Fall can be a busy time of year with kids heading back to school, the High Holy Days, and for gardeners, fall planting. Fall is an ideal time to plant many things, especially trees.
Which tree? The Torah specifically mentions seven kinds of foods (Shevah Minim) indigenous to the Land of Israel — “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey” (Deuteronomy 8:7-8). Dates are not listed here, they are now traditionally included in the list of seven: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranate, olive, and dates. All of these foods can be grown in southern Arizona, a climate remarkably similar to Israel. Let’s look at a tree with fruits that ripen now — the pomegranate.
Easy to grow, pomegranates are an “in-between” plant — either a short shrub-like tree, or maybe a tall tree-like shrub. Mature plants have multiple trunks and reach 6 to 12 feet high and generally 5 to 10 feet around. This size makes them good for a smaller yard, and their multiple trunks make them a good screen.
Pomegranate trees offer year-round interest in the landscape. Rich green leaves in summer turn golden in autumn and drop, leaving the smooth cinnamon and gray bark visible in winter. In spring, the leaves grow again and the plants flower with scarlet blooms. These bright blooms are pollinated by our calm native bees as well as European honeybees and develop into fruits that take months to ripen. Some pomegranate varieties can have thorny stems, so select your plant carefully. Pomegranate trees are self-fruitful, so a single tree is all you need for fruit production.
Pomegranate trees require full sun, but appreciate some afternoon shade in our summer. They grow well in our alkaline soils, not needing extensive soil amendments and constant monitoring like citrus trees. One exception is clay soils. If you live in an area of clay soils, plants can easily drown if you over-water them. Amend such soils before you plant with ample sand and compost.
Pomegranates tolerate our southern Arizona winter lows to 10 degrees F. While the trees are fairly drought tolerant, if you water them once a week when they have leaves, they will fruit better.
Pomegranates planted this autumn will still drop their leaves, but their roots will grow on any winter day it is over 45 degrees, helping them gain a good foothold in your yard before the heat of summer returns.
Don’t expect fruit the first year or two. My tree is three years old and has seven fruit developing this fall. Fruit drop during the plant’s juvenile period (the first three to five years) is quite common. Fruit drop is aggravated by too much fertilizer and excess water — making this a good tree for the forgetful gardener.
There are a number of varieties of pomegranate available at most local nurseries, but I really like the Kino Heritage White with pale skin the birds don’t bother and white fruit inside that doesn’t stain my fingers. Father Kino specifically brought this fruit to our region over 300 years ago, so it has had ample generations to adapt to growing here.
Jacqueline Soule, Ph.D., has been writing about gardening in our region for over three decades. Her next book, “Month by Month Guide to Gardening in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico” (Cool Springs Press) is due out this fall. It’s a companion volume to “Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening (2014, Cool Springs Press). More information is on her website: gardeningwithsoule.com.