By Joshua Burman Thayer | Photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler
The myth and the lore of the ancient Silk Road is saturated in the bright red of the lush pomegranate. Originating in the Caucasus mountains, Punica granatum has been in cultivation at least since the 5th millennium BCE. It was said by the ancients to have 613 seeds, and perhaps to honor this noble fruit, the Torah followed suit and 613 commandments were written. It’s one of the seven species named in the Torah with wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives, and dates.
High in vitamins C and K, and containing ample fiber, the pomegranate is truly one of my favorite plants to grow. It’s strong, tough, rugged, drought tolerant, and practically disease free. It’s also a hummingbird haven: pomegranates are nearly exclusively pollinated by hummingbirds. Plant a pomegranate and watch the birds visit each day. And while you’re at it you can embellish your garden's pollinator support with these drought tolerant California natives: Eriogonum fasticulatum, Penstemon margarita bop, and Salvia clevelandii.
Ready to plant? Here’s how:
CHOOSE YOUR CULTIVAR
For properties in the San Francisco Bay Area, I recommend Parfianka, Wonderful, and Grenada. My most trusted resource for further advice, horticulturist John Valenzuela, also likes the Fog Tolerant and Eversweet cultivars. One of these should be available at your local nursery, or you could order them from Trees of Antiquity in Paso Robles.
CHOOSE YOUR SPOT
Planting in a location with full sun will ensure a bumper crop of fruit year after year. Most cultivars grow to be small, bush-like trees, which can be pruned to look quite attractive. If you’re planting several, space them at least 10 feet apart.
PREPARE THE GROUND
Make a mound: Pomegranate originated in an upland environment, so unless you are planting in well-drained soil, the tree will thank you for lifting its root crown higher than the surrounding clays by creating a soil mound that is 12 inches high, 3 feet wide, and gently sloping around its perimeter.
Oversize the hole: Dig a hole in your mound that is 2-3 times the size of the pot your tree came in. By oversizing the hole, you encourage maximum root growth, and with plenty of space to fill, you can add the correct soil mix for your pomegranate tree.
In a well-drained location, the pomegranate tolerates a range of soils, but here is an ideal mix to create a rich, yet aerated, soil mound. Mix 30% rock pumice or perlite to ensure that the soil maintains a high oxygen content, 10% worm castings to boost the microbiology of the soil without the risk of over-fertilizing, 30% native soil, and 30% potting soil. Solid soil that allows for year-round aeration puts you on track for years and years of harvests. A happy pomegranate bush will push out flowers two or three times per year.
Do not bury the crown! A most common way that people kill new trees is by burying the root crown. Make sure you dust it off if the root crown has been buried in the planting process.
CARE FOR YOUR TREE
Water Weekly. The tree needs 3-8 gallons per week during the months of May, June, July, and August.
Fertilize: Pomegranates need nitrogen in October and March. However, being a Mediterranean-type plant, it can be over-fertilized. If this happens, the plant will make green growth but little fruit. You’ll need 2 cups worm castings and 2 cups finished compost per tree if your trees are under human size. Double that amount for trees that are over human size.
Learn more about ancient orchard plants in Joahua's Summer 2020 article, "Your Backyard is a Garden of Eden."
Learn more about growing pomegranate? Read Joshua’s Gardener’s Notebook article from 2017.
And there's more good reading in the Field Guide to California Agriculture.
Summer heat notice: The soil is rapidly drying out, and with the lowering water table we can get stressed plants. Please water your garden twice a week starting now!
Visit Joshua's design site for more horticultural tips.