I’ve been out gathering pecans lately. I’ve enjoyed it. Pecans are falling in great masses, and they’ve been falling from trees for which I have absolutely no responsibility. I feel a lot like my ancient ancestors. You know the ones…those hunter-gatherers who lived on the edge of a savannah somewhere. They owned no land, cared for no crops. They just hunted and gathered. There is something freeing about the process. I’ve picked up several five gallon buckets of pecans this season, and I didn’t have to pay a dime for all that food. I just had to expend the energy to gather it up.
There is also hunting going on this time of year. Now,I haven’t been hunting, but I know it’s going on all around me. Texans are famous deer hunters. There’s definitely a primordial aspect to hunting- like hiding in trees, whispering quietly to fellow hunters, waiting for herds of animals to come by.
Nuts and fruit from the trees and deer hunting go together. It’s been a good year for pecans, and they say it’s been a good year for acorns. The great oaks(Quercus sp.) in our woods have littered the forest floor with thousands of acorns. This will make the deer fat and happy, and the wild hogs in our woods will have plenty to fatten themselves with. So, all this food falling from the trees has made me feel especially close to nature.
It’s also been a good year for our pecan growers, those citified fellows who grow their trees in rows. It seems as if Texas will be the number one state this year in pecan production, passing up New Mexico and Georgia. Of course, pecan growers make use of hybrid pecans. Those native pecans(Carya illionoensis) out in our woods and along the creek banks and lowlands are too small for commercial production.
Now I’m not quite for sure whether the other nut crops out in our woods have done as well as the pecans and oaks. Dot Packard told me the other day that she and George (her husband) hadn’t noticed the beech(Fagus grandifolia) trees down in her bottom land as bearing anything close to a notable crop. But I do know that chinkapins(Castanea pumila) have born some fruit this year. You probably know that many of our chinkapins died in the last decade or so because of disease. Hopefully we will be seeing more of them in our woods. I have a handful of nuts given to me by a friend that I plan to ‘plant up’, and I hope to have chinkapin seedlings next year to set out.
I want to leave behind for a minute this primordial feeling that I’ve been reveling in and tell you about Robert Grogan who lives over on Laurel Lane. He has several pecan cracking machines. The machines make pecan gathering more pleasant. The machines he has in his garage crack pecans; and it doesn’t matter how many you pick up, you don’t have to spend hours and hours cracking nuts. Each year people bring in pecans, anywhere from 10 to 200 pounds at a time, and these machines will crack 81 pecans a minute. This saves a lot of labor that we gatherers don’t have to do.
Mr. Grogan says that if you gather pecans he will be happy to crack them for you. Remember, though, to sort them and keep them according to size. If you’ve been out in the river bottoms gathering little pecans, set those aside and keep them separate from the larger, modern pecans we have in our orchards and around our homes. His machines cannot handle mixed sizes. Mr. Grogan’s pecan crackers are amazing mechanical devices. One after one, pecans roll out of the machine perfectly cracked up, making them easy to pick through and get at the sweet meat of the pecan. And it’s that nutritious, sweet meats we gatherers are eager for. I’m sure if you ate pecans everyday this winter, you’d fatten up just like the deer and the hogs. Ah, getting close to nature!
There are few fruit trees that are able to put me in the holiday mood more quickly than the pecan (Carya illinoinensis). I can’t think of an American tree that has (in culinary terms) contributed more to the world. Think of it for a minute. Think of all the wonderful, holiday desserts that are created with pecans as a key ingredient; and of course around Thanksgiving and Christmas, pecan pie is a premier dessert.
If you would have pecan pie, you (naturally) need pecans, and to have pecans you need a pecan tree; and if you have room, you might as well have an orchard all your own..
Pecan trees are not hard to grow. They are native from Mexico all the way up to Indiana and east to the Atlantic Ocean. They make wonderful shade trees, give food for wild life and are drought tolerant. They are long lived and become stately, mighty giants in the landscape.And, I can not stress it enough, there is the fruit- those wonderful pecan nuts.
If you would plant pecans, there are a few things you might consider. First of all, you’ll need a bit of space. Pecan trees need at the minimum a 50 feet wide area in which to spread out. If you want to plant a mini orchard, plant the trees in a row at least 50 feet apart; or if you are just going to have one tree, make sure it will have plenty of space in the landscape. You don’t want it to have to compete with oaks or pines in your yard.
Then pick a good variety for your area. Our county agent can provide literature with lists of cultivars that are suitable, but let me suggest a few. Pick trees with Indian names like Wichita, Choctaw, Kiowa, Sioux or Cheyenne. Now, there is also the famous Burkett pecan which was found in the year 1900 by J.H. Burkett and his sons. The sons found the pecans in a squirrel’s nest; and on the urging of their father, went out into the woods to locate the tree the nuts had come from. From that tree, budwood was obtained, cuttings were made and trees were grafted. The famous Burkett pecans quickly became one of the most popular pecan varieties in Texas. This famous pecan is a good example on why it is a good to be careful when choosing cultivars.Even though it is famous state wide it’s only suitable for West Texas. Here in East Texas it is prone to Insect and disease problems. Choose carefully!
Once you’ve chosen the tree, you have to grow it. Pecan growing, as I said earlier, is not difficult, but there are some things worthy of study, and I think pecan growing is one of those things. The most important thing in growing pecans is planting them well and caring for them their first few years of life. Pecans have a very long tap root, so I like to dig a very wide hole for the tree. Then at the bottom of that hole, take a post hole digger, dig as deep as you can a smaller hole as if you were planning to put in a fence post, back filling the hole with mixture of pine bark and soil. Dig this smaller hole as deeply as you can. Then, finally, plant the pecan tree in the original, wider hole. As the tree grows, the tap root will go down into that narrow, post hole size opening, getting firmly established in the good soil you provided for it. Getting that tap root down good and deep those first few years of the tree’s life is very important. If you want to know the ends and outs of pecan growing and would like to have a pecan orchard- even one with just three trees (three trees makes an orchard), you might want to start by visiting our county Extension Service. They are a wonderful source of information.
Later on in the tree’s life cycle, pruning is important. The subject is very elaborate, but the shape and branching patterns of the tree will be established during the early years. And this pruning is really solely in the gardener’s hands. So study up, visit libraries, and read.
If you plant a mini pecan orchard of three or even just a single pecan tree on your property as a shade tree, you won’t be sorry. One day the tree or trees will be mighty and statuesque. Squirrels from around the neighborhood will come and visit your landscape. And if you have squirrels, you’ll have hawks and owls, and isn’t wildlife a wonderful thing to experience? You can experience it right here in town. Pecans make premier wildlife habitat.
Of course, when I think about pecans, I’m not thinking about providing food for squirrels and wildlife. I’m thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas- pecan pie and Christmas cake ( a special tradition at our house). Food for the holidays.