The right nuts for the right climate
This is the first in a two-part article.
Growing nuts was once nearly as common as growing vegetables and fruits. Backyards and farms across Pennsylvania hosted trees bearing walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts and others. But today, it's difficult to find a gardener growing these crops on purpose. In fact, many gardeners remove these nut-bearing treasures, touting them as messy or, in the case of walnuts, difficult to grow around (this is due to a toxic compound exuded by the walnut tree's roots). But, as you plan for the coming gardening season, consider including a few nut trees in your plans. Order them now and your shipment of bare-root trees will arrive at the ideal time for spring planting.
Much like a homegrown tomato, store-bought nuts just aren't the same. Many of them are imported and grown using large amounts of pesticides. Growing your own means more delicious, nutritious goodies for you and family. Many nut trees are easy to grow and inexpensive to purchase, and they'll continue to bear for generations to come.
Though you won't be able to grow almonds, pecans, Brazil or macadamia nuts here in Western Pennsylvania, there are plenty of delicious, hardy, nut trees that are perfectly suited to our climate. And, now that many of these trees are grown via vegetative propagation versus being started from seed, you won't have to wait 10 years to get your first harvest. Yes, the squirrels and chipmunks may force you to share, but overall these trees are fun and easy to grow.
To grow nuts, you'll need a site that receives at least eight hours of full sun per day. There is no need to amend the planting area because most nuts grow easily in average soil. What you will need, however, is plenty of space. Some nut trees can reach 60 feet in height and girth, though not all do.
Growing nuts is fairly simple, but harvesting them can be a challenge. Large-scale growers use “shakers” to knock the nuts off the trees, but you'll have better luck simply picking up the fallen nuts as they come off the tree. With the exception of the chestnuts, which should be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator, all nuts are best dried in their shells.
To dry nuts, spread them out in a single layer on a screen in a cool, dry place. Allow the nuts to dry for several weeks. When they are dry, you can hear them rattle around inside the shell when you shake it. At that point, it is time to crack them open and enjoy their homegrown flavor — or store them in airtight containers in the freezer.
In next Saturday's column, I'll discuss several of the best nuts to grow in our area and offer you some sources for purchasing the trees.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.
Send your gardening or landscaping questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.