This is the second of a two part post discussing a presentation at his year’s NOFA New York conference. If you missed part one, check it out. In this post we will move onto chestnuts. Once again, thanks to Akiva Silver, owner of Twisted Tree Nursery, and Brian Caldwell of Cornell for all the practical information.
Chestnuts were once the dominant hardwood tree species in Eastern America. On average they made up a quarter of temperate forests, and their huge size, high quality wood, and prolific nut production made them a valuable source of both timber and food. But indiscriminate logging and the introduction of chestnut blight destroyed almost all of these trees. Luckily, Asian chestnut varieties are resistant to blight, and they produce the same delicious nuts as their American counterparts. Since American chestnuts are more cold hardy, crossing the two creates a tree that is robust, disease resistant, and able to be planted all the way into climate zone 4.
Once established chestnuts will crop well with minimal care, so they are a great choice for permaculture setups or for anyone who is just looking to easily grow more of their own food. Because they flower in late June or early July, they are not susceptible to the frost damage that can burn the blossoms of apples and other fruit trees. Further, chestnuts don’t have much of a tendency to alternate bearing - they should produce roughly the same crop year in and year out. The nuts are high in starch, making them a wonderful alternative to grains, particularly since dried chestnuts can be turned into exceptionally delicious flour.
Unless you specifically seek out varieties selected for timber production, these won’t be the towering, 100 foot monsters that previously populated American forests. But they will still mature into full size trees, 30-50 feet tall and wide, so think carefully when establishing a chestnut planting. Make sure you get stock from a reputable nursery that is selecting for blight resistance, vigor, and productivity. Trees live a long time, and spending a few extra dollars for quality at the outset will pay dividends for decades.
Rodents, deer, and hungry neighbors will scavenge the fallen nuts, so harvest them promptly once they start dropping if you want a good yield. Weevils are a more insidious problem. Adults lay eggs on chestnuts, which hatch into larvae, which in turn feed on the nut. They then enter the ground beneath the tree for an extended period, sometimes as long as three years, before emerging in August as adults to lay eggs on the burrs, thus continuing the cycle. Disrupting this pattern is another reason to harvest thoroughly and quickly. If weevils are a chronic issue, placing harvested nuts in 120 degree water for 20 minutes will destroy any eggs or larvae they contain without hurting eating quality or viability as seed.
Chestnuts fall to the ground when ripe. It’s easy enough to harvest them by hand, but a nut rake, nut wizard, or other picking tool will save both time and your back. They have a spiky husk that they easily slip out of, but removing the glossy brown shell is a bit trickier. The classic preparation is to cut a slit or an ‘X’ in each chestnut and then to roast them on a stovetop or in the oven. This gives them a caramel flavor, and it should make the shell easy to peel away by hand. Another option is to dehydrate them, after which a nut cracker can separate the dried kernels.
If you’ve ever had the frustration of shelling a chestnut, only to find that the thin, tannic skin called the pellicle is fused to the nut, you have another good reason to grow your own. Commercial chestnuts are often from European trees, and the nuts these produce have exceptionally clingy pellicles. This is much less of a problem with Asian and hybrid trees.
Chestnuts are delicious on their own, but they are also a great addition to stuffing or hash. Dehydrated nuts can be added to stews or cooked into porridge, or they can be milled into flour in a home grain mill. (If the mill’s hopper has too small a hole for the chunks of chestnut to fit through you will need to coarsely crush them first. This can be done by hitting them with a hammer, a rock, or any other crusher you’re clever enough to devise.) Fresh chestnuts will keep for two or three months in the crisper section of a fridge. Dehydrated nuts and flour can last almost indefinitely if kept dry.
Tips for planting Chestnuts
1. Chestnuts are fine with considerably more acidic soils than hazels, but if your ph is extremely low you should amend it to at least 5.5.
2. Aim for trees spaced at about 40 feet on center. You can plant more densely and thin as the trees grow, saving the most productive, but leave room for them to fully mature.
3. New plantings of chestnuts are even more sensitive to waterlogging than hazelnuts, so making a mound or berm in which to plant them will greatly increase their odds of surviving.
4. Use fencing to prevent deer from nibbling on young trees, and in the winter protect their trunks with rodent guards to stop mice and voles from girdling them.
5. Plant at least two chestnut trees, since they do not self pollinate.
6. Expect to wait about five years for your first harvest of nuts, and about twelve for close to full production.
Winter may seem like a strange time to think about planting anything, but it is actually the best time to start planning where to put chestnuts and hazelnuts. Trees can live longer than people, and if they are planted in a good location they can improve the land for generations, so take the time to be certain you are putting them in the right place. Really think about what it will be like when they are fully mature and productive. Research nurseries whose stock is suited to your climate. Take a soil test if you haven’t before. There is time an expense in establishing chestnuts and hazelnuts, but once they have set their roots they will yield a bounty of food for both people and wildlife for decades to come.
Photo Credit - Akiva Silver
Garth Brown is an owner of Cairncrest Farm. He sells 100% grass-fed beef and lamb as well as pastured pork and poultry to Long Island, Brooklyn, and the greater New York City area. You can read more of his writing on his farm’s blog.
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