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The Heart of New England
Growing Nuts in New England
by Jeanne Sable

At our house, cracking nuts is
as much a part of preparing
a holiday feast as stuffing the turkey.
In fact, walnuts, pecans, or pine nuts are often added to the stuffing.

We're nuts about nuts.

One November I happened to be visiting my parents in Florida during the peak
of a robust pecan season. On windy days, hundreds of pecans would rain
down, pelting cars and unfortunate bystanders. We collected as many as we
could to cram into our luggage.  

Wild nuts are a rare treat to us northerners. But I soon learned there are several
varieties that can actually be grown here in northern New England.

While I can think of several wild nuts growing hereabouts in the Monadnock
Region of New Hampshire where I live, few are worth the bother of harvesting.
Mother Nature wraps the delicious walnuts of the
Butternut tree in goose egg-
sized outer packages covered with sticky green fuzz. Under that, the shell is so
hard, it takes a hammer to crack it open, inevitably smashing a good deal of the
edible meat to a pulp.

The more common native
beech tree often produces a bounty of small,
triangular twin nuts encased in a spiny, four-sided husk shaped like a tulip. But
they are too small and difficult to extract for all but the most dexterous human.
And the once common American chestnut was all but wiped out here by a
blight introduced from Asia in the late 1800's.

When I first purchased my property over 20 years ago, a visitor made a point of
tossing several handfuls of chestnuts around the woods in hopes they'd
propagate. I thought he was, well, nuts. Chestnuts were doomed around here, I
believed. Besides, who would live long enough to see the results if they
survived?

A few years later, I covered a story about a local permaculture community
(short for permanent agriculture—a system emphasizing energy conservation
and sustainable living).  At the time, they were nursing some recently planted
nut tree seedlings. I figured they were for the benefit of future generations and
left it at that.

A short decade later, I toured the facility and was surprised to see a dish of
plump, sweet
chestnuts offered for sampling along with several heirloom
varieties of apples from the orchard. Yes—the trees were producing. Nuts! I
could have been harvesting my own by then,  if I'd planted back when he did!

The fact is, you can grow nut trees around here, and they don't take a lifetime
to produce. In addition, you can experiment with varieties developed for size,
ease of cracking, and other desirable traits.  Check out catalogs from hardy
northern nurseries like
Fedco Seeds of  Maine  or surf The Northern Nut
Growers Association.

The permaculture community I visited grew various blight-free Asian
chestnuts, hazelnuts, and hazelnut/filbert crosses, as well as assorted members
of the walnut/butternut family. They also had some American chestnut trees
which weren't  blighted yet, though they anticipated they would be in time.

The chestnut grove was inter-planted with black locust, a nitrogen-fixing plant,
autumn olive, a fragrant (but now invasive) shrub with small red berries, and
other "nurse plants" for compatibility. The trees aren't as cold-hardy as one
would hope, but can be painted with white latex to reflect sunlight and
encourage early dormancy. That prevents their sap from freezing and bursting
the tree trunk.

The group also experimented with grafting for improved stock. The trees were
planted close together, to be thinned later to the hardiest plants. When they
reached  20 feet high and eight or more inches in diameter, the owner was faced
with the problem of which trees to thin out, a dilemma to which most gardeners
can relate.

Hazelnuts grow easily from seed, are inexpensive, and produce in three to four
years. The ones I saw were a cross between the North American hazelnut and
filbert. The filbert side of the family boosts size, while the hazelnut contributes
cold-hardiness. They send up numerous shoots which can be divided to start
new shrubs.

Though the squirrels make off with most of the nuts, humans can remedy that
by hiding a plastic tube, pipe, or other receptacle in a spot rodents will find
handy for storing nuts. Soon the unsuspecting critters fill the tube with the
cultivated nuts, which the grower can then reclaim (rob?).

So don't let squirrels, chipmunks, or misconceptions about time bar you from
growing nuts.  In  several years you could be serving up tasty home grown nuts
for the holidays, and saving their decorative shells for craft projects.

There. Now perhaps I’ll practice what I preach and start those nut trees I’ve
been meaning to plant.

About the Author: Jeanne Prevett Sable is an organic gardener, editor, and freelance
writer specializing in farming and environmental issues, with hundreds of articles
published in local, regional, and national publications. She has written environmental
scripts for children's television, live puppet theater, and the Web. She is also the author of
Seed Keepers of Crescentville, her first novel.
The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
You can grow nuts in New England
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