Friday 15 December 2017

Is growing nut trees all it's cracked up to be?

By Andrew Collyer - Practical Gardening

Sweet chestnuts
Sweet chestnuts

Take a walk and enjoy kicking through some autumn leaves

Schizostylis coccinea 'Major'

When it comes to growing food sources in the garden the humble nut tree is all but forgotten. The reason I couldn't tell you, maybe they are just not well liked, maybe they are so late in the year they are just forgotten. In this era of so called 'foraging' for food perhaps they will become more popular, I'd like to think so.

In my childhood the nut in its many guises was always a frequent welcomed visitor to the house. This was not just a Christmas appearance of mixed varieties in a large bowl next to the always untouched packet of 'eat me 'dates'. They could arrive at any time and usually, and unusually, supplied by my father who was not what you would describe as domesticated. His two contibutions to feeding the family, other than as a provider, would be 'do you want a nut' or 'do you want a cough sweet'. As my children would say parents are strange.

The history of nuts and my family goes back further still to my grandfather and his walnut tree. It grew at the bottom of his garden for as long as I can remember and on occasion of a visit to him it was always the first topic of conversation after ' when are you going'. My grandfather died some twenty years ago come December and the following spring the always health walnut tree just failed to come into leaf and died. There were however seedlings that sprouted up presumably from forgotten squirrel buried hoards. Two of these seedlings are now fruiting trees in my own garden which is a rather nice reminder of my grandfather.

There are really only three types of fruiting nut trees that do well in Ireland. The hazel nut [Corylus avellana], the sweet chestnut [ Castanea sativa] and the afore mentioned walnut [Juglans regia]. While all of these nuts will store very well the greatest pleasure of growing your own is being able to eat them fresh or what is know as wet. It is near impossible to buy fresh nuts which is a shame because they are a completely different proposition in that state.

Hazel nuts are the easiest to grow and they can be found native to woodland and hedgerows across the country for those who like to forage. The hazel nut is also grown under the names cobnut and filbert which tends to refer to cultivated varieties that are available. If you are intending to grow them in the garden these are the best choice for planting as they fruit larger nuts and in greater profusion. While hazel has both male and female flowers on the same plant, pollination can be sporadic so it is best to plant two varieties to ensure a good harvest. Varieties available include Kentish cob, Cosfords cob and Butler. Plant in good soil in sun or partial shade. Hazel makes a multstemed large shrubs of up to four metres high.

Sweet chestnuts are large trees of up to ten metres but varieties like 'Marron De Lyon' and 'Marigoule' tend to be more compact at around six metres. More importantly they start to produce nuts on young trees, between two and four years and are self fertile. Sweet chestnuts should not be confused with the Horse chestnuts [Aesculus hippocastanum] aka conkers which are somewhat toxic. Although not native the sweet chestnut has become naturalised in our countryside since Roman times. Plant sweet chestnuts in good deep fertile soil preferably in full sun for the best fruiting results. What better Christmas treat than toasting home grown chestnuts in front of a blazing fire.

Walnuts also make large trees although quite slowly. The named varieties 'Buccaner' and 'Broadview' are suitable for