Pecans are everywhere in Louisiana during the holiday season. Still in their shells, they are available for purchase by the bagful, either to bestow as gifts or to ensure a steady supply for the nutcracker.
Shelled, they appear in everything from pecan pies to turkey dressing. In fact, they are so important as a Louisiana crop that the LSU AgCenter has a research station — the only university-operated pecan research facility in the United States — devoted solely to pecans.
LSU scientists at the station work to determine best practices for growing the Louisiana pecan crop, which annually contributes an average of $12 million to the state’s economy.
Not everyone owns and operates a pecan orchard, but information the station makes available to commercial growers can also be helpful for the home gardener who has or wants to have a pecan tree in their yard. Another great source is the Louisiana Pecan Growers Association. If you are thinking about planting a pecan tree at home or simply want to know more about them, read on.
BEST VARIETIES: Before choosing a variety to plant, it’s a good idea to set priorities. Are you looking for trees that will bear fruit in the shortest amount of time? Consider Cape Fear, Cheyenne, Kiowa or Shoshoni. If disease resistance matters to you (and it should, considering that spraying becomes unfeasible the larger the tree grows), choose Caddo or Houma over Schley, Wichita and Desirable which are highly susceptible to scab. For strong limbs and high resistance to breakage, go with Mohawk or Sioux.
PLANTING: October through March are the best months for planting pecans, because deciduous trees are dormant during those months. Dormancy gives the roots of trees time to become established before the heat of summer. Unless you have acres of land, you will need to choose a planting site very carefully and make way for a giant: The trees can grow up to 130 feet tall and have a spread of up to 60 feet. You’ll want to choose a location as far away as possible from your house and your neighbor’s to avoid property damage should a high wind cause a fruit-laden tree to break or topple.
FERTILIZING: According to the LSU AgCenter, fertilizing is the most important action a homeowner can take to ensure good nut production. The AgCenter recommends broadcasting a balanced (8-8-8) fertilizer at a rate of three pounds of per inch of trunk diameter late in the tree’s dormancy period (February or March). Watering will be necessary in the case of a prolonged dry period.
FRUIT BEARING: Pecan trees grow at a moderate rate of one to two feet per year. Even under the best of circumstances, it can take four or five years for a grafted pecan tree to produce; most take eight to 10 years, and a non-grafted seedling may take as long as 10 to 15 years to begin production. Many varieties alternate a year of heavy fruit bearing with a year of light fruit bearing (a cycle known as biennial bearing). The biennial nature of fruit bearing results in “on-years” and “off-years” in the tonnage of the Louisiana crop. “Off-year” values can be as low as 50% to 60% of “on-year” values. 2014 is an “on-year.”
HARVESTING: Once a tree is large enough, pecan harvesting becomes a matter of collecting dropped nuts from the ground as soon as they fall to avoid problems associated with moisture. But when trees are still a manageable size, they can be shaken and pecans collected when they tumble. Some harvesters use long poles to bat the branches and induce the nuts to drop. A well-known Clementine Hunter painting shows small boys in pecan trees shaking the branches and grownups standing below, holding baskets to catch the harvest.
NUTRITION: Pecans have terrific health benefits. They are “highest in antioxidants of all tree nuts,” beating out almonds and walnuts in studies conducted by the United State Department of Agriculture. Pecans are also a rich source of oleic acid, one of the beneficial components of olive oil. The American Heart Association has certified pecans as a “Heart Healthy” food.
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.