that your pecans are ready to harvest. Many will drop to the ground, but you will most likely have to shake the tree’s branches (not too roughly) to get the nuts to come loose. If you have a grove of trees, there are tools you can use to help with the harvest. A nut-picker on a long pole can be a very helpful tool for the larger trees to get the high up nuts that refuse to fall.
As you start to notice the splitting husks up in the tree, rake as much debris away from the tree and mow the grass to make it easier to find the dropped nuts. Once you pick them, you can break the remaining pieces of the husk away without too much trouble.
Once you’ve picked the nuts out of the shucks, let them dry in a ventilated place for at least 2 weeks. You can test a pecan by shelling one, and its done if the nut meat snaps easily in half. Dried pecans in the shell can be stored in a cool place for several months. Once you shell them, the meats can be refrigerated for 6 months and still stay fresh.