A good way to add diversity to your garden and your diet is to grow nuts, and hazelnuts, also known as filberts, would probably be your first choice. In the spring of 2007 I planted hazelnut trees on the north border of my garden. Last fall, a short four years later, I began to harvest the nuts. Not all the trees were bearing, but enough were so that I could enjoy a nice harvest and work out the details of what to do with them. I have seventeen trees, each planted 4 feet apart. The nuts grow in clusters on the trees, as shown in the photo. It was exciting to watch them develop over the summer. I had heard that squirrels often take them, so I watched carefully into September. I didn’t want them to fall to the ground because I was afraid I would lose them. As the clusters dried on the tree, I pulled them off. If they needed further drying I put them in the solar dryers. The harvest began October 9. At first I stored them in baskets in a cool room in the house. Having them in clusters insured that there would be some air circulation. Eventually I got around to threshing them out of the clusters by putting them in a pillowcase and hitting it with a stick. I use that same procedure to separate dried beans from their hulls. After threshing I stored some hazelnuts in a crock-type “cookie jar” in my pantry. The rest were put into a pillowcase and hung in the barn to keep safe from mice.
In The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe writes of collecting nuts in her community many years ago and cautioned about getting them up as soon as they fall. If left on the ground for any length of time, worms would get in them. There were nut trees everywhere and most were going to waste because the residents had lost the knowledge of how to manage them. Living in a small apartment at the time, Deppe was able to harvest 200 pounds of hazelnuts from the European hazelnut trees in her Oregon neighborhood. Just goes to show you that even if you don’t have a garden, you can still harvest food by gleaning the neighborhood, with permission, of course. She stored them in mesh bags that she hung in her apartment.
The nuts still need to be shelled before eating. My hazelnuts are smaller than the European hazelnuts that you will find in the health food store. In fact, they were too small to use with a regular nut cracker, so I resorted to using a hammer to crack them open. That worked, but often I hit too hard and also smashed the nutmeat. My solution was to use vice-grips (locking pliers). I could set the screw on the end of the handle so that the pliers would close to just the right space, cracking the shell but not the nutmeat. From the photo you can see that some nuts are much larger than others. There were anywhere from 2-9 nuts in a cluster. The largest nuts were in the clusters containing two to five nuts.
The hazelnuts that I have planted are Corylus americana, which are native to the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada. Commercial production uses European varieties, which have larger nuts. The advantage of C. americana is that it is resistant to eastern filbert blight, which until recent years has kept the susceptible European varieties confined to western U.S. Now, however, the blight might be found everywhere. In response, resistant European varieties have been developed for the commercial trade. I planted for a hedgerow border so they were closely spaced. Trees can be set out alone or as in an orchard, but you need at least two for pollination.
Hazelnuts are a great addition to a permaculture garden. If you are not planting American hazelnuts, make sure you get a disease-resistant variety. If you want to put in a hedgerow, like I did, try to find a source with quantity discounts. You will find more information about hazelnuts at Homeplace Earth, specifically how they grow and how to propagate them. Good luck with your planting!