If you are from Western North Carolina, you probably call them pe-kahns, and if you are from Eastern North Carolina, you likely call them pe-cans. No matter how you say it, pecan trees are becoming more popular in home landscapes. Native to North America, pecan trees have many benefits as edible landscape additions for the patient gardener. With minimal effort and inputs and the right soil conditions, you can grow pecan trees in your backyard.
Selecting the right location
Pecan trees do well in most soil types except those that are poorly drained, have a hardpan near the surface, or have very high clay content. Ideally, trees should be planted in a rich, moisture retentive, well-drained soil. If you are planting in sandy soils, more irrigation will be required to establish trees and keep them productive. Ideally trees should be spaced at least 30 feet apart and 30 feet away from other trees, buildings, and power lines. Avoid overcrowding as this will reduce growth and nut production. Keep in mind mature pecan trees can grow to 80 feet tall.
Container grown trees should be planted at the same depth in which they grew in the container. To plant, dig a hole at least twice as wide as the root ball. Do not add fertilizer at planting time. Level soil around the base of the tree, water well, and mulch the soil with pine straw or bark mulch to help insulate newly-planted trees.
Choose the right variety
There are many varieties of pecan trees available but not all are adapted for our region. For proper pollination, make sure to plant a type 1 and a type 2 variety. Recommended varieties for our area include Cape Fear (type 1), Pawnee (type 1), Sumner (type 2), and Elliot (type 2). These varieties are recommended because of their resistance to pecan scab, a difficult to control fungal disease that can greatly reduce nut production. Keep in mind it often takes pecan trees five to seven years to begin producing nuts.
Optimal production occurs when trees are 10-15 years old.
Fertility, pH, and water recommendations
Initial fertilizer applications should be made in mid- to late-February. A general rule of thumb is to apply 1 pound of a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or 8-8-8 per year of tree age for nonbearing trees. For bearing trees, apply up to 4 pounds of fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter. For more precise fertilizer recommendations and to determine your soil pH, have your soil tested by the NC Department of Agriculture Soil Testing Lab.
The ideal soil pH for pecan trees is 6-6.5. If the pH is too high or too low, trees may not be able to take up nutrients such as zinc, an essential element for nut production. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include mottling of leaves, sudden leaf drop, and small nuts. Determining your soil pH through soil testing is an important part of caring for pecan trees.
Young trees require 10-15 gallons of water per week from spring through fall for the first two to three years to ensure adequate growth. Remember that deep, infrequent watering is best for landscape plants, so a drip irrigation system will be ideal for watering newly-planted trees.
Pecan trees are susceptible to a number of insect and disease pests. Of greatest concern are pecan weevils and pecan scab. Pecan weevil, a species of beetle, attacks developing pecan nuts in August and September. Both the adult and immature stage of pecan weevil are extremely damaging, boring holes into developing nut hulls, and causing them to fall prematurely to the ground. By the time damage is noticed, it is too late to treat for this pest.
Pecan scab is a fungal disease that attacks tree leaves and the hull of the nut. It is an early season disease that appears as olive/black circular spots, which enlarge and cause deformation of the leaves. Lesions appear on the nut as sunken black spots and in severe cases may turn the hull completely black or cause hulls to drop prematurely. Pecan scab can be prevented by planting resistant varieties.
For lawn and gardening advice, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the “Ask an Expert” link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Sam Marshall is the horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension of N.C. State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.