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Pecan Variety Selection and Planting

One of the most important decisions a pecan grower has to make is which variety to plant. Once the tree is in the ground, it is too late to change varieties. Another decision often overlooked is how to plant the tree properly. Once the tree is planted, you will not have another opportunity to make corrections to how it was planted. The last thing any grower wants is to spend over 20 years taking care of an orchard just to have it blow over in a wind storm. In order to have the most success with your pecan trees, it’s imperative to select the correct varieties for your situation and plant the trees correctly.

One of the first crops I ever worked with was pecans. My father and grandfather planted our first orchard when I was about 4 years old. We have expanded the orchard over the years, and it survived a tornado in 2007. We are proud to say that we still have most of those very first trees. I guess that’s why I am a little partial to pecans, and also why I have plenty of experience in that area.

Variety selection can be mind boggling. The first thing a grower has to decide is if they want to have a full scab spray program or not. Do they want low input or high input varieties? Most new growers are leaning towards a lower input variety that requires less spraying. However, if a grower has the spray equipment, they may want to plant higher input varieties since some still yield well and have a high-quality kernel if sprayed. 

Pecan pollination is also extremely important. Pecans are wind-pollinated, and have both male and female flowers on the tree, meaning they are monoecious. Pecans also release pollen at different times, which is called dichogamous flowering. When male flowers release their pollen before female flowers are receptive, those flowers are protandrous, or Type I. When female flowers are receptive to pollen before pollen is shed from the male flowers on the same tree, it is called a protogynous flower, or Type II. While self-pollination is possible, in order to get effective pollination, the female flowers have to be receptive to pollen from another tree at the time other trees are releasing pollen. Self-pollinated nuts usually fail to develop causing them to abort and drop off or fill poorly. Pollinators also have to be in the right place. Research has shown that pecan trees need a pollinator within 150 feet. This is why UGA recommends placing a pollinator at every 5th tree on every 5th row if you prefer planting a solid block of one cultivar. On the other hand, if you block multiple cultivars in an orchard, change cultivars about every 4 rows. It is extremely important to keep this in mind when planning your orchard.

Avalon is a new variety gaining a lot of popularity. Dr. Patrick Conner from University of Georgia bred this variety, and it became available around 2017. It’s a cross between Gloria Grande and Barton. It has excellent % kernel, about 47 nuts per pound, and is about the size of Desirable. So far, it is also highly resistant to scab. Varieties that will pollinate Avalon are Amling, Gafford, Caddo, Cape Fear, Cherryle, Creek, Desirable, Oconee, and Pawnee. Amling is not a great producer, and there aren’t many growers planting Gafford, which leaves the others mentioned to choose from. Pawnee and Desirable will require a high input spray program, so those are not a good choice if low input is the grower’s goal. This leaves Oconee, Cherryle, Cape Fear, Caddo, and Creek to choose from for pollinating Avalon. None of those are on UGA’s Low-Input Cultivar list, meaning they will have to be sprayed some. My favorite of these options is still Cape Fear because of its ability to load up and yield.

Lakota is another excellent low input variety. Unfortunately, Pawnee is one of its best pollinators, and Pawnee is one of the most scab susceptible cultivars available. The only low input pollinator variety for Lakota is Amling, but the low production of Amling makes it one that I wouldn’t recommend. Therefore, if Lakota is selected, Pawnee would be the best pollinator, and Pawnee can require over fifteen sprays during the season. Lakota and Pawnee are the earliest varieties we plant in Georgia, and they usually bring one of the highest prices on the market at that time of year. They are also a favorite of crows since they mature before any other variety. Other pollinators for Lakota are Caddo, Cape Fear, Creek, Desirable, and Oconee. Have I mentioned that I really like Cape Fear?

Cape Fear is one of my favorite varieties if you haven’t noticed. It is not a low input variety and will require spraying, but yield and quality makes it a variety worth planting. Cape Fear is a precocious variety and produces as a young tree. It is susceptible to bacterial leaf scorch, but I haven’t experienced this to be a major issue with Cape Fear in our area every year. Quality can be affected due to the tree overloading as it matures, but fruit thinning can help with that problem, which is another reason that Cape Fear is not a low input variety. Varieties that pollinate Cape Fear are Caddo, Cherryle, Creek, Desirable, Elliott, Kanza, Kiowa, Lakota, Oconee, Pawnee, Sumner, Zinner, Avalon, and Ellis.  

Cape Fear cluster

In the below pictures you can see some of the shuck decline issues we’re currently seeing in Cape Fear. However, notice how many green unharmed clusters are still left. We’re still looking into what’s causing this, but we feel that it is a result of stress from overloaded crop which allowed anthracnose, or phytopthora to move in.

Shuck decline or possible anthracnose in Cape Fear

Excel is a low input variety with good scab resistance. Amling, Elliot, Gafford, Kanza, Lakota, and McMillan are good low input varieties for Excel. Lakota would be one of the best choices for Excel.

There are many other varieties to choose from, but my goal is to attempt to simplify the selection. If you read over the above-mentioned varieties, the easiest ones to select are Avalon, Cape Fear, Excel, and Lakota. Although not discussed above, I would consider Sumner and Oconee as well since they fit in an orchard with Cape Fear.

Be sure to take soil samples prior to planting, and be careful of the recommendations. Many labs only give results and recommendations for mature orchards and not newly planted trees. Follow recommendations for newly planted trees. If the lab you send samples to doesn’t list that on the sample, use a different lab. I highly recommend the UGA soil lab. Generally, for newly planted or non-bearing trees, the trees should be fertilized in June of the first year with application of 1 lb of 5-10-15 distributed in a 25 square foot area around the tree. The following year, 1 lb. of 10-10-10 should be applied in March, May, and June. In the third year following transplanting, apply 4 lbs of 10-10-10 per inch of trunk diameter measured 1 foot above the soil surface. Applications may be split between March and June. New trees most likely will also need zinc at ½ lb per inch of trunk diameter. Also, avoid snake oil products on pecan trees. If it’s not a product recommended by UGA, don’t waste your money on it. Some of these products have caused significant burn when mixed with different fungicides. It’s not worth the risk. Products that truly work are recommended by the experts. If it seems to good to be true, then it probably is.

When planting, the first lateral root needs to be at or just below the soil surface. Do not plant trees too deep as this will impact the tree’s ability to form brace roots. Trees without brace roots will be the first to blow over in a wind storm. Take your time and plant your trees correctly. You only get one chance to get this right.

Protect the tree from herbicides such as glyphosate and paraquat. Glyphosate can kill a tree, unfortunately it may take 5 years to show up. By this time it’s too late to correct and 5 years has been wasted. Therefore, do everything possible to keep these products from contacting young trees. Protect the bark of newly planted pecan trees from herbicide by growing tubes, sleeves or white latex paint covering the bottom 3.5 feet of the trunk. Care must still be taken to eliminate herbicidal drift onto exposed leaf tissue and bark. Growing tubes can be ordered from a nursery supplier or made from 4” plastic drain pipe.

Glyphosate injury on 6 year old pecan