As a general rule, I tell home gardeners to consider pecan trees as good shade trees. If you get quality nuts without diseases or insects — and you can beat the squirrels to them — the nuts are a bonus.
Pecan trees are native to Arkansas, and native varieties produce quality small nuts. For large nuts, choose a grafted tree with an improved variety. There are many improved varieties, but nut size varies greatly due to the age of the tree, size of the crop and weather conditions during the growing season.
Many gardeners don’t realize how large a pecan tree will be at maturity. These trees can grow to be 75 feet tall with a 40-foot spread, and you need two different varieties for cross-pollination. Most pecan trees also require a spray program to keep the nuts free of disease and insects. Many home gardeners don’t have the ability to spray a tree that large. But that won’t be a problem for seven to 10 years, as that is how long it takes before a pecan tree is old enough to bear fruit.
When planting a pecan tree, choose the planting site carefully. Due to the large mature size of pecan trees, plant them at least 20 feet away from your home or driveway and 40 feet away from other trees to allow for good air flow and sunlight — and to prevent competition for water and nutrients. Pecan trees need full sun and well-drained soil. Pecan trees cannot tolerate heavy clay soils or extremely rocky sites.
As previously mentioned, you need two different varieties for cross-pollination, but not just any two. There are basically two types of pecan trees. The first type has male blooms that are done shedding their pollen before the female flowers on that tree are receptive. The second type has female blooms that need pollen before the male flowers are ready to release it. For pollination to occur, you must have both types of trees. If your neighbors have pecan trees, find out what variety they have. Pecan trees within a quarter mile of where you are planting can aid in pollination if they are in bloom at the same time.
Besides pollination, also consider disease resistance. The most devastating disease on pecans is scab. This disease attacks both the leaves and the nuts, and, in a bad year, can destroy the entire crop. To reduce the number of sprays needed for control, it is best to choose a variety that is resistant.
Here is a link to the UA Cooperative Extension Service fact sheet on recommended varieties of pecans for Arkansas: tinyurl.com/arpecans.
Once you have chosen your varieties, prepare your site. Take a soil sample to your local county extension office to determine your soil pH and nutrient levels. Fall planting is ideal. Don’t add fertilizer at planting time. Fertilize in late February to March and again in June to early July. Pay attention to water needs. Young trees need regular watering (even during the winter), but they can’t tolerate wet feet. Mulch around the base of your trees to keep weed and grass competition down and to prevent damage from lawn equipment.
As with any tree, proper training and pruning is important in the first four to six years. This is when you are producing the structure and shape of the tree. Most pecan trees grow slowly the first year — they are busy getting established and not as concerned about top growth. Make sure the tree you purchase has just one straight trunk with no major forks. In year two, you can begin to remove low side limbs and look for sharp angles or weak limbs. Many gardeners think they will wait several years to allow the tree to grow before pruning, but then minor issues can become major issues. Continue encouraging a strong trunk with strong branches and crotch angles for the next few years.
Once your trees come of age and begin to bear fruit, monitor for insects and diseases. Nuts are ready to be
harvested when they start to separate from the husks. You can knock the nuts from the tree with a rigid cane or PVC pole, or allow the nuts to fall naturally and pick them up from the ground. Placing a tarp under the tree helps with both methods. It is important to gather the nuts quickly once they fall, as they can be damaged by wet weather or picked up by any number of animals.
Once you harvest, you can eat nuts immediately or store them. Make sure they are dry before storing. For long-term storage, the best place is in the freezer.
Whether you grow your own or buy them, pecans are delicious and nutritious. They contain fiber, protein and more flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) than any other tree nut. And if you have a lot of nuts to crack, the shells make a nice mulch in your ornamental beds.