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Nut Trees

All About Growing Nut Trees

Many people will focus on fruit trees when choosing productive trees for their projects. But nut trees suitable for growing in your area are not something that should be overlooked. 

When we talk about nut trees we are talking about trees that produce a crop of fruits which consist of a hard or tough nutshell protecting an edible kernel. Botanically speaking, only those that are indehiscent, in which the shell does not open to release the seed, are nuts. But in common parlance, we refer to a variety of dry seeds or other edible hard kernels as nuts. 

Hazelnuts, chestnuts and acorns are all examples of true botanical nuts, which originated from a compound ovary. But almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and Brazil nuts are not botanically nuts, even though we commonly refer to them in this way. 

We'll stick to the broader, colloquial sense of 'nut' when talking about nut trees for the rest of this guide. 

Why Grow Nut Trees on Your Property?

Growing nuts can be a great idea for many gardeners and commercial growers. Growing trees of any kind is often a wonderful way to sequester more carbon, create shade, manage water, improve the soil, boost biodiversity by attracting a wide range of beneficial wildlife, and more. 

Of course, in addition to providing the benefits of trees in general, nut trees also deliver yields of nuts that can be important as potential perennial staple crops. Nuts are energy-dense and nutrient rich food sources, and are often important sources of protein and carbohydrates. 

And nut trees can also provide a range of other yields in addition to their edible harvest, and these other yields can also be well worthwhile considering. We'll explore some of these in a little more detail below. 

Growing Systems to Consider

Before you start to think about which nut trees you might be able to grow successfully where you live, it is important to think a little about the growing systems in which nut trees of various kinds might be incorporated. 

Of course, you might grow a nut tree or two in a garden. But it can be beneficial to think about these trees not just in isolation but in a broader context. 

For example, you might create a forest garden – either one on a very small scale in a domestic garden, or one at larger scale on a farm or other larger property. 

Nut trees can also be useful tree species to integrate into another agroforestry scheme – growing them between alleys of arable crops in a silvo-arable system, or integrate them into a silvo-pasture scheme with livestock moving below and between the trees. 

Native nut trees might also be utilised in a rewilding scheme, to reforest areas that have become degraded and to replace native ecological function. 

Choosing Nut Trees

Once you have decided on a broader strategy appropriate to your site, and done some work to determine the direction of the overall design, it is time to delve deeper and consider which nut tree or nut trees might be best for your project. 

When choosing nut trees, you need to consider:

  • Your climate, micro-climate and soil. 
  • Your specific needs and which species can meet those needs. 
  • How much space is available. 
  • Whether the nut tree you are considering needs a pollination partner(s) or is self-fertile. 
  • How long nut trees take to produce nuts. 
  • Which other plants grow, or you plan to grow, close by. 

Nut Trees for Different Climates and Conditions

Of course, the first thing to consider is which nut trees will grow well in your climate zone, and on the particular site with its specifics of micro-climate and soil. 

One of the important things to think about is the temperatures at which the trees you are considering will bear well. You should also think about the water and nutrient needs of various options. 

Looking at nut trees that are native to your region is often a good place to begin. 

Where I live, here in eastern Scotland, Corylus avellana (European hazelnut), Quercus ssp. (acorns) and perhaps (though its native status is in question), Fagus sylvatica (beech masts/ nuts) are the only native edible nut species. The first of these is most useful as an edible crop. 

In other regions, of course, there may be many more options. 

For example, in North America, large regions can choose from a range of native North American nut trees including Juglans ssp. (walnuts, butternuts), Corylus americana (American hazelnuts), Castanea dentata (American chestnuts) – functionally extinct in the wild but kept through hybridizing and back-crossing, Castanea pumila (chinquapin), Carya ssp (hickory, pecans), Staphylea trifolia (American bladder nut) as well as native oaks and beech and pine nuts...

And the Mediterranean region of Europe and Southwest Asia is the point of origin for commonly consumed nut species such as almonds, Juglans regia walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, etc..

In warmer climate  regions,, Brazil nuts, cashews, (Neotropics), macadamia nuts (Australia) pistachio (arid central Asia) and coconuts (originating in S.E. Asia) are some important nut trees to consider. 

Once you have looked at native nut species in your area, you might then, if suitable options don't present themselves, go on to look at non-native nut trees that can thrive in the conditions where you live. For example, Mediterranean climate regions elsewhere can have great success in growing Mediterranean origin nuts – (California produces more almonds now than anywhere else in the world). 

Uses for Nuts and Other Yields from Nut Tree Species

It is of course important to think in a little more detail about precisely how the nuts from different trees are used, and also to consider the other yields that might potentially be obtained from nut tree species. 

To provide an example, let's take a look at hazel. Hazelnuts can be eaten raw or roasted, they can be used to make a nut milk, or ground for use in breads and baking. These nuts also yield an oil that can be used in salad dressings, baking etc... This nut provides around 16g of protein and 650 calories per 100g. 

