Cultivate Chestnuts and Harvest Hazelnuts

Grow bountiful chestnut and hazelnut trees on your property and use them in your kitchen.

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Hazelnuts and chestnuts are beautifully complementary: Chestnuts produce a carbohydrate-rich nut, while hazels are high in fat and protein. Chestnuts are full-sized trees, while hazels are modest shrubs. There are cultivars of each that are adapted to a wide range of climates. They’re both hardy and vigorous, and together they yield an abundance of food.

I gathered key points about cultivating these nuts in part from a fascinating talk at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York given by Akiva Silver, owner of Twisted Tree Farm, and Brian Caldwell, a farmer and researcher at Cornell University. Here’s what you need to know to grow your own hazelnuts and chestnuts.

Hearty Hazels

There are species of hazelnut trees that can grow anywhere from subtropical Asia all the way to northern Canada. Though some hazels mature to the size of proper trees, most are multi-stemmed shrubs whose size you can control by pruning. Their small size and high level of production makes them a perfect choice for gardeners, homesteaders, and farmers alike.

But getting the right plant is critical. Almost all commercially grown hazelnuts — those you’ll find in the grocery store or in confections — come from the common, or European, hazel (Corylus avellana). While this may be a good option for large hazelnut producers, its particular requirements mean it isn’t suitable for most parts of North America. The European hazel is larger than many other hazels, easily reaching 20 feet in height. Further, it’s not resistant to Eastern filbert blight, a disease found throughout the United States.

The good news is that hazels readily hybridize, and for decades plant breeders have been working to cross European with native beaked (C. cornuta) and American (C. americana) hazels. The result is a smaller shrub — usually about 8 feet tall — that’s prolific, cold-hardy, and resistant to blight and other common diseases. In good soil, these hybrids will begin bearing nuts in 3 to 4 years, but may take 7 to 8 years before they reach full production.

Hazelnut trees are incredibly hardy once they’re established. They store a huge amount of energy in their roots, and grow vigorous new stalks each spring. Hazels appreciate fertilizer when they’re bearing, but will produce a good crop even in relatively poor soils with minimal inputs.

However, just because you’ve grown a bunch of nuts doesn’t mean you’ll get to eat them. Squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, and other birds love hazelnuts, and they’ll happily spend every waking hour harvesting them once they ripen. This is another reason it’s good to get shrubs that mature at a relatively small size: They can be harvested by hand, which gives you a chance to beat the wildlife to them.

Planting shrubs with American genetics helps here too. The husks of European hazelnuts open early, meaning birds have an easy time picking the kernels out. Hybrid and American hazelnuts can be harvested while the husk is still tightly closed, before other critters have eaten them, and
then dried inside. This can be done in a dehydrator, but simply placing them in an area with good air circulation works well too.

A few insect pests can attack hazelnuts. Planting high-quality trees reduces the risk of serious infestations, but good management practices also help. Proper soil preparation, particularly adequate liming, can significantly reduce disease and pests. Making sure all nuts are harvested from the bushes and the ground will help limit populations of weevils and other bugs that rely on them for food. Removing dead wood is always a good idea.

Big bud mites are a pest that attack hazel flowers, causing them to swell and then drop. American hazelnuts are more susceptible than European trees, which is yet another reason that hybrid trees, with their blend of advantageous traits, are the best choice for most people.

Fully dried nuts can be stored for at least a year in their shells without a loss of quality. They can be shelled with most common nutcrackers, but if you grow a lot, it’s worth investing in a hand crank model. Hazelnuts are delicious eaten raw or roasted, and can be ground into meal. Or, if you have access to a press, they’ll yield a fragrant oil.

Planting Hazels

Generally, plant hazelnuts in the fall or early spring, but ask whomever you get your trees from what they’d recommend. If you want nuts, plant at least two hazels, but preferably three or more; hazels don’t self-pollinate, so they need friends. Space them about 15 feet apart.

Transplanting is stressful, so water the trees as necessary. But don’t waterlog them! Good drainage is critical. Making a small mound for an individual tree or a berm for a row will go a long way toward keeping your hazels happy, particularly if you have heavy, clay-rich soil. If your soil is very acidic, you’ll need to add some lime. Aim for a pH of 6.5. Young trees will appreciate having a scoop of well-aged compost mixed in with their soil, but avoid chemical fertilizers, chicken manure, or any other amendment with highly available nitrogen.

Protect your new hazelnuts from deer. If you’re only planting a few trees, staking a hoop of wire mesh fencing around each works well. Some people also have luck with pepper or egg sprays.

When hazels are fully mature, prune them by removing some of the oldest wood each winter, starting when the shrubs are in their tenth year. Removing old live wood promotes vigorous growth, which keeps shrubs producing well.

