Grow Pecans in the Southwest

Almost pumpkin pie time – but I have always been more of a pecan pie person. Towards that end I am growing a number of pecan trees – and now is a good time to order your pecan tree for planting if you live in the Southwest.

Pecan Overview

The pecan bears the scientific name Carya illinoinensis. Despite having “Illinois” in the scientific name, pecans can be grown well in much of the Southwest, just maybe not in the Low Desert of Yuma, and Phoenix if we have another scorcher of a summer (sadly likely). More about our Southwest growing zones under Zones, Plants & More.

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Before You Plant

Pecan trees are large (!) at maturity, 40 to 50 feet tall. This means they are large in diameter too. Before you dig your planting hole, look up and out! Check any views you might have from inside your home, plus avoid planting under power lines. Plant pecan trees 30 to 40 feet apart.

Pecans require cross-pollination from another variety of pecan. That said, the ‘Western Schley’ is one variety that is often self-fertile, although an additional tree of another variety will improve fruit set. If you have space for a second tree, select from ‘Apache,’ ‘Burkett,’ ‘Cheyenne,’ ‘Choctaw,’ ‘Mohawk,’ or ‘Wichita,’ because the ‘Western Schley’ will cross with them and vice-versa.

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Soil

Pecans require well-drained soil but can tolerate rocks, and even some clay, but if you have a thick caliche layer in your yard you will need to address the problem. You don’t need to dig out all the caliche – just break through a drainage hole through the caliche to normal soil below it. Failure to break through the caliche can lead to a tree that drowns in the caliche “bathtub.”

Water

Pecan trees grow and produce best with ample water. A mature tree will need 30 to 40 inches of water during the growing season. This means that if it’s a dry summer you will be watering once a week.. Water is especially important once plants have bloomed and nuts are forming. If you don’t want to water, don’t plant this tree.

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As the nuts are forming you will need to water the tree on a regular basis.

Fertilizer

Pecan trees are mostly healthy and pest free, but are susceptible to nutrient deficiency. They need high levels of zinc and magnesium to form nuts. To help avoid issues from the get-go, mulch the roots of your trees with a good layer of organic bark mulch. This mulch should be well out to the drip line of the leaves. Don’t forget to leave a 2 to 3 inch gap between the mulch layer and the trunk so insects don’t attack your tree. Add more mulch yearly as the layer breaks down.

Another way to head off nutrient problems is to apply of dissolved Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) in spring, summer and early fall. Fertilize your trees with a good, well-rounded organic fertilizer that includes zinc those same three times a year.

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Once the husks start to open it’s harvest time!

Pest Problems

Once they figure out how tasty the nuts are, any wildlife will go for the protein-rich food source. Climbing pests like squirrels and pack rats will fun right up the trunks. Slippery metal shields secured around the trunks are a good deterrent.

Pecan scab is the one major disease problem for pecans. Clean up fallen leaves, twigs, and nuts each autumn. Throw this debris away or give it to a friend that doesn’t grow pecans and they can use it for compost.

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Pecan Harvest & Storage

Harvest nuts once they start to drop. You can lay sheets or tarps under the trees and shake the branches to loosen the nuts. Once harvested, you need to dry or “cure” the nuts to avoid mold problems, even in our arid area.

Lay nuts in a single layer in a warm, dry place. I cure in shallow cardboard boxes, like those that soda cans come in, or nursery plant flats, these can be stacked with air spaces between them. Use the nuts within three months for best flavor. You can also freeze nuts in plastic bags until you’re ready to use them.

Do plant a pecan tree if you can. Pecan trees may live and bear edible seeds for more than 300 years, a lasting legacy indeed.

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vegetables-soule-growMore vegetable gardening 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 will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.

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