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Larry Sagers
Immature pecans

Trying to grow pecans in Utah may make you nuts — literally.

Over the past decade I have fielded many questions from gardeners asking about growing these nuts in northern Utah. In a column I wrote 10 years ago, I said, "Pecan trees are large and beautiful specimens reaching 100 feet in height. Pecans grow in Salt Lake Valley, but nut production is low most years. Pollinators are required, so plant two of these giants. Nuts must be shaken down or allowed to fall and be picked up regularly. Remove meats from the hulls as soon as possible."

Yet once in a while I come across someone who is — or more correctly their tree is — defying the odds.

Wayne Bott has lived in his Murray home for 55 years, and for the past 20-25 years a pecan tree has graced his front landscape.

This tree produces a small but regular crop of nuts. Bott originally ordered the tree from Western Garden Center but doesn't remember the variety.

When I asked him why he planted a pecan, he said a friend had planted one in his yard, and he thought it was a pretty tree. "I liked the idea of getting something back from the tree," he said.

While the production from Bott's tree hasn't provided him with a second income, he still enjoys it. Bott said it's a rather carefree tree; he did not do anything to it for the first 15 years, but now he has it pruned every five to six years. He also has a nearby maple and flowering pear cut back to give the pecan more growing room.

"I sometimes get a little dripping from the pruning cuts (typical of walnuts and pecans) but not much else," he said.

While he has no problem with what might be one of the worst pests — squirrels — he does admit that "the ravens are the worst problem, and some years they take most of the crop."

Two other birds are also troublesome.

"The magpies and the jays routinely steal nuts and bury them around the yard, and then I get pecan trees growing everywhere," he said.

The pecan is Carya illinoinensis — or Illinois nuts. European settlers found this native North American nut growing along the tributaries of the Mississippi River. The trees are long-lived. (Some that George Washington planted at Mount Vernon are still there today.)

The pecan nut's shape is variable, from oval to a longer, more slender shape. Nut size is as small as a pencil eraser to up to 1 1/2 inches in diameter to more than 3 inches long.

Shell thickness is another important characteristic. Paper-shell pecans can be easily cracked by squeezing two nuts together in the fist. Bott's pecans are a hard-shell variety that requires the use of a nutcracker.

Most pecans need a pollinator tree, but they can be wind pollinated. (The pollen can transfer for up to 10 miles under favorable conditions.) In its native habitat, there are usually enough trees that planting other pollinating varieties is not necessary.

But before you plant your own pecan orchard, remember that although the trees are hardy, they usually fail to produce crops because of spring frosts or early winters. The nuts ripen late in the season, and commercial nut production is not possible here.

Rick Heflebower, the Utah State University Extension Agent in Washington County, names three recommended varieties for his area. The ripening times he has given are for Washington County. Burkett ripens in December, and Choctaw and Western Schley ripen in November to early December. All need cross pollination.

Garden tips and events

• English and black walnuts and almonds will produce satisfactory crops in northern Utah in areas where other fruit trees produce well. Like other fruit trees, they require pruning and treatment for various pests to keep them productive.

• Red Butte Garden is offering a holiday floral arranging workshop on Nov. 22, 10 a.m.-noon. Cost is $45 for members and $55 for nonmembers. Registration is required. For more information, call 581-8454 or log on to www.redbuttegarden.org.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.