Some nut trees are best for the East
In last Saturday's column, I discussed the benefits of growing nut trees, and how to plant and harvest them. Today, I'd like to tell you more about some of the best nuts to grow here in the East.
Chestnuts — Before chestnut blight came along and just about wiped out this important tree, chestnuts were a food staple for many animals, as well as humans. Today, the American chestnut is being rebred by backcrossing it with blight-resistant Asian species. But until the ideal new American chestnut has been bred, consider planting one of the many cultivars of Chinese or Japanese chestnuts that grow well here. Depending on the variety, Asian chestnuts can reach 40 feet tall and bear hundreds of delicious nuts. Purchasing a grafted tree means that they'll start fruiting as early as the second year. You'll need two varieties, though, to ensure the necessary cross-pollination takes place. A few words of caution about chestnuts: the flowers are very smelly (and not in a pleasant way) and the nut husks are prickly and need to be removed at harvest time. You'll know chestnuts are ready for harvest when this husk splits open. The taste of roasted chestnuts, though, is well worth it.
Hazelnuts — My dad grew hazelnuts in our suburban backyard when I was a kid and I always thought they were so interesting. Also called filberts, hazelnuts are amongst the easiest nuts to grow. They need a good, cold winter in order to flower and produce nuts, and you'll need two varieties to provide proper pollination. A good nut nursery can tell you which varieties are compatible for pollination. As a fungal blight can be problematic, be sure to look for blight-resistant hybrids when planting hazelnuts. Hazelnut varieties grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks are great for even small backyards, as they'll only reach 3 to 5 feet in height, while standard cultivars can grow as tall as 30 feet. Multistemmed, shrub-types are another good option for smaller yards. They'll begin to produce in just two to three years.
Hickory nuts — Shagbark and shell bark hickories are beautiful, native trees that bear a gazillion nuts. But, they can take many, many years to produce them. The trees are slow-growing and cold-hardy. The nuts are very sweet and encased in a hard shell, and two varieties are necessary for pollination. If you are lucky enough to have one of these trees on your property, harvest some of the fallen nuts. They're delicious.
Walnuts — Yes, I know you can't grow a vegetable garden near a walnut tree. In fact, there are few plants that will grow in their root zone. Still, walnuts are a terrific crop, worthy of more positive attention than they get. Black walnuts are Eastern natives that require long winters and cross-pollination. These trees can grow 100 feet tall and live for hundreds of years. The husks of walnuts stain hands during harvests, so be sure to wear gloves (I remember my grandmother's stained hands working to crack apart the husks on her back porch). New, blight-resistant walnuts mean larger nuts than native types and better production. Seek out these newer cultivars for easier and better harvests.
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.