You see them all the time in the health food aisle alongside various nuts. But have you ever actually seen an almond tree out in the wild?
They’re touted as a natural source of protein, fiber and vitamins. Almond varieties take on delicious flavors like chocolate or sweet almonds, garlic almonds, and roasted salty almonds.
But you may have stopped to wonder, while launching a handful into your mouth: How and where do almonds grow?
Almond-derived products, from almond milk to moisturizers, are all the rage — and rightfully so. Rich in vitamin E, magnesium and healthy fats, they’re the wellness-conscious snackers’ go-to treat.
According to Kiku Severson, a fourth-generation almond grower and specialist on the Almond Board of California, almonds are also choice snacks for diabetics and people managing their weight. She added that they’re gluten-free, heart healthy, low calorie and have a low glycemic index.
Nonetheless, many of us have no idea how this poplar staple is grown and harvested.
Depending on where you live, you might be able to grow an almond tree in your backyard today. Growing your own is a fun and sustainable way to get all the nutrition these little seeds have to offer.
How Do Almonds Grow?
Even though almonds tend to sit among the peanuts and cashews in the nuts section of the grocery store, almonds are not true nuts. They’re actually stone fruits, like plums and cherries. True nuts, like hazelnuts and chestnuts, are the fruit of a nut tree. Almonds are only the seed of the fruit, which is called a drupe.
A drupe is a grey-green velvety fruit that hangs off an almond tree. This fruit grows between 1.5 to 2.5 inches in length and is shaped like an elongated football. Its texture is leathery and tough.
This almond fruit, or almond drupe, consists of three parts. The musty-green flesh is called the hull. When the drupe matures, the hull turns brown and splits open, revealing the second part: the shell. When it’s ripe, the almond shell falls to the ground.
The shell of an almond resembles a peach pit, as they’re closely related. And inside the shell is the third part: the seed. The almond seed is that nourishing little snack you know and love.
Almond drupes grow on deciduous trees ranging from 13 to 33 feet in height. Their trunks expand up to 12 inches in diameter.
The almond tree’s branches grow out and up, speckled with white or soft pink five-petal flowers in early spring. By summer, the almond tree is covered in three-to-five-inch serrated leaves. Drupes grow and mature in the fall, seven to eight months after flowering. The tree goes dormant in the winter, recharging to do it all again the following year.
Where Do Almonds Trees Grow Best? The Optimal Conditions
Almond trees are indigenous to Iran. Thanks to traveling merchants, they spread throughout the Levant and into parts of the Mediteranean.
Today, however, 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California. Kiku Severson explained that California is one of only five places on the planet with a climate suitable to grow almonds and manage orchards on a commercial level. Its Mediterranean climate, with wet winters and hot summers, cope well with California’s infrastructure and innovative research and technology. That’s why food shoppers in the U.S. will primarily find California almonds at their local grocery store.
However, she noted, almond trees can be grown outside of California given the right conditions (but probably not on a commercial scale). In low-light areas with heavy winters, like the Midwest or New England, almond trees may not produce a crop every year.
If you want to grow an almond tree and see it thrive, you’ll want to ensure your almond tree has everything it needs, including the right soil conditions, sun, water and temperature.
The soil conditions for almond trees should mimic those in the Mediterranean. Soil should be well-draining, sandy, loamy or even clay. Almond trees require at least five feet of topsoil, which you can use to create a mound around the trunk that aids in drainage.
Almond trees grow best in soil that has between a 6 and 7 pH level, but don’t worry if you don’t get it perfect. They are generally tolerant of acidic, neutral and alkaline soil.
Almond trees prefer full sun, requiring at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. If your tree absorbs more sun, you will get better blooms. If the sun is especially hot where you live, paint the south-facing side of the trunk with white latex paint to prevent sun-scorching.
Almond trees require a significant amount of water every year. You should expect to flood the tree with water once per week, especially in the first year. After that step, you should be flooding the tree at least once every two weeks regardless of the amount of rain or drought.
