Pecans and Summer. Waiting and Dreaming.

resident squirrel
resident fox squirrel

Central Texas might as well be in Australia right now. Everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere is enjoying something called summer: a time of life, action and everything relentlessly growing into perfection.

Not here.

Like Australia, Central Texas is entering its rest time.

The major limiting factor here isn’t the cold; it is the heat. When temperatures reach a certain point (at least on my property) things just stop. We’ve ‘enjoyed’ summers where I rarely even needed to cut the lawn. The leaves of grass simply refused to grow. They. Didn’t. Even. Try. And really why should they? It takes gumption just to lift a glass to sip lemonade once the temperature routinely exceeds 100 (F).

Where there is growth, it is slow and incremental — so unlike what happens in spring. I once planted some bulbs at the same time I had visitors over during SXSW. By the time the visitors left the bulbs had not only sprouted but made obvious progress. Plants in Central Texas have to explode with green in the spring because they are racing against time. By the time people start shooting July fireworks the growing season for most things will be over.

Pecans in the Summer
The pecans leafed out a long time ago. The focus now is on nut production.

DSCN3690Factoring out the heat, the pecan trees are the primary limiting factor for summer growth on this property.

People say pecan trees are thirsty plants. Luckily, we have creeks bordering the land and heavy clay soil so I rarely irrigate. The fine clay particles tenaciously hold onto any available moisture keeping the roots nice and cool. Most of our dozen or so pecans are wild heritage trees so their root systems are old and well established.

The juglone produced by pecans and released through that extensive root system has allelopathic qualities. Alleopathy as a theory is a bit controversial and not accepted by all but the gist is that some organisms produce allelochemicals which can drastically inhibit the growth of selected competitors while other plants are left completely unaffected. The benefit for a long-lived tree is that as it grows it can shape and influence its environment to create a members only club.

Besides monopolizing the water and soil the density of pecans growing here also restricts the amount of available light.  I took this picture on a sunny afternoon in May. Even that sharp-eyed grackle would have trouble finding the bits of blue sky today.

dark tree canopyLife persists of course. There are ferns and fungi in the really dark places. I have wondered if we have a secret stash of truffles underground!

Pecan Survival Strategies
By living in a riparian environment, I think pecans escape the worst of the relentless heat. The constant presence of water helps to keep them cool. But any living thing that evolved successfully in the prairie ecosystems — even the riparian plants — had to develop strategies to survive drought as well as heat since drought is a naturally recurring phenomenon here. Pecans produce nuts on alternate years. If a drought occurs during a producing year the tree has a number of options: the nut size can be stunted or the tree can just give up, throw the developing crop onto the ground and try again another year. Pecan trees are long-lived so a few bad seasons are not nearly as perilous as they can be for shorter lived perennials.

If the water stress does occur over a long period a pecan tree will sacrifice limbs so that the whole tree can survive. During the worst of the drought we routinely saw huge tree-like life-threatening things fall from the sky. After I sawed them into reasonable lengths I used to set the wood out for the city to recycle. Ugh. What a mistake. The limb falling has nearly stopped but when it does occur I keep the pieces to decompose and replenish the soil. Those fallen limbs make great wildlife habitat, too.

Basically, pecan trees are tough. But I should be responsible and say that pecan trees are not suited for gardens aiming to be xeric. Just because something can survive a drought does not mean it prefers that situation or that it can thrive forever. I don’t grow the pecans as a crop and I don’t care about yield. If I did, these trees would probably have required insane amounts of supplemental irrigation over the past ten years. We do gather some nuts for pies but mostly I leave them for local wildlife like the resident squirrel pictured at the top of this post. I’m happy to let the trees produce as little or as much as they wish.

fungus growing on fallen pecan limb

img4177pi7So, other than the odd check to make sure everything is alive and well there isn’t much ‘gardening’ for me to do. I look for water stress. I watch out for pests and disease but mostly the squirrels and I monitor the progress of the developing pecan nuts. Summer gardening in Central Texas is my slow time: dreaming and waiting for cooler weather — waiting for Second Spring which will arrive sometime around October.

16 thoughts on “Pecans and Summer. Waiting and Dreaming.

