Nut trees fulfill many roles on the homestead, from tasty food source to a shady spot for an afternoon nap.
Nut trees provide us with far more than delicious, highly nutritious nuts. Many varieties make for magnificent shade trees, and have highly
attractive forms, foliage, bark and other features, making them perfect for the homestead landscape.
The brief definition of a nut is any hard-shell dry fruit or seed that contains one or more edible kernels. The botanical meaning is a little more detailed, but for our purposes, let the common term suffice. To clarify things further, a peanut, botanically speaking, is not a nut at all, but rather the fruit and seed of a legume.
Nuts are a nutritionally dense food. They are a great source of protein, iron, calcium, other minerals, essential amino acids, and B vitamins, and contain no cholesterol. They are one of the richest sources of vitamin E, and the fats found in nuts are heart healthy. Chestnuts are the only nut with any vitamin C, composed mainly of carbohydrates and minerals, and low in fat and calories.
Most nut trees are relatively easy to grow and take care of. For the most part, purchasing grafted trees for transplanting is easier than starting from seed. Seedlings from nuts may have slight variations from the parent tree and could take longer to establish and bear nuts. Keep in mind that unlike fruit trees, which are often grafted onto size-controlling rootstocks, most nut trees are grafted onto established roots of the same or related species. These grafts are essentially clones of a known parent or cultivar. Because these roots have already grown for a year or so, your wait for the first nut harvest is shortened considerably. Named cultivars or varieties are best in terms of hardiness, disease resistance, and production of large, meaty nuts that are often easier to crack open.
Most nut trees require two or more trees for pollination and nut production, and they often prefer deep, well-drained soil and full sun. Several species have long taproots, so if you are transplanting nut trees with root balls or bare roots, it is recommended to dig a fairly deep hole at planting time to minimize any damage and accommodate the roots. Organic matter mixed into the soil is beneficial, particularly for walnuts and related species. Many trees will ultimately grow quite large, so ample space between them is important, but no more than 100 feet apart to help with pollination. Check the height and spread of your cultivars to determine a good distance.
Growing nut trees requires patience. When a nut crop is finally produced, leave it to mature on the tree. The nuts will usually fall, and can easily be gathered off the ground. You can also spread a tarp under the tree and shake the nuts loose when they’re mature.
Any pruning required will likely consist of removing dead or damaged branches. Filberts, hazelnuts and almonds may need extra attention to keep trees open and symmetrical.
Birds and other wildlife relish nuts, particularly the sweet ones. If you don’t want to feed your feathered or furry friends, netting over your trees may be necessary.
Although not as widely practiced, some nut trees can be tap-ped in a similar manner to maple trees, and their sap boiled down to make syrup. Trees to try for syrup purposes include black walnut, butternut and hickory.
Of all the Carya species, the pecan (C. illinoinensis) is most commonly grown for its nuts. It is hardy to about Zone 6, sometimes into Zone 5. Pecans are difficult to grow in northern locations, because they require long, hot summers. Grafted selections are best, and they take between five and 10 years to bear crop. From seed takes between 10 and 15 years to bear. Unfortunately, the pecan is known to be susceptible to insect and disease problems.
Hickories are native to eastern and central North America. The shagbark hickory (C. ovata) has delicious, inch-long pecanlike nuts that are round and enclosed in a husk that splits into four sections when mature and ready to harvest.
The shagbark hickory is slow growing until it reaches its maximum height of about 80 feet. It’s well worth considering for its fine form and highly attractive shaggy, peeling bark. The main reason these trees are not grown more often is that they can take up to 40 years to bear a good crop, and it has a long taproot, so it’s difficult to transplant. Enjoy these delicious nuts by harvesting from the wild, or grow the trees for their other features, and patiently wait for the reward.
Not long ago, the majestic American chestnut, (Castanea dentata) grew in vast forests across eastern North America. In the first half of the 20th century, these remarkable forests were effectively wiped out by chestnut blight, a deadly fungal disease accidentally introduced from Asian chestnut cultivars. Thankfully, through the efforts of The American Chestnut Foundation and others – by developing blight-resistant trees, cultivars and hybrids – these stately trees are slowly making a comeback.
