Nuts are underrated as a food and as garden plants. After all, how many gardeners plant nuts? In the landscape, nut plants range from majestic trees to graceful shrubs. As a food, nuts are an excellent source of protein, heart-friendly fats, and all sorts of other nutritional goodies known and unknown. Did you ever see a fat or tired squirrel? (True, we wouldn’t see those couch potato squirrels as they lounged in their den.)
Right now, I am enjoying the fruits of my nutty labors. Some nuts -- most nuts that grow around here, in fact -- need to be cured before they taste their best. Hazelnuts, ready in September, were good as soon as harvested but even better after resting a couple of weeks. Chestnuts, likewise ready in September, were likewise pretty good immediately, but sweetened after a few weeks in storage. The hazelnuts grow on arching shrubs that could instead be trained to small trees. The chestnuts are picturesque, spreading trees. Both hazelnuts and chestnuts are fast-growing and begin to bear within 5 years or less after planting.
The improvement in flavor from curing is most dramatic when it comes to black walnuts and their kin. They were harvested (from the ground) in October and husked (a messy job). The sooner the fleshy husk is taken off, the less stained and better-flavored the nuts. No end of innovative ways have been devised for separating the husk from the shell, everything from spreading the harvested nuts on the ground and repeatedly driving over them to stomping on each nut to letting the weight of a small sledge loosen them and then twisting them off with gloved hands.
Our newest innovation is to roll the nuts against a serrated trowel (like one used for spreading tile glue) that’s mounted vertically in a slit in a piece of wood. The two halves of the husk twist off easily. Husked nuts are left outdoors in the sun a few days to dry and then moved to our loft area above the garage. The loft area is cool, airy, and -- very important -- squirrel-proof. The nuts are ready to crack and eat around the first of the year.
Black walnuts are, in my opinion, the best-tasting of the nutty lot. The trees grow wild throughout much of eastern U.S. Around here, the nuts rain down each October, free for the taking. This is one nut that I have not had to plant.
The downside to black walnuts is that they are a hard nut to crack. After years of banged thumbs from cracking black walnuts on a concrete floor with a hammer, I purchased the Master Nutcracker, which is elegantly designed, somewhat pricey, but very effective and worth every penny. (Cheaper but inferior Chinese versions are available; I recommend the real thing, available from www.MasterNutCracker.com.) Separating the nutmeats and picking them out from their cracked shells makes for a convivial accompaniment to after-dinner conversation in winter.
Butternuts, also native to eastern U.S., but not as widespread and currently threatened with a blight, need the same treatment as black walnut and are equally tough nuts to crack. I don’t bother with them because the trees, in contrast to black walnut, are hard to find. Their flavor also has less appeal.
Butternut has naturally and been deliberately hybridized with heartnut, a Japanese-type walnut, to yield what’s known as a buartnut. Many trees thought to be butternuts are actually buartnuts, such as the gigantic, spreading tree I “discovered” in nearby Rosendale, NY a couple of years ago. My young tree, only a few years old, is very fast growing and already shows inklings of future grandeur -- and nuts, in the form a few flowers last spring (that, unfortunately, failed to develop into nuts).
I did revisit the Rosendale buartnut in September and rushed to gather up as many nuts as I could ahead of squirrels, who were also working the tree. Those nuts are now cured. Heartnuts are known for their ease of cracking, a trait also borne out in the buartnut offspring. With the Master Nutcracker, the shells popped open to reveal whole nutmeats. The flavor was mild and a little dry, good for variety and ease of access but not nearly as tasty as black walnuts.
The nut menu needn’t end there. The season here in New York’s Hudson Valley is too short to ripen pecans, although the trees will survive. Enter hicans, hybrids of hickory and pecan with a shorter ripening season. I’ll report back in a few years. Hickories are a native nut that is delicious although small and hard to crack, and yields little nutmeat. Still, there are some named varieties that improve in all respects. I planted two and hope for some nuts to try within five years. I also have some young Persian walnut trees, the one nut among this bowl of nuts for which I am not hopeful. Persian walnuts blossom early, so the flowers often succumb to subsequent spring frosts, are susceptible to some serious diseases, and -- mine, at least -- are on the squirrel highway (beneath power lines).
Have I been mentioning squirrels? Ah, squirrels, once the bane of my nutty endeavors. In years past, these “tree rats,” as they are sometimes nonaffectionately referred to by gardeners, have stripped my hazelnut shrubs bare.
For now, I have the creatures under control. They won’t wander into the high grass that I purposely let rise up through the summer around the hazelnuts. Chestnut burrs are too spiny for them - until the nuts drop out, by which time I’ve gathered them up. My hickories and buartnuts have not yet begun to bear, but the trees are isolated so a temporary squirrel guard of a cylinder of sheet metal should keep the squirrels from climbing. And black walnuts? There are plenty for everyone. The squirrels and I gather all we want and I still see plenty left on the ground.
Lee Reich describes the weekly goings-on at his farmden (more than a garden, less than a farm) at www.LeeReich.Blogspot.com.