How to Plant, Grow and Care For Pecan Trees
Do you enjoy eating soft, buttery pecan nuts? Perhaps you are looking for a large and attractive shade tree for your landscape. If you live in the eastern or central United States, pecan trees can serve both purposes. In this article, gardening enthusiast Liessa Bowen will discuss the proper care and maintenance of these spectacular trees.
The hardy pecan tree, also simply called pecan (Carya illinoinensis), is a member of the walnut family (Juglandaceae). These trees are native to the eastern and central United States and south, into Mexico.
Pecan trees grow best in warmer climates, particularly in USDA hardiness zones 6 through 9. In cooler parts of the pecan tree’s range, nut production may be limited because they do best with long hot summers that allow plenty of time for the nuts to ripen fully.
Pecan trees are large and can easily grow to 100 feet, sometimes even taller. They make a very attractive shade tree for a large landscape or park-like setting. The leaves are large and attractive, pinnately compound, and turn yellow in the fall.
They flower in the springtime, but the flowers are inconspicuous. Trees are wind pollinated and produce both male and female flowers that you will notice on the same tree.
There are two main reasons that you may want to grow a pecan tree; as an ornamental shade tree or because you like to eat pecans. If either of these options appeals to you, keep reading to learn more about these wonderful trees.
Pecan Tree Overview
Plant Type Tree
Native Area East & Central USA, Mexico
USDA Hardiness Zone 5 to 9
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Rich, Moist, Well-drained
Plant Spacing 60 to 80 feet
Suggested Uses Edible landscape, Shade tree
Harvest Season Fall
Bloom Season Spring
Flower Color Yellowish-green
Attracts Squirrels, Wildlife
Problems Pecan scab, Squirrels, Weevils, Aphids
Resistant To Heat
Height 75 to 100 feet
Pecan trees are native to the central and eastern United States and south into Mexico. These trees are common in eastern forests growing alongside native hardwood trees in rich woodlands. They often grow in lowland forests with regular soil moisture and are well-adapted to thrive in this environment.
Pecans have long been an important food source for humans and wildlife. The nuts last a long time in storage and are quite nutritious.
The southeastern United States has become a primary producer of pecans, with Georgia being the lead producer. Pecans are harvested throughout the fall and, while available year-round, are most commonly sold around the winter holidays.
Because of their popularity, growers have developed many appealing pecan cultivars for various reasons. There are several varieties of this nut tree, each having unique attributes.
Some benefits of looking into cultivars are that they may be more disease resistant, better adapted to specific regional climates, or have high production rates.
Pecan trees can grow quite large, and you shouldn’t try to grow one if you have limited space. You will need to plant them at least 60 to 80 feet apart and not grow them near houses, structures, or utility lines where they can cause problems. Crowding will result in poor tree development, decreased disease resistance, and lowered production rates.
If you want to grow a pecan tree to harvest pecans, you will want to learn how to maximize your harvest. These nuts are wind pollinated and benefit from cross-pollination to generate a good harvest.
This means you’ll want to have at least two different varieties in the area. You don’t even need two trees in your own yard, but if your neighbors have one or there is a wild pecan tree growing nearby, these separate trees will benefit each other and help increase pollination rates.
Pecan trees have a medium growth rate. You can expect a healthy tree to grow between 1 and 2 feet per year.
If you start with a nursery-grown young tree, you can expect your first harvest approximately 5 years after planting, but you won’t see a heavier harvest until 7 or 8 years after planting.
If you start a pecan from seed, add 2 or 3 years to those estimates. They are long-lived and can produce nuts for up to 100 years or more!
For the home gardener, the best way to start a new pecan tree is from high-quality nursery stock. You will know exactly what you are getting and start with a healthy tree that is already a couple of years old.
You can grow a pecan tree from a mature pecan nut, but you probably won’t want to. Through cross-pollination, pecans will each be genetically different from the parent tree.
Therefore, when you plant a pecan seed, you will have no way of knowing the qualities of the tree you will grow from that seed. If you want a productive and healthy pecan tree in your yard, buy one that is nursery-grown and is a known variety with known characteristics.
The best way to acquire a new pecan tree is to purchase from a reputable plant nursery. You can sometimes find them at a local nursery or garden center. You will have many more options if you do some shopping online.
When browsing for a new tree, there are several things to look for. First, learn about some commonly available cultivars and choose one that best suits your yard and interests. Look for a cultivar with good disease resistance, as this will save you a lot of hassle dealing with common tree diseases.
If you are shopping in person, you will have a chance to see the actual tree before you buy it. Look for young trees that appear healthy.
The trunk should be straight, and any existing branches should appear straight and strong. Look for intact bark and a healthy root ball. Do not buy any trees with signs of pests or diseases.