The American chestnut is a beautiful shade and nut tree for the home landscape. Hardy to about Zone 4, trees normally grow to 30 feet in height with a 30-foot spread, though they can grow much larger. The nuts are considered by many to be sweeter and more flavourful than other chestnut cultivars.
Chestnut trees begin to bear nuts fairly early compared to other nut trees, starting from 4 or 5 years of age. All Castanea species have edible nuts within a very spiny, distinctive burr or husk containing one or more glossy-shelled, mahogany-colored, sweet, starchy nuts, and the burrs will break open when the nuts are ripe. Trees can handle hot, dry summers, as long as ample moisture is provided in spring. Also, before roasting nuts, be sure to cut away a bit of the shell so they don’t explode as the moisture inside turns to steam.
Please do not confuse these true chestnuts with the inedible, and even poisonous, horse chestnut of the Aesculus species.
Hazelnuts and filberts (Corylus spp.) are the best for small properties because they are either large shrubs or small trees, usually up to around 15 feet tall. They are often multistemmed, and spread by suckers. Trees will bear a small crop of nuts at around 4 years of age, with a full crop in 10 years. The nuts drop in summer, when they’re ripe.
The American hazelnut, C. americana, has a rounded, thick-shelled nut, while the common hazel of Europe, C. avellana, has pointed, thin-shelled nuts and is more tender. Cool, moist summers are best for these shallow-rooted trees, though trees have fairly good drought tolerance once established.
All species of Juglans bear edible nuts. In growing walnuts from seedlings, one has to be patient. Trees do not produce until they are anywhere from 5 to 10 years old. Grafted trees will often bear nuts earlier, even in the third or fourth year after being planted. The nuts are harvested in autumn by knocking the branches with long poles. Wash, rinse and dry the nuts on mesh trays after being husked. Be sure to wear gloves throughout the whole process, or your hands will be stained black. Drying will take one to two months, less if dried indoors. Once dry, they will keep fresh at least until summer. For longer storage, nuts can be frozen.
Most of these trees are huge and require considerable space to grow properly. Walnuts have deep taproots and prefer a deep, well-drained soil in full sun.
Both black and English walnuts have a hard, wrinkly shell inside a thick hull. The English hulls are easily crushed, and shells split readily. Black walnuts have very tough, dark outer shells.
Black walnut (J. Nigra) is a beautiful, fast growing shade tree from central and eastern North America and is well-adapted to cold winters. It can grow up to 100 feet tall with foliage 80 feet wide, and a stout trunk. It has attractive bark and foliage. Some cultivars are bred to reach only 50 feet tall, and many are available with larger nut meats and are easier to crack.
English walnut (J. Regia) is another stately nut tree that grows to 50 feet tall with a 30-foot spread and is hardy to Zone 5. It is usually English walnuts found at grocery stores. They are large, round, thin-shelled and considered tastier than black walnuts.
The American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is an exceptional, magnificent and majestic tree. They are large, beautiful shade trees that deserve a place in the yard. Hardy to Zone 3 and native to eastern North America, trees grow slowly and will reach between 70 to 100 feet or more in height, often with as wide of a spread. The grayish bark, dark green summer and golden bronze autumn foliage is highly attractive. The nuts are very tasty, but are small and enclosed in a prickly burr. They produce irregularly, sometimes late. The burr splits into four parts when ripe, allowing the nuts to drop out.
Many species of oak trees (Quercus) have edible nuts. Some, like red oak (Q. rubra), are bitter tasting, while others, like white oak (Q. alba) and chestnut oak (Q. prinus), sometimes have sweet nuts. The bur oak (Q. macrocarpa) often bears chestnutlike-flavored nuts that improve with roasting.
There are many other nut tree types out there that may be perfect for your acreage. On top of nurturing your family with a delicious yearly nut crop, you can have years of great memories spent collecting harvests from these beautiful homestead fixtures.
Jesse Vernon Trail is an author, instructor, curriculum developer, horticulturist and amateur botanist in environment, ecology, sustainability, horticulture and the natural history of plants. His latest book Quiver Trees, Phantom Orchids and Rock Splitters: Remarkable Survival Strategies of Plants is available at www.ECWPress.com.