Driving around North Florida and South Georgia I love looking at pecan groves. The shade they provide in the summer always looks so inviting. Even in the fall when they lose their leaves the orchards are still beautiful as they invite autumn and the holidays to be celebrated under their limbs.
Do not get me started on how much I love pecans. I believe no matter how wonderful any food is it becomes even better with the addition of pecans.
Think about how good a grouper filet is and then think about how it is even more delicious as pecan crusted grouper. Or, how about chocolate chip cookies upgraded to pecan chocolate chip cookies. And then there are sweet potatoes and pecan streusel topped sweet potatoes. You can tell I have given this some thought.
As wonderful as pecan trees are, not everyone can or should plant them in their yards. The pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) is a deciduous tree native to the Mississippi flood plain and it belongs in the same family as English walnut, black walnut, and hickory. Pecan trees like long, hot summers and moderately cool winters along with deep, fertile, well-drained soils. North Florida is a good environment to grow pecans. However, if you plan to plant trees you will need a lot of land.
Pecan trees grow very large and can reach 70 feet or more in height and the trunk can reach a width of six feet. They need lots of sunlight to stay healthy and produce nuts so the trees should not canopy each other. This means you need to plant them at least 40 to 60 feet apart.
In addition, it is necessary to keep an area approximately six-foot-wide around the base of the tree free from grass and weeds. This weed-free strip keeps grass and weeds from competing with the tree for nutrients and water and facilitates tree growth, fertilization efficiency, and harvesting operations.
In Florida, Elliott, Excel, Lakota, and Summer are recommended cultivars. These four have very good to excellent resistance to the disease pecan scab. For pecan trees to bare nuts you will need two or more different cultivars, as they require cross pollination for maximum productivity.
Pecan trees do not bear fruit until they are between the ages of four and 12 years old and that is determined by the cultivar. Unfortunately, research out of UF/IFAS indicates that the cultivars that produce within four years have a low percentage of nuts as compared to those that take 10 to 12 years to mature.
Pecan trees should be planted during the dormant season, from late November through February, to allow the roots to grow before spring. You have a choice to select bare-root trees or potted trees. Bare-root trees, with a root system that is at least two and a half feet in length, are recommended over potted trees.
The reason why is the tap root on a pecan tree grows rapidly straight down in the ground, but if it is in a pot, it may wind around the bottom of the pot in a spiral. If you purchase a potted pecan tree you will need to cut or straighten out this tap root. A bare-root tree should be planted within a day of purchase to keep it from drying out. If the tree feels dry, then soak the root for a couple of hours before planting.
To plant a pecan tree, dig a hole at least two feet wide and two and a half feet deep. The taproot should extend straight down to the center of the hole. Backfill the hole and create a shallow basin around the tree to help retain water. Then heavily water the planting hole.
Your tree will need to be watered once a week unless there is a lot of rainfall. The roots of a mature pecan tree may be more than 10 feet deep. Most of the feeder roots will be located in the upper 12 inches of soil. Because of the high quantity of shallow roots, adequate, but not excessive, soil moisture is important for pecan trees.
When planting pecan trees or any other trees, do not put fertilizer in the planting hole. Wait until March and again in June to apply a light application of 10-10-10 plus micro-elements. Do not apply the fertilizer in a clump around the base of the tree. Instead, spread the fertilizer out in a circle with a three- to five-foot diameter around the trunk of the tree. Avoid placing fertilizer directly against the trunk.
The UF/IFAS researchers recommend fertilizing at least twice a year or you can apply a smaller amount every six to eight weeks. I have friends in Monticello with a pecan grove and they fertilize in March, early July, and again in early September. For newly established trees, apply two pounds of fertilizer for each inch of trunk diameter (measuring one foot above the soil). For established trees that bear pecans, apply two to four pounds of fertilizer per inch of trunk.
It is common to see young pecan tree trunks painted with a white latex paint. This paint helps to protect the trunk from extreme temperatures, herbicides, and insect damage for the first three years.
Pecan trees do not produce the same amount of nuts every year. Instead, they have an alternative or cyclical nut production. That means that one year you will have a bumper crop, then the next year you may have a weak crop, and then for a third year you may have no crop at all.
Researchers at UF/IFAS state that this phenomenon is likely because the tree’s carbohydrate reserves will be depleted by the end of the year on the bumper crop, thus leaving the following year with insufficient energy/carbohydrates to produce another nut crop. This cyclical tendency also seems to be an adaptive response to reduce pest pressure (think squirrels) by not allowing a consistent supply of nuts year after year.
Pecan trees also need to be sprayed for insects and diseases. They are susceptible to pecan nut casebearer, mites, yellow aphids, and scab. In addition to the leaves, the pecan tree trunk is also sprayed because a majority of the insect eggs are laid in the cracks and crevices of the bark.
If you have a lot of land and are thinking about planting pecan trees for the beauty of the trees, then do it. However, if you are planting pecan trees to grow an annual crop of pecans, then it is not only important that you have a lot of land, but it will also require multiple fertilizer and insect control applications each year and you might only get a bumper crop of pecans once every three years.
It is always good to go into an enterprise with realistic expectations. My friends in Monticello love their grove and share that they always know when the last frost of spring is over when they see their beautiful pecan trees begin to bloom.
For more information on pecan trees, you can view the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, The Pecan Tree (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs229).
Brenda Buchan is a Master Gardener Volunteer with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. For gardening questions, email the extension office at AskAMasterGardener@ifas.ufl.edu.
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