Grow a Marvelous Mesquite

Mesquite harvest is nearing, and I will discuss harvest further on SavortheSW – my site dedicated to using the plants that grow in our yards here in the Land of El Sol.  Meanwhile, lets look at growing a mesquite tree or tow to help provide food grown as locally as your own backyard. (Mesquite no-bake cookies are YUM!)

tree-mesquite-arizona
In the wild, the velvet mesquite can grow into a lovely tree. A healthy tree tolerates some mistletoe growth. Photo courtesy of R. Spellenberg.

All Mesquite are NOT Equal

There are a number of mesquite species and some are NOT native. This has lead to problems in the urban landscapes. Non-native mesquites from the grasslands of Argentina grow fast – so they were once very popular in landscaping. Problem is that they have very shallow roots and tend to knock over walls, heave sidewalks, get into septic systems, and can even crack house foundations. Now mesquites have a bad name with homeowners and that is a shame.

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Smooth mesquite is a California native and is generally more shrub-like. Photo courtesy of W. Anderson

Our Sonoran Desert native velvet mesquites are slower growing, but it is a far better choice for a number of reasons. Unlike the non-natives, velvet mesquite is well adapted to our climate, and it feeds the native animals. Velvet mesquite leaves serve native butterfly larvae and Gambel’s quail. The pods nourish almost every Sonoran Desert inhabitant, from bunnies and squirrels to coyotes, javelina and humans. The velvet mesquite also has deep tap roots, making it much less likely than the non-natives to blow over in the swirling summer winds that often accompany the monsoon rains.

Since all mesquites can cross pollinate each other, it is now difficult to find pure velvet mesquite. If you go far from town you may get a pure species. Harvest a handful of seed pods for your yard.

 

mesquite-tree-back
Mature mesquite trees have rough bark, but young plants have smooth trunks. Photo courtesy of Z. Akulova.

Planting Your Mesquite

Find a tree you like the looks of and harvest some ripe pods.  No need to remove the seeds from the pods prior to planting. Just put them into the soil, pod and all, right where you want a tree to grow. The hole should be about half an inch deep. Water the soil around the seeds every day or two.

mesquite-seeds-southwest
Seeds out of the pod, but still with their outer shell, like those tough bits your find bracketing apple seeds. You could do this, but it is a lot of work. Photo courtesy of J. Pawek.

Within a few weeks you may have a mini thicket of tiny seedlings. Pick the tallest one and “rogue” out the rest (weed them out).

Continue to water these babies, but maybe every 3 days – and put on enough water to sink in at least a foot deep. The roots will grow nice and deep to collect that water, and you never have to worry about shallow roots. In the immortal words of my U of A professor Steve Fazio, “Catch ’em young and bring ’em up right.”

mesquite-seedling-grow
Baby mesquite starting out. Wait until they are at least 6 inches tall and pick the healthiest one to keep. Photo courtesy of Z. Akulova

Fast Growing Because No Root Breakage

We started a mesquite tree this way at our new house.  In three short years it grew into a sturdy and robust 20 foot tall tree. In the same time frame, mesquite trees we planted from 15 gallon containers were scarcely any taller than when they were planted – about seven feet tall.

Care of Mesquite

Mesquite are drought tolerant once they are established, but remember these are babies. Meanwhile, if you have older trees around, they grow more quickly and larger with a thorough soaking of root zone once every month or two during the warm months.

Do not fertilize mesquite trees (or any plant in the pea family). They have a special relationship with bacteria that turn the nitrogen in the air we breathe into nitrogen they can use for growth. If you want to encourage more rapid growth of your mesquite, mulch it with an organic mulch, not rock mulch that your HOA wants. Build a decorative tree well and the HOA can’t complain if you fill it with bark mulch.

mesquite-ripe-soule
When it comes to eating the pods, the red colored ones are said to be sweeter. If you are planting your mesquite for food, take this into consideration – but no promises, because you only can know what one parent tree is. Photo courtesy of W Anderson.
Learn More about Southwest Gardening

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fruit-southwest-souleLearn more about growing mesquite and other fruits and vegetables in this book: Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press).  This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute may get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you. Your regular Amazon Smile charity will also benefit.

© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. You can use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. Also you must include a link back to the original post on our site.  No stealing photos.

 

3 thoughts on “Grow a Marvelous Mesquite

  1. On the New River road that runs east of Lake Pleasant, there are numerous Velvet Mesquite trees showing ripe tan pods hanging like bunches of grapes…and the desert is said to have enough burros to necessitate warning signs on the roadside (but you will rarely see one). However, three showed up next to the fence barrier showing their “best” photo positions (their tails). All three buried themselves headfirst into the loaded Mesquite tree, shoulder to shoulder, enjoying a breakfast of delicious pods. Quite the glimpse as we swooshed by in our car.

    1. Hi Koibeatu,
      Very valid question! Based on my experience with 8 mesquite trees done this way – I would say 3 or 4 years. 6 years for bumper crops. The ones from pots – 8 years! The act of transferring their roots from one habitat to another appears to be very disruptive to their life. Happy gardening!
      Jacqueline

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