Charming Chestnuts

Chestnuts (Castanea dentata) were once the dominant hardwood tree species in eastern North America. On average, they made up a quarter of temperate forests, and their huge size, high-quality wood, and prolific nut production made them a valuable source of both timber and food. But indiscriminate logging and the introduction of chestnut blight destroyed almost all of these trees. Luckily, Chinese chestnut varieties (C. mollissima) are resistant to blight, and produce the same delicious nuts as their American counterparts. Because American chestnuts are more cold-hardy, crossing the two has created a tree that’s robust, disease-resistant, and able to be planted all the way into Zone 4.

Once established, chestnuts will crop well with minimal care, so they’re a great choice for permaculture setups, or for anyone who’s just looking to easily grow more of their own food. Because they flower in late June or early July, they’re not susceptible to the frost damage that can burn the blossoms of apples and other fruit trees. Furthermore, chestnut trees don’t have a strong tendency for alternate bearing — meaning they should produce roughly the same crop year in and year out. The nuts are high in starch, making them a wonderful alternative to grains, particularly because dried chestnuts can be turned into exceptionally delicious flour.

Unless you specifically seek out varieties selected for timber production, these won’t be the towering 100-foot monsters that previously populated American forests. But they’ll still mature into full-size trees, 30 to 50 feet tall and wide, so think carefully when establishing a chestnut planting. Make sure you get stock from a reputable nursery that has selected for blight resistance, vigor, and productivity. Trees live a long time, and spending a few extra dollars for quality at the outset will pay dividends for decades.

Rodents, deer, and hungry neighbors will scavenge the fallen nuts, so harvest them promptly once they start dropping if you want a good yield. Weevils are the most insidious problem. Adult weevils lay eggs on chestnuts, which hatch into larvae, which in turn feed on the nut. They then enter the ground beneath the tree for an extended period, sometimes as long as three years, before emerging in August as adults to lay eggs on the burrs, thus continuing the cycle. Disrupting this pattern is another reason to harvest thoroughly and quickly. If weevils are a chronic issue, placing harvested nuts in hot water (120 degrees Fahrenheit) for 20 minutes should destroy any eggs or very small larvae without affecting eating quality or viability as seed.

Chestnuts fall to the ground when ripe. It’s easy enough to harvest them by hand, but a nut rake, nut wizard, or other picking tool will save both time and your back. Chestnuts have spiky husks that they’ll slip out of easily, but removing the glossy brown shell is a bit trickier. The classic preparation is to cut a slit or an ‘X’ in each chestnut, and then to roast them on a stovetop or in the oven. This gives them a caramel flavor, and should make the shell easy to peel away by hand. Another option is to dehydrate them, after which a nutcracker can separate the dried kernels.

If you’ve ever had the frustration of shelling a chestnut, only to find that the thin, tannic skin (called the “pellicle”) is fused to the nut, you have another reason to grow your own. Commercial chestnuts are often from European trees, and these nuts have exceptionally clingy pellicles. This is less of a problem with Asian and hybrid trees.

Chestnuts are delicious on their own, but they’re also a great addition to stuffing or hash. Dehydrated nuts can be added to stews or cooked into porridge, or they can be milled into flour in a home grain mill. (If the mill’s hopper has too small a hole for the chunks of chestnut to fit through, you’ll need to coarsely crush them first. This can be done by hitting them with a hammer, a rock, or any other crusher you’re clever enough to devise.) Fresh chestnuts will keep for two or three months in the crisper section of a fridge. Dehydrated nuts and flour can last almost indefinitely if kept dry.

Planting Chestnuts

Chestnuts are fine with considerably more acidic soils than hazels, but if your pH is extremely low, you should amend it to at least 5.5.

Plant at least two chestnut trees; they don’t self-pollinate. Aim for trees spaced at about 40 feet on center. You can plant more densely and thin as the trees grow, saving the most productive, but leave room for them to fully mature. New plantings of chestnuts are even more sensitive to waterlogging than hazels, so making a mound or berm in which to plant them will greatly increase their odds of surviving.

Use fencing to prevent deer from nibbling on young trees, and in the winter, protect their trunks with rodent guards to stop mice and voles from girdling them. Expect to wait about five years for your first harvest of nuts, and about 12 years for full production.

Trees can live longer than people, and if they’re planted in a good location, they can improve the land for generations. Take the time to be certain you’re putting them in the right place. Think about what it’ll be like when they’re fully mature and productive. Research nurseries whose stock is suited to your climate. Take a soil test if you haven’t already. Time and expense are involved when establishing chestnuts and hazels, but once they’ve set their roots, they’ll yield a bounty of food for both people and wildlife for decades to come.

Garth Brown co-owns Cairncrest Farm. He sells 100 percent grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as pastured pork and poultry to the greater New York City area.