Coming in at the second most popular nut globally, it’s no surprise that many people are starting to grow their own almond (Prunus dolcis) trees. As more research demonstrates the nut’s nutritional benefits, there is a corresponding rise in consumption of almond milk, almond butter, and snacks, confections, and bars that contain almonds.
This guide will teach you everything you need to know to be a successful grower.
While most people assume they are a nut tree, almonds are a stone fruit known as a drupe. Drupes are a fruit with an outer hull and a hard shell that contains a seed. Peaches, apricots, cherries, and plums are in the same family, but the seed is the only edible fruit with almonds.
If you’re looking for a great nut-producing tree, almonds are a fantastic choice—a single tree produces between 50 and 65 pounds of nuts each year. Keep in mind, though, it usually takes a tree at least five years after planting to make nuts, and a tree needs between 200 and 400 hours below 45°F (during a single winter) to break bud dormancy.
When buying an almond tree, it’s essential to understand there are two different types of trees: bitter almonds and sweet almonds. Bitter almonds are beautiful ornamental flowering trees, but they never bear nuts. A bitter almond tree is helpful for bees since they are one of the first trees to bloom in the spring. Sweet almond trees are the nut-bearing type.
Some of the most common sweet almond cultivars are ‘All-In-One’ (a self-pollinating variety), ‘Caramel,’ Mission,’ and ‘Hall’s Hardy.’
Almonds are native to southwestern Asia and are incredibly popular today in the Mediterranean area. They thrive in climates with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, growing outdoors year-round in USDA growing zones 7 through 9. They are mainly grown in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida, but in Zones 5 and 6, you can grow them as potted trees.
Trees are incredibly susceptible to frost after blooming, so if you live in areas with late spring frost, you will need to grow them in containers and move them to a shed or unheated garage for the winter.
If you decide to grow almonds and add a tree to your yard or garden, it’s best to start with a propagated sapling. Most almond trees are self-infertile, meaning they need cross-pollination. Digging up a sucker doesn’t guarantee your new sapling is nut-bearing. An almond tree grafted onto quality rootstock will be guaranteed to produce nuts.
The best soil for almonds is sandy loam which is fertile and well-draining. Before planting, work fully decomposed manure or finished compost into the soil, as deep as you can, covering an area much more extensive than your planting hole. This organic material helps to improve drainage and gives the soil a good boost of slow-release nutrients.
If possible, try to plant saplings in late winter or very early spring as the temperatures slowly begin climbing. You need the soil to be thawed and all chances of frost gone before putting them in the ground. You can plant almond trees in the fall but aim to give them time to acclimate before cold weather hits.
Many popular sweet almond cultivars are not self-pollinating, requiring a nearby tree of a different variety for cross-pollination. That means the two trees need to be reasonably close, but almond trees have deep root systems and need distance between one another to keep competition for water and resources. Therefore, plant almond trees about 19 to 26 feet apart.
Planting an almond tree is a straightforward process that doesn’t require fancy equipment. You need a sturdy shovel—a round pointed blade, preferably—and some muscle. Leather work gloves or gardening gloves aren’t necessary, but they help prevent blisters and keep your hands clean when backfilling the planting hole.
If your ground is dry and hard, water the soil thoroughly a day or two before planting to loosen it up and make planting easier.
- Dig a planting hole with your shovel roughly three times wider than the root ball and at least twice as deep. Almond trees have a long taproot that needs plenty of space.
- Lay the pot on its side, and grasping the trunk close to the soil line, carefully pull the sapling and root ball from the pot.
- Gently rinse as much of the soil off of the root ball as possible. Rinsing the excess potting soil puts the roots in good contact with the soil in the planting hole and helps hydrate them before planting.
- Set the sapling in the hole, so the tree is at the same depth it was in the container. The top of the soil level from the container should be level with the ground. Take care not to break the taproot.
- Carefully fan the sapling’s roots out in the bottom of the hole.
- Using the shovel or your hands, backfill the hole with the soil you initially removed. Gently tamp the soil with your hands or feet as you go to push the air pockets out while not compacting the root zone.
- When the hole is almost filled in, create a slight “well” where the soil slopes slightly from the outside of the hole to the trunk. This depression collects water.
- Slowly give your almond sapling a couple of gallons of water. Fill the depression created, allowing the water to soak into the soil before adding more. Watering hydrates the roots and helps settle the ground in the planting hole.
- Spread a few inches of mulch on the ground, around the base of the tree, keeping it from touching the bark of the trunk.
Plant your sweet or bitter almond tree where it’s going to receive as much direct sunlight as possible. Almond trees love the full sun! They need a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight every day but will grow best when they get at 8 hours or more of sunlight daily.
Almond farmers are often criticized for the amount of water used. The truth is, almonds need a lot of water, especially the first couple of years when trees are drought-sensitive. During the spring and summer, give young trees 2 to 3” of water daily or every other day; mature trees need that weekly. In July, reduce this to 1 inch.
Young trees use nitrogen all the time, so you should fertilizer them in the spring with a well-balanced fruit tree fertilizer and then apply small doses of nitrogen (urea is a good choice) every month during the growing season. After the first couple of years, apply fertilizer after the tree breaks dormancy and then again in early to mid-fall.
It is recommended to prune out about twenty percent of the canopy each year to increase air and light in the canopy, encouraging good growth. This pruning should be done in the winter when trees are dormant (December or January). Also, remove any suckers that are popping up around the trunk. Prune out dead or diseased branches any time of year.
Watch your almost tree closely for some notorious insect pests and bacterial or viral diseases. Almond trees are susceptible to navel orangeworm, peach twig borer, scale, and mites. They are also known for problems with Verticillium wilt, crown gall, and shot hole fungus. When issues are observed, treat quickly to prevent spreading to other trees or significantly reducing yield.
Keeping your tree in good health will help minimize insect and disease problems. When mowing or trimming around trees, be cautious not to damage the base with your landscaping equipment. Most diseases enter the tree through wounds in the bark.
Almonds need 6 to 8 months to mature, so they are typically harvested in commercial orchards during August, September, and October. The trees are ready to harvest when the hulls have split, and the shell dries and turns brown. It is best to wait until about three-quarters of the hulls have split before harvesting since the nuts ripen better on the tree.
The easiest way to harvest is to stand beneath the canopy and shake the tree, making sure to protect your head. Allow the fallen fruit to dry for a few days and then separate the hulls from the nuts. At this time, you can stick them in the freezer for a few days to kill any residual bacteria or bugs.
Tips for Growing
- If your garden space is minimal, but you need to plant two trees, you can plant both in the same planting hole. As they grow, they will intertwine, so the flowers cross-pollinate.
- Tree benefit from extra water in the spring and during the early summer when blossoming and setting “fruit.”
- Mulching around the base helps with soil water retention and prevents weeds from popping up at the bottom of the tree.
- About a week or two before harvest, stop irrigating your trees so the fruits can dry down to acceptable moisture content.
- When harvesting, shake trees over a sheet or tarp to make collecting the nuts easier.
- If pollination appears to be unsuccessful or low, use a paintbrush to manually transfer pollen from the flowers of one tree to the other and vice versa.