Chestnuts: Growing the American Chestnut Tree

Wiped out by blight in the early 20th century, resistant hybrids of the American chestnut tree are making a comeback. Their rapid growth and productivity make them an excellent addition to any homestead.

  • Chestnuts 1
    Chestnuts are unique among nuts in that their nutmeat is high in carbohydrates rather than oil. The nuts are somewhat bland at harvest, but after a few days in the refrigerator, some of the starches change to flavorful sugars.
  • Chestnuts 2
    Prickly, formidable burrs protect chestnuts from hungry squirrels, but they can also make harvesting chestnuts a thorny task.
  • Chestnuts 3
    Chinese chestnut trees need little to no pruning to achieve their picturesque form.
  • American Chestnut tree
    A chestnut orchard at Delmarvelous Farms in Townsend, DE. Whether you're growing American chestnut trees or a related species, give each tree about 40 feet of space in all directions.
  • Chestnuts 4
    The unique, sweet flavor of roasted chestnuts is just one of the delights you can look forward to following each fall’s bumper crop of chestnuts.

  • Chestnuts 1
  • Chestnuts 2
  • Chestnuts 3
  • American Chestnut tree
  • Chestnuts 4

The majestic American chestnut tree was once common throughout the forests of eastern North America, providing sweet, meaty chestnuts for humans and wildlife. A fungus first noted in the United States in 1904 quickly wiped out this native species, but fortunately we can still grow our own chestnuts today because the American chestnut’s Chinese cousin is resistant to the blight that devastated the American species.

I planted my chestnut trees here in New Paltz, N.Y., in 1997. I had a relatively small area to devote to chestnuts, and, except for one tree, I chose grafted hybrid varieties that produce large nuts, are resistant to chestnut blight, and are cold-hardy (because the temperature here in New York’s Hudson Valley can plummet to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit). The varieties I planted were ‘Bisalta #3,’ ‘Colossal,’ ‘Eaton,’ ‘Marigoule’ and ‘Mossberg.’

Given suitable soil and site conditions, Chinese chestnuts and their hybrids grow quickly and start to bear at a young age — typically about their fourth year. My largest and quickest-to-bear tree, now 12 years old, was actually grown by planting a Chinese chestnut. The tree has both a height and spread of about 20 feet, and it yields more than half a bushel of chestnuts every season. It’s a beauty, as chestnut trees generally are, with nice form and leaves that retain a fresh glossiness before turning a rich, golden brown in autumn. Chestnut trees can be “luscious landscaping” for any yard, as long as they’re not planted where the sharp burrs that cover the nuts could cause problems when they drop.

Planning and Early Care

Chestnut trees need abundant sunlight (six or more hours of direct summer sun) and fertile, well-drained and slightly acidic soil. Generally, plan on giving a chestnut tree about 40 feet of room in all directions. If you’re in a rush for large harvests, plant at half that distance and remove every other tree when they start to crowd each other. You must plant two trees to provide the necessary cross-pollination, so, unless your neighbor has a tree that’s a seedling or is of a different variety, always plant two different varieties. Chestnuts are primarily wind-pollinated, so the two or more pollenizers need to be within about 200 feet of each other.

Chestnut trees require little care beyond their formative stage. While they’re young, ensure adequate branch spacing by training the trees to follow what’s known as the modified central leader form. This promotes growth of a single, upright main stem by pinching back, bending down, or cutting off any competitors for that top position. Select major scaffold limbs growing off the main stem, spacing them a foot or more apart up along the central leader. Scaffold limbs should originate from a spiral arrangement as much as possible so that no limb is directly above the one below it. Start the lowest scaffold limb high enough that you can mow under the tree. After the central leader reaches 6 to 8 feet in height, cut it back to a side branch to allow subsequent tree growth to spread wide. Chinese chestnut trees have naturally good form, so not much pruning is needed to get the growth described here.

Chestnut Blight

Chestnut blight, a fungus that originated in Asia, was first noted in the United States in 1904 at the New York Zoological Garden. Within 50 years, the disease had infected almost all American chestnut trees.

2/2/2020 9:20:31 AM

We live in central Tennessee and have a few 2-3 acre stands of mature oak trees. I want to start a stand of chestnut trees in an open area between the oak. It is about 200 yards between the oaks. What type of chestnut would be best and would I need to fence around them to keep deer from rubbing or eating tbe starter trees?

4/11/2019 10:05:16 PM

I have an American in my yard that’s been there for about 30 years, it produces about 5lbs of nuts yearly. Two years ago I got a seed to grow into a sapling and this past harvest I managed to get 13 seedlings started.

7/30/2018 3:14:39 PM

I have only one chestnut tree, did have 2 but one died and now the one I have is 5 years old and about 15 ft high but will not grow chestnuts, what am I doing wrong

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