  1. Great post! The Heights were I live in Houston use to be a large pecan orchard. There are still many of the original trees dotted around in people yards. I use to have a big one but it rotted through at the bottom and was seriously damaged by a hurricane and I had with much reluctance to take it down. I used to love to sit on my deck under the shade of that large tree. It had a family of woodpeckers that came to nest each year and tons of squirrels. Every once in a while nuts would come hurling down from the tree with lots of squirrel chatter. I swear they were throwing them at me to get me out of their space : ) And yes here in Texas, summer is our time for hibernation…just to dang hot ( and here humid), with is a change for someone that grew up in San Diego! But the difference for us on the gulf coast is that many plants love the heat and humidity and now that the rain has returned, Houston is turning back into the sub-tropical jungle that is use to be! The frogs are back and singing in chorus and that makes me happy as I listen from my A/C cooled office : )


    1. I think my space in east Austin with the dark prairie soil and the humidity from the creeks shares more in common with Houston than with properties on the West side with their rocks. I would LOVE to learn more about what grows there. I have slowly been adding hardy tropicals into the mix because I think they will work. Last night was -insane- with frog songs. Love it. Squirrels will throw things at people for sure and some of the language they use! Honestly, it makes my ears turn pink.


  2. That is fascinating about the pecan’s allelopathic practices. I’d noted how many pecans have bare dirt underneath and dismissed it as due to the deep shade and water competition. It is apparently that and so much more. “Members only club” – love it.

    I am a little envious of you (and Tina) for not having anything much to do except dream and wait during summer’s heat. Due to unfortunate circumstances enforcing neglect in years past, I am forced to spend hours weeding and then weeding some more. I don’t know if I’ll ever get on top of the weed situation in the paths but I won’t go down without a fight!


    1. Path weeds can be tenacious. I don’t envy that job. I have been searching for ages to find out what plants traditionally grew with pecans: what their natural guild was to use the permaculture term and have not come up with much info. I even wrote the Lady Bird Center. It is too bad Texas didn’t have a Leopold or Thoreau to document the native systems here. Though maybe it is better to not know the treasures we have lost.


  3. lovely piece rambling around the pecan trees -dreaming and waiting – i like that.
    I am reminded of our “fruit trees” they have nothing to do with us anymore instead they satisfy or not wallabies on the lower level and possums and birds on the upper storey …. we still get the beauty….
    sandra freezing her self in the city of melbourne far from home


  4. Fascinating post. I have never even seen a pecan tree. And thank you for the new word; I love new words. I have a walnut tree and now I know why not much grows under it. It is allelopathic.
    I can’ t imagine what it is like living somewhere where the temperature is regularly above 100 degrees. Phew!


    1. Reaching the 100 line and staying there is not historically normal here but it has done that on a regular basis since I have lived here & with each summer getting hotter than the last. There are some places where global warming has been quite noticable. The southwest is certainly one of those places.


  5. Black Walnut here too. So your heat kicked it up a notch? Today we were in the eighties. Saturday almost 90°. I hope you get your cooler weather sooner. Your state has had it rough the last few years. I am not ready for the summer heat.


    1. Your garden is so lovely even with the walnut. Do you find native plants cope better than introduced ornamentals? As far as it being hot. I -know- it will be hot until October so I am just mentally preparing. =)


      1. Not necessarily. The problem with native plant’s survival is that not all native plants in a state are native to your immediate area. Many ignore this fact. I find many none nates better at taking the dry climate and hot climate we have been having. Caryopteris is an example. It does not like the cold, but does great where it is hot. Most annuals do wonderfully because of where they are from has the hot and dry. Too long a list to name, but all those from South America and Mexico seem to love it hot here.


        1. That is so true. As the climate shifts all the old lists are becoming unreliable. I found a list from some agency that actually tracks native plants to counties rather than states. That has been much more helpful than the global ‘native’ term. Especially for a place like Texas that includes many different ecosystems. I -think- walnuts were imported from Europe but I am not sure.


  6. Very informative, thank you. I did not know that about pecans – alternate bearing years, nor the juglone. We have black walnut trees, and I knew that they were difficult to live with, gardening-wise.


    1. I have read that the juglone from walnuts is much stronger and more tricky to work with. I love having a villain to blame/explain the many plants I have killed over the years.


      1. Summer is a good time to plan–for all sorts of things, but especially gardening things. I stroll through my gardens, not really needing to do much. Some pruning, watering (not this year), enjoying the pollinators, birds, etc. I love the grackle gazing through the tree.


        1. Thanks. I just love grackles and I am always glad when they pay a visit. I like the pace of summer. It is probably good for me to take a break as I get kind of frantic and obsessive in the spring. =) Summer comes and it is a chance to enjoy some serenity in the garden.


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