When you buy a tree from a nursery or garden center, you will either get bare root trees or trees grown in a large container. Bare root trees, typically shipped from online retailers, should be planted as soon as possible after they arrive.
The best season to plant trees is late winter or early spring before the tree emerges from dormancy. This is also the season most online growers will ship their trees.
Pecan trees develop an extensive root system with a deep taproot, and you’ll need to prepare a hole large enough to accommodate the existing roots.
Dig a hole at least three feet deep and 2 feet wide.
Don’t trim the roots to fit into the hole! Instead, dig a hole large enough to accommodate the roots, especially the taproot. Arrange the roots naturally within the hole so they are not twisted or folded.
Make sure the tree is set to a proper depth in the hole. Look for the place low on the main stem where the bark changes color, indicating the soil line where the tree has been growing. Plant the tree only up to this natural soil line; do not plant it deeper than this.
Backfill and Water
Refill the hole with dirt and water it deeply.
As the soil settles around the tree, continue to add soil to fill in any air pockets, maintaining an even soil level around the tree. Do not pack up the soil around the base of the tree; keep it level all the way around.
If you live in an area with a heavy wildlife presence, you may want to place a protective sleeve around the trunk for the first couple of years. This will help protect it from wildlife that will nibble, gnaw, scratch, or rub on the trunk.
This also helps protect the trunk against damage caused by cold weather while the tree is still young. A protective sleeve will also protect the tree’s base from damage from string trimmers or lawnmowers.
After planting the tree, if you have a long straight trunk with no side branches, use sturdy and sharp pruners to prune about ⅓ to ½ of the top of the tree.
Some nursery-grown trees have been pruned already, and these will show some healthy branch growth. Pruning will help it grow in a more compact and well-rounded form.
Also, add some organic mulch, such as pine straw or leaf mulch, around the base of the tree in a pattern that roughly matches its canopy size. This will help keep the weeds to a minimum and help retain soil moisture around your tree.
Avoid “volcano mulching” or piling mulch up in a mound right at the tree’s base; instead, opt for a nice, even layer and leave a few inches of gap between the trunk and the start of the mulch for good airflow at the trunk base. Apply a fresh layer of mulch annually as part of your routine maintenance.
How to Grow
These trees require consistent watering, fertilizing, and maintenance in their early years. However, once established, they are relatively hands-off.
Grow pecan trees in full sun. Plant your pecan tree where it can get the most sunlight available. Do not try to grow it in the shade or other trees, buildings, or structures.
They will tolerate light shade, but you will have the healthiest and most productive tree in full sun.
These trees thrive with regular watering. Regular watering is critical to success for the first 3 years after transplanting a new tree. Ensure your young tree gets between 10 and 15 gallons of water per week.
Water deeply rather than lightly. Drought-stressed trees will struggle to develop a healthy root system and won’t produce high-quality nuts. Irregular watering can also cause nuts to split. Mature trees have better drought tolerance than young trees.
The soil should be rich, fertile, and well-drained. Pecans develop deep taproots and need a deep soil structure to accommodate their form. Ideal soil pH should be in the range of 6.0 to 7.0.
Spread a few inches of mulch around your trees to help keep the weeds down and also help maintain even soil moisture. Use an organic, biodegradable mulch, such as pine straw, wheat straw, or leaf mulch, any of which will help enrich the soil as they break down.
It’s essential to avoid volcano-mulching, as addressed earlier. Too much mulch piled against the tree’s base can encourage the development of fungal trunk rots, and that may lead to serious problems down the road.
Climate and Temperature
Pecans are generally hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9, although different cultivars may vary slightly. These trees love warm climates and will perform best in the hotter parts of their range.
Pecans need long, hot summers to ripen properly. Trees exposed to prolonged cold during their flowering times will have poor harvests.
Do not fertilize your tree at planting, as this can damage the roots. Young trees need about one pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer applied in the spring each year.
Older trees that have had a few years to grow should be fertilized each spring. For older trees, calculate approximately four pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer for each inch of trunk diameter (measured DBH at 4.5 feet above the soil surface). Do not apply more than eight pounds of fertilizer per tree per year.
Pecans also need zinc to produce healthy crops. Contact your local agricultural extension office for a zinc testing kit to help you determine how much zinc you may need to enrich your soil and how to apply it best.
For the healthiest trees, keep weeds away from the trunks when they are still small and young. Vigorous weedy growth can outcompete and shade out young trees.
Older trees will drop a lot of leafy debris and nuts on the ground, so you’ll want to be prepared to remove this debris to keep the area around your tree clean and free of locations where insect pests can overwinter, especially if you have had insect pests in the past.
Harvest pecans in the fall as soon as they are mature. You will know they are ready to harvest when the nuts start to fall, and the husks start to split open.