The non-drying oil can also be used in paints, cosmetics etc. The whole nut can be used to polish and oil wood. 

Hazel trees work well in taller hedgerows or as part of a coppicing system, as well as being used as relatively small, stand-alone trees (Though self-fertile, they tend to crop better if there is another close by). They are wonderful for attracting wildlife to a site. 

They can also provide other yields. For example, the wood is beautiful and used in a range of small woodworking projects, and can also yield a good quality artists' charcoal. The bark and leaves of the tree are also a source of tannin. 

By looking at different nut trees in this way, and thinking about them in relation to the whole of a design scheme and your needs, you can begin to hone in on the species that are best to meet them. 

Nut Trees for Smaller and Larger Spaces

Naturally, which nut trees you are potentially able to grow won't just depend on the growing conditions where you live but also how much space you have available. Some nut trees, like hazel, remain relatively small and can be maintained within a smaller area. But others, like Juglans regia, or pecans, for example, can  grow up to 35-40m tall. 

In some cases, with almonds, for example, trees can be grafted to create trees of a greater or smaller size. 

It is important to think about whether a particular tree is suitable for the space you have available. And also to consider the spread of the canopy,  how much shade this will generate in the surrounding area, and whether or not this shade will be beneficial in a particular location and situation. 

Self-Fertile Nut Trees

If you only have space for a single nut tree in your garden then it will be important to choose a self-fertile or self-pollinating variety, since those that are not self-fertile will not produce nuts without a pollination partner close by. 

It is important to check whether the nut tree you are considering requires a pollination partner, will do better with a pollination partner, or will bear well on its own before you make your decisions. 

Some self-fertile nut trees are:

  • Beech
  • Buartnuts (hybrids of butternut and heartnut)
  • Hican (hybrids of hickory and pecan)
  • Pecan (wind pollinated). 

There are also some more reliably self-pollinating varieties of other nuts too. But it is important to check since even when they are largely self-fertile, many produce better yields with a pollination partner close by. 

Time To Harvest for Nut Trees

Another very important thing to consider when making your plans and choosing nut trees is how long it will take before you can obtain a yield of nuts from your trees. 

You can expect a first hazelnut harvest around 3-4 years after planting, or after around 8-9 years if you grow the tree from seed. 

However, some nuts will take much longer to bear. One extreme example is the nut of the monkey- puzzle tree – Araucaria araucana, which can take 40-50 years before the edible nuts are produced. 

Make sure that you understand that nut trees are not always an investment that will pay off quickly. They are often an investment for the longer term, and it is important to factor this into your plans. 

This is why it can be a good idea to incorporate nut trees into agroforestry schemes, since it allows you to obtain other yields from an area of land more quickly while the nut trees mature to the point where they produce a good harvest. 

Considering Allelopathy (Walnuts)

There are numerous things to think about when you consider planting plans, of course. But with certain nut trees (walnuts for example) one further thing to think about is allelopathy, which will dictate which other plants can be grown close by. 

Walnut trees give off a chemical known as juglone, which can negatively impact the growth of certain other plants grown close by. This means that guild plants and companions have to be chosen carefully to ensure a healthy system. 

Planting Nut Trees

Once you have decided on a plan for your property, and chosen your nut trees, you can purchase certain nut trees as pot-grown specimens, as bare-root plants (typically the cheapest and best option) or grow them from seed, of course, though this will take a lot, lot longer. 

Bare root and pot-grown trees are planted in the same way that you would plant any new tree on your property. First, prepare your area, making sure that you are providing the right growing conditions for the specific tree you have decided to grow. 

Dig your planting hole, deep enough to accommodate the root ball and around three times as wide. Place the tree in the hole, and, making sure that it is upright and in the desired orientation, firm the soil gently back around the roots. Water it in well, and add an organic mulch around it, but make sure that the mulch does not pile up around the trunk. 

Nut Tree Guilds

It can be beneficial, at the same time, to consider which plants you will place within a guild around a nut tree. Guild planting is a key feature in permaculture gardens and a building block in forest garden design. A guild is a group of plants specifically chosen to work well alongside the nut tree in question, without overly increasing competition, and to aid or benefit the nut tree in some way. 

Nut Tree Care

Of course, you will also need to think about elements of a nut tree's care. The care required will of course depend on which nut trees you are growing and where. But key elements of care to think about include:

  • Appropriate placement and companion planting
  • Watering/ Irrigation
  • Feeding
  • Pruning
  • Pest and disease vigilance and organic control. 
  • Harvesting (at the right time and in the right way). 

As long as you consider each of these elements of care, you should be able to successfully grow your nut trees, whichever trees you have chosen and wherever you live. And you should be able to obtain a yield from those trees for many years to come.