Tall and stately pecan trees (Carya illinoinensis) shed their nuts in fall, before the leaves begins to drop. The trees grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 9. Pecans need quick picking once the nuts begin to mature, so knowing the signs and what to do help you get the most out of your pecan tree.
Fall Is in the Air
Pecans begin to ripen on the tree in fall. Depending on the variety and climate, the first nuts may mature in early fall or they may take until late fall. In colder northern climates where winter comes early, plant an early-maturing variety such as "Colby" (Carya illinoinensis "Colby") or "Major" (Carya illinoinensis "Major") for an early fall crop. There's no need to climb the trees to check maturity. The nuts will begin dropping on their own as soon as they are ready to pick.
The First Drop
Before pecans nuts first drop from the tree, they don't resemble the usual light brown, dark striped nuts. The nuts form inside a green case, called a husk, that turns brown as it dries and the nuts approach maturity. The pecans are about to stop dropping when the husks begin to crack open, revealing the pecan shell inside. Pecans aren't picked off the tree branches like fruit. Instead, they begin dropping out of the husks and falling to the ground once they are fully mature.
Squirrels and moisture can ruin an entire nut harvest if you don't get them off the ground quickly. Although you can pick up the nuts by hand and place them in a bucket, specially made pecan rakes or harvesters can simplify the task. Harvesters resemble round orbs made of wire, which you roll across the ground to collect the nuts. You can also lay down a tarp beneath the tree to make it easier to find and collect the mature pecans. Keeping the grass mowed short beneath your pecan tree as harvest approaches also minimizes nut loss. Gently shaking high branches with a long pole helps dislodge any nuts stubbornly stuck in their husks.
Time to Cure
Sorting and curing completes the harvest process. Nuts that fall still firmly encased in their husk won't ripen and should throw them out. Small holes in the shell, light-feeling nuts, or those that rattle when you shake them are also bad. After sorting the pecans, dry them for two or three weeks. A cool to moderately warm, dark area with little moisture is the best place for this curing process. Fully cured nuts should crack easily and feel dry. Store pecans in their shells in the refrigerator or freezer after they are cured.