Gather all fallen nuts from the ground to protect them from squirrels, insects, and moisture. Do not allow nuts to lay on the ground because these will quickly rot and become inedible or be eaten by the local wildlife. Store your harvest in a cool, clean, dry location.
A pecan tree may be worth considering if you are looking for a large, attractive shade tree. Because they grow so large, you will essentially plant an isolated shade tree in a large sunny area. As the tree grows larger, you can use it to provide shade for a quiet shade garden or natural outdoor retreat.
Don’t plant your tree too close to a house, structure, or under power lines, as their root systems can gradually cause cracks in pavements and foundations, and their branches will grow around the power lines. You probably don’t want to plant it near a driveway to prevent pecans from falling on your car.
There are numerous pecan cultivars, each having desirable attributes. Different cultivars may perform best in different regions, so choose a cultivar best suited to your location.
‘Elliot’ has excellent nut production and will start producing a crop when 7 to 9 years old. The nuts are smaller in size but numerous and with a strong flavor. This variety has good resistance to pecan scab.
It may not produce a strong crop yearly but typically performs best in alternating years. ‘Elliot’ is best grown in zones 6 through 9.
‘Excel’ produces a large nut with a thick shell. This variety is an early producer and generates a good harvest. It has good resistance to pecan scab and is hardy in zones 6 through 9.
Oconee pecans ripen in mid-fall and produce large, meaty nuts. It generally has good nut production, starting in years 6 or 7, and has moderate resistance to pecan scab. Oconee is hardy in USDA zones 6 through 9.
‘Sumner’ pecans start producing a crop in years 7 to 9. It develops large nuts, which ripen a bit later in the fall season. The nuts are abundant and easy to crack.
This cultivar is very popular and moderately resistant to pecan scab. It grows best in USDA zones 6 through 9.
‘Caddo’ pecans start bearing fruit in years 5 to 6. The nuts ripen in early fall and have an abundant harvest of smaller nuts. They have moderate resistance to pecan scab but are susceptible to black aphids and may require spraying to control outbreaks.
This tree prefers a more acidic soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. It is hardy in zones 6 through 10.
Pecans provide tremendous value to wildlife, particularly mammals. Deer may browse on any low-growing leaves, particularly on younger trees
. Squirrels relish the nuts and will feast on them throughout the fall. Any fallen nuts left on the ground will attract other wildlife that feeds on nuts, including small mammals and birds.
Pests and Diseases
Pecans can grow very large and are subject to several pests and diseases that can be difficult to control. Some pests, like squirrels, are ubiquitous and challenging for any gardener.
If you have larger mammals like deer or cows feeding on your trees, you can install a fence around the tree to protect it. Some of the most common pecan problems are listed below.
Pecan scab is a fungal infection most common in the southeastern United States. This scab fungus infects all exposed parts of the tree and creates small black or brown spots with a distinctive rough or fuzzy appearance.
Since trees grow so large, spraying is generally ineffective for the home landscaper. It’s best to purchase and plant disease-resistant pecan cultivars to minimize the risk of contracting scab.
Squirrels will remove and eat many pecans each season. If your tree grows close to other trees, there may be no effective way to prevent squirrel access to the pecan tree.
If your pecan tree is isolated from other trees, you may be able to install a smooth metal squirrel-proof shield around the trunk of a larger tree to prevent them from climbing up.
Lack of Pollination
Occasionally, you may have a poor pecan crop because of a lack of pollination. Pecan trees flower in mid to late spring. They produce separate male and female flowers and rely on wind pollination.
To ensure the best pollination rates, grow two or more pecan trees in the same general vicinity. Ideally, grow at least two different cultivars for the best pollination success.
Weevils may occasionally attack pecan nuts; when they do, they are a major pest. The adults are small grayish-brown insects with very long curved snouts. Adults lay eggs on young pecans. The eggs hatch, and the larvae burrow inside.
After burrowing into the nut, the grub-like larvae eat the tender nut meat, destroying the inside, before burrowing back out again, leaving a smooth-edged round hole in the husk. Contact your local cooperative extension for guidance if you suspect a weevil infestation.
Aphids are tiny insects that can cause a surprising amount of damage to pecan trees. Black pecan aphids, in particular, cause serious leaf damage, causing the leaves to turn yellow, then brown, and drop off.
Dried, dead leaves appearing mid-season is a potential sign of these aphids. While aphids are a very common garden pest, the size of pecan trees makes it a true challenge to combat them in a similar method to what’s done in typical home gardens.
If you suspect aphid damage, call your local cooperative extension agent for suggestions on how to control these pests.
Pecan trees are large and attractive landscape trees, excellent for a larger sunny location. If you have a large sunny yard needing a beautiful shade tree, consider a pecan.
It will take time, of course, to grow to maturity, but it is definitely worth the wait for an attractive mature tree that provides an abundant edible crop!