I was talking to a good friend two days ago. He’s a fine horticulturist, but he’s also an outstanding writer. “I just couldn’t get my story started,” he lamented. I told him I knew exactly how he felt. Fact is, anyone who writes for a living will tell you the same thing.
Remember those essays you had to write back in high school? Page after page of wadded up, wasted paper. (Note: That comment is only for readers older than 40.)
So when I sat down here today to write my next masterpiece, I wondered what topic might call my name. After all, it’s a bit of a slow time in horticulture. “What would the readers most want to see?”
The wind was fairly steady, and I had a hard time concentrating, because pecans were pinging off our roof with a steady rhythm. Just when I felt a topic coming on, here came more pecans.
And then it hit me. I’d write more about composting. (Sometimes we miss the most obvious clues in our lives.)
Only kidding! Let’s talk about the state tree of Texas and how you and it need to come together. Pecans, after all, are native to North Central Texas (and much of the rest of the state). They’re adapted to our soils and our climate. They’re attractive, and they produce something edible. What more could a gardener want? But even with all that, there are still some critical considerations.
They’re pretty forgiving, but pecan trees do have a few basic requirements.
▪ Ample room to grow. Pecans are among our largest shade trees in Texas, growing to 40 to 60 feet tall and wide. Complicating the issue, I once heard George Ray McEachern, state fruit and nut specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension, say that “If two pecan branches from two different trees touch, one of them will die. The one that is lower will eventually be shaded out of existence.” I live in a pecan forest, and in the ensuing 30 years since I heard George Ray say that, I’ve watched it happen in our trees. Give them space. They are not for tiny urban lots.
▪ Deep soils. Pecans can grow in shallow, white-rocky soils, but they’re not going to be very happy. They need 4 to 6 feet of topsoil. Black gumbo clay is just fine, as long as there’s not a shallow ledge of white caliche close to the surface.
▪ Ample moisture. If you look in nature, pecans are most commonly found along stream beds where they can dabble their roots into moist soil. You can certainly grow them in a home landscape setting up on a hillside, but to a large degree, their rate of growth and their ongoing vigor will both be dependent on a steady supply of moisture during the growing season.
How you can help
There are several pecan management suggestions that a home gardener can follow.
▪ Choose a well-adapted variety. If you see the word “eastern” in a catalog description of pecans, it’s referring to a type that is suited to the eastern portions of Texas (I-35 and eastward) and, in broader terms, the South in general.
Those varieties are more resistant to diseases such as pecan scab that are common in more humid areas. Variety names like Caddo, Kiowa and Desirable are commonly mentioned. Varieties Pawnee, Western and Wichita are more frequently recommended for drier parts of West Texas.
▪ Buy a 4- to 6-foot-tall tree, either in a container or bare-rooted this winter. If it was dug without soil around its roots, trim it back by half at the time of planting to compensate for roots lost in the process. (That’s why there’s no point in buying a larger tree. You’re going to cut it back anyway, plus it will suffer more transplanting setback.)
▪ Space pecans 40 to 45 feet from one another and from other shade trees. Plant them where their significant surface roots won’t be a threat to your walks, drive, curb, patio or foundation. If necessary, install a root barrier to guide the roots in other directions. Yes, pecans do have strong taproots, but 90 percent of their root systems will be in the top foot of soil.
▪ Decide from the outset if you are going to be serious about producing maximum yield from your pecan trees. They do require spraying for pests like pecan casebearer, hickory shuckworm and weevils. The aforementioned pecan scab fungus is equally threatening. Those will all impact the pecans and ruin the crop. They will require spraying, and the equipment to reach clear to the tops of the trees will be expensive and bulky.
Your other option would be to accept the pecans that make it through all those pitfalls and still mature properly. That way your only responsibility would be to protect against problems that threaten the health of the tree, and that list is quite short. Even webworms and pecan aphids, as annoying as they can be, aren’t going to kill the trees. This latter choice is the pathway I follow.
Those are the critical facts about one of my seven most-recommended large shade trees for North Texas. (The list also includes live oaks, bur oaks, Shumard red oaks and chinquapin oaks, along with cedar elms and Chinese pistachios.) If your interest is aroused, watch nurseries soon after Christmas. That’s when the supplies of pecan transplants start arriving. Online nurseries in Texas also offer fine choices.