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Growing Organic Nuts

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Once upon a time, I planted three filbert bushes arranged in a triangle around a large rock on my property. Over about five or six years, they grew to 12 to 15 feet tall, and sent up many trunks from their roots, so that the bushes turned into a filbert—or hazelnut as some call them—grove. And they started to bear.

The first couple of years of their bearing, I waited patiently for them to ripen their tasty nuts, secured into their green herbaceous husks with the flared and filigreed openings. But when they should have been ripe, in October, I couldn’t find them at all. They’d disappeared from the tall shrubby bushes. And then I spotted the squirrel that had beaten me to my own filberts.

So I went in the house and got my .22 rifle and went to the filbert bushes. I didn’t see the squirrel, but figured he would be listening somewhere in the woods. In a loud voice, I announced, “Hey squirrel! See this rifle? If I catch you stealing all the filberts next year, I’m going to shoot you! You can take some, but not all. I mean it!”

The next October, my daughter, who was about seven years old at the time, and I went to the filberts, pushed our way into the thicket, and sat on the rock. We brought a basket to fill with nuts, but my daughter said there weren’t any. “They don’t show themselves right away,” I said. “You have to sit quietly and pretty soon, they’ll start showing themselves. It’s like the birds. They all fly away until you are quiet, then they return.”

So we sat quietly on the rock for about five minutes. Then she said, “I see one.” And then another, and another, until she saw that the filbert bushes were loaded with nuts, their husks the color of the senescing leaves, which had made them hard to see. We filled a big basket full with the nuts and took them back to the house, where we shucked the hard nuts from their husks and put them in the attic to cure. By Christmastime, we had nuts aplenty, nicely cured in their shells. They’d never needed sulfuring, spraying, fertilizing, or pruning. That’s the way it is with nut crops.

We also had a large black walnut tree near the house. These nuts are covered with a green husk that turns black and stains your hands for weeks if you get its juice on you. The question becomes, how do you get the husks off the nuts without staining yourself and you clothing? Our driveway wasn’t paved, and there were two shallow ruts. We gathered the walnuts and tossed them into the ruts. Every time we drove our car over them, we squished more husks off the hard nuts inside. After rains and dry spells, we could lift the nuts without staining our hands. They also required curing until the holidays.

Finally, we had a large hickory tree that rained its nuts in late September. The hard nuts were encased in segmented husks. These were easy to open to get the hard nuts inside. They too needed to cure until the holiday season. While the husks were easy to open, the nuts were hard to crack and the nutmeats hard to get out of the chambers and convolutions of the shell.

All three of these nut crops grew without help from us of any kind. Year after year they did their job of supplying us with delicious nuts. You can buy varieties of filberts, black walnuts, and hickory trees that produce nuts selected for easier picking and cracking, and easier to get the nutmeats from, than the wild types.

Learn more and see nut trees for sale at the Northern Nut Growers Association (www.nutgrowing.org), at Gurney’s Seed & Nursery (www.gurneys.com), and Miller’s Nurseries (www.millernurseries.com) and click the “Figs and Nuts” tab. Hickories don’t grow west of the Rockies, but black walnuts and filberts do fine.