Like the Mediterranean, the best climates for almond trees have warm, dry summers and mild but wet winters. In fact, the ideal temperature is between 59 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
Almond trees grow best in zones 7 through 9. In the U.S., that includes Southeastern states, Texas, the Southwest, and the coastlines of Washington, Oregon, California to the west and all the way up the coast to Massachusetts in the east.
How to Properly Grow and Harvest an Almond Tree
It’s time for the heavy lifting. You can purchase an almond tree at a nursery. Here’s everything you need to know about planting, caring for and harvesting an almond tree.
Almond trees are not self-pollinating. Therefore, you should plant two almond trees for cross-pollination. If space is limited, it is possible to plant both trees in the same hole. However, they’ll grow best when planted 15 to 25 feet apart.
If your soil is muddy, add compost and sandy loam, which you can purchase at your local gardening center. Make sure your soil drains well.
Once your soil is amended and optimized, dig a hole twice as wide as the roots and a few inches deeper than the length of the tap root. You want to plant the tree at the same depth that it was grown at the nursery.
Do not trim or damage the large tap root.
Begin to fill in the hole, tamping down the soil as you go. When the hole is almost full, flood the hole with water. If you’re planting your almond tree in the spring, add fertilizer to help the tree blossom. If you’re planting in the fall, use untreated water, as your tree will become dormant to survive the winter.
Once you’ve finished filling in the hole, heavily prune your tree. You’ll want to remove anywhere from one third to one half of the branches. This clearing will help the tree direct its energy toward growing a strong root system.
Lastly, use white paint or wrap the trunk of the tree in protective plastic. This coating will help prevent sun-scorch and damage caused by woodpeckers, squirrels, and groundhogs.
Caring for your newly planted almond tree is crucial to helping it grow, thrive, and bloom. The better you care for it, the more almonds you’ll be able to harvest in the fall.
In the spring, fertilize your almond tree with treated water. As pests and animals come out from hibernation, your tree will be at risk. Spray it with pesticides. You’ll also need to weed the area around it.
Around May or June, add mulch to the topsoil. Mulching helps the soil retain moisture and prevents weeds from ground.
After harvest, be sure to rake fallen leaves and drupe husks. Decomposition can affect soil pH levels.
Before winter sets in, prune dead and diseased branches. Also prune branches growing at odd or downward angles. These branches may affect irrigation or prevent your tree from receiving enough sunlight. Pruning will help your tree grow and give it shape. If you skip pruning, your tree may not grow well or at all.
Note: If you’re not keen on spraying with pesticides, Kiku Severson said that’s OK.
“Given the purpose here is not to grow in a commercial sense, the tree will probably survive and produce some almonds (given the right climate) without any management.”
She added that it simply may not produce a strong crop without spraying.
It’s important to note that you may not get any almonds in the first three years of planting. However, by years five or six, you’ll be harvesting a full crop.
Your harvest will begin in late August and last through September. You’ll notice the grey-green husks turn brown, dry, and split open. At this point you can shake or rattle them to the ground with a rake.
Commercial farmers use an almond shaker, a machine that grabs the trunk of the tree and vigorously shakes it, causing the almonds to fall. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching.
If the shells don’t fall to the ground, resist the urge to pick them. They aren’t ripe yet and will taste bitter. Come back in a few days and try again.
Let the shells sit on the ground for a couple of days to allow them to dry out. Then, rake and gather them. Remove them from the hull, then remove the shell.
You can store almonds in the refrigerator for up to a year, or leave them in the shell and store them at room temperature for six to eight months. Also consider storing your almonds in air-tight containers; they can absorb moisture, leading to rot. They may also absorb scents, affecting their taste.
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Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor
Kiku’s final words of advice:
“I would recommend that anyone serious about growing almonds check out the University of California’s Almond Production Manual. If they are not local to California, they can reach out to their local master gardener to best adapt the practices to their growing region.”
Now that you know how almonds grow, you can cultivate your own. You’ll also have a whole new appreciation for all that these little snacks go through to provide your body with nutrients.