Jews around the world have been celebrating Tu B’Shvat at this time of year every year, for about 3000 years. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, the date varies in Western eyes, but on the 15 of the month of Shevat, this Jewish Arbor Day, also called “New Year of the Trees,” is celebrated. This year it falls on Feb. 11.
If you think of Israel and its climate, you will realize this season is indeed a great time of year to plant trees, at least in that corner of the globe. Israel has a rainy season from November to March, and a dry season from May to September, with two transition months. January, smack in the middle of the rainy season, when the days start to lengthen, is an ideal time to plant young trees. With our similar climate, January and early February is a good time of year to plant trees in Tucson as well.
You could plant many types of tree, but if you are going to the effort of planting and watering a tree, why not make it one that will also provide a nutritious and tasty snack — like almonds. Almonds naturally grow in Israel and will do well in Tucson with only a little care. They tolerate our alkaline soils, need little fertilizer, and will need water in dry months. These trees have a short and compact form, thus they fit well in smaller yards, or in the corner of an already planted yard. The incredibly fragrant flowers grace the trees in early spring and provide ample nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinators.
Almond trees require full sun, but appreciate some afternoon shade in our summer. Avoid a spot where they will be exposed to reflected heat and light, such as near a swimming pool. Unlike citrus trees, almonds do not typically need extensive soil amendments and constant monitoring. One exception is clay soils. Almonds require well-drained soils. If you live in an area of clay soils, plants can easily drown if you over-water them. Before planting, amend clay soils with ample sand and compost. The trees are fairly drought tolerant but if you water them once a week when they have leaves, they will fruit better.
Which almond? First, do you live in a colder area of our region that has 6 to 8 weeks of nighttime lows below 45 degrees? Areas like Tanque Verde, Saddlebrooke or Vail provide the over 500 “chill hours” that are required for some almond varieties. Second, do you have room for two or more trees? Some almonds are self-fruitful while others need a second tree of a different variety (a pollinizer tree) to produce a bumper crop of nuts. They will produce nuts without a second tree, just not very many.
If you have room for only one tree and live in a warmer area, like central Tucson, consider the “Garden Prince,” which only needs 250 chill hours. This dwarf variety reaches 10 to 12 feet tall and produces sweet nuts with soft shells.
For those with little space and ample chill hours, the “All-in-One’’ is the most popular almond for home gardens. It needs about 500 chill hours. This semi-dwarf tree tops out at around 15 feet.
The “Nonpareil” almond is the common commercial tree reaching around 25 feet. It needs a pollinizer and 400 chill hours. Any of the other three almonds listed here will work as pollinizers.
This leaves us the “Ne Plus Ultra,” which also reaches around 25 feet, needs any one of the other three varieties as a pollinizer, but only needs 250 chill hours.
When it comes to the nuts, it takes two to four years after planting for the trees to start bearing. Related to apricots, the edible almond seed develops inside a fuzzy apricot-like fruit or “hull” that is discarded after harvest. One bonus of almonds is that the pesky birds can’t peck into the fruits, destroying your harvest. The taste of homegrown almonds is far far better than store bought — milky and sweet! Almonds are a nutritious, heart-healthy snack that can be eaten raw, roasted, or made into a non-dairy almond “milk.”
If you don’t want to plant an almond tree, consider planting a different Holy Land tree that does well here, such as fig, pomegranate, Jerusalem pine (Pinus halepensis), carob, olive, date palm, frankincense, bay laurel, mulberry, peach, apricot, or citrus, to name a few.
Jacqueline Soule, Ph.D., has been writing about gardening in our region for over three decades. Her most recent book is “Month by Month Guide to Gardening in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico” (Cool Springs Press, 2016), a companion volume to “Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening (Cool Springs Press, 2014).