When we think of ‘home grown’, it is usually vegetables, or fruit, that most people think of. Yet there is a valuable food – nuts – that is often overlooked. Yet nut growing is certainly the easiest way to grow edible plants. No elaborate annual bed preparation, seeding and planting, as you do with a vegetable garden. You don’t have to followed detailed pruning methods, like you do for most fruit trees. Even harvesting is often easy, with some nut trees delivering them right to you on the ground. Despite what you might think, most nut trees begin to produce nuts within 4 or 5 years, so you don’t wait long, and then they will bear for 100 years.
Let’s look at some of the different options for nut growing and see how you can be enjoying these nutritious ‘super foods’ right from your own yard, instead of paying high store prices.
The Top Nut Trees
- Chinese Chestnut Tree – the top choice for growing delicious chestnuts in America. Hardy in zone 4.
- Southern Pecan Tree – the ideal tree in warmer southern states for the world’s best nut
- European Walnut Tree – a relative of the pecan, this is another great shade tree that will give you big crops of walnuts
- Hazelnut Bush – this nut-bearing shrub grow easily in cold areas, and it is a great choice for smaller gardens. Be sure to source suitable disease-resistant bushes for your region.
Chestnuts are the seed within the spiny fruit of the chestnut tree. These large, handsome shade trees grow almost everywhere in the country, but they are especially useful in colder areas, where other nut trees, like pecans for instance, won’t grow. There are different kinds of walnut trees all around the northern parts of the world, from Europe to North America, and in Asia too. Today you are more likely to see chestnuts being eaten in Italy or France, but once they were widely eaten in America. Trees of the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) grew throughout the forests, and it was considered the finest chestnut in the world. Disaster, in the form of a lethal disease called chestnut blight, destroyed around 3 billion trees in the early decades of the 20th century. Planting one today is pointless.
Although the Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) grows well in Europe, it too can become diseased in America. That doesn’t mean you can’t grow a chestnut tree – just choose instead the Chinese Chestnut, or the hybrid Dunstan Chestnut (a cross between the Chinese chestnut and a sole resistant American chestnut found in a forest in Ohio.) The Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollisima) produces abundant nuts, and within a few years of planting too. It grows into a beautiful shade tree, 40 feet or more tall and across, and for heavy crops it is best to have two trees within a couple of hundred feet of each other – why not persuade a neighbor to plant one too? Alternatively, plant a Dunstan Chestnut with your Chinese tree, they can pollinate each other, and you can compare the crops.
The great thing about chestnuts is that the fruit simply drops to the ground when ripe, and you just have to remove the nuts from the case, which has soft, green spines. They can be roasted on a barbecue or shelled and cooked in many recipes – including vegetarian and vegan dishes. They store well for months, and this is truly an easy nut tree to grow.
Nothing says ‘America’ like Pecan nuts, and these delicious nuts are top favorites for just eating, baking into delicious pies, or using in salads and savory dishes. While chestnuts are cold-hardy, thriving in cooler zones all the way down to zone 4, Pecan Trees are for warmer states, at least zone 6, because they need 200 frost-free days to ripen the nuts properly. (Of course, with global warming coming, planting now in zone 5, where the tree itself is hardy, will mean that in a decade or two they will ripen nicely, so you can be prepared.) The Pecan is another native American tree (Carya illinoinensis), and unlike the chestnut it has no significant diseases. It will in time become a large tree, as much as 75 feet tall, and becomes a majestic addition to a larger garden. It will begin to bear fruit within 3 or 4 years of planting, and it will have heavy crops by the time it is ten years old, so you won’t be waiting long. For the biggest crops it is best to have two trees near each other.
Pecans ripen in October, and, like chestnuts, they simply fall to the ground when ripe. All you have to do is pick them up. They store for several weeks in the fridge, or they will keep for months and months in a freezer. Simply shell and enjoy.
The European Walnut Tree, Juglans regia, is a relative of the Pecan, and it produces delicious and healthy nuts too. It is actually a native of Persia (modern Iran), and this fast-growing tree adds 12 inches of more each year, soon becoming a beautiful tree. They begin to produce nuts in 4 or 5 years, and trees are hardy in zone 5. It is important to avoid dryness in summer for good nut production, and like the Pecan the fruit just drops to the ground for harvesting. Trees will give the biggest crops with a pollinating partner, but even a single tree bears well, so a walnut is a great choice is you have room for only one large tree on your property.
Hazelnuts or Filberts
If your garden is too small for large trees like Pecans and Chestnuts, then consider growing hazelnuts. Right now, the Willamette Valley of Oregon produces 99% of the hazelnuts eaten in America, but the bush will grow all across the country, if you choose the right varieties for your area. The story of hazelnuts is a lot like the Chestnut story. European hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) is the best eating, but in the east it is attacked by a serious fungal disease, and it only grows in zones 7 and 8. This disease has now spread into the northwest as well. The American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is disease resistant but the nuts are smaller, and not as tasty. The solution? Hybridize the two together, which has produced many varieties that can today be grown almost anywhere, even in the cold states.
You can see that choosing the right variety for where you are is important, but after that, the rest is easy. Hazelnuts are usually grown as multi-stem bushes, which grow to about 8 feet tall, making harvesting easy. They can also be grown as a slightly taller single-stem tree, if you wish. They begin to bear nuts within 3 or 4 years, and their smaller size, and attractive rounded leaves, make them perfect for smaller gardens. Grow a row as an informal hedge along a property line, or around your vegetable garden. You do need to grow two different varieties to pollinate each other, but since the bushes are small this is not a problem.
What are You Waiting For?
Now you can see how easy it is to grow nut trees, it is time to start planting. Begin with a Chinese Chestnut or a Pecan tree, depending on where you live, and once you see how easy it is, you will soon be planting more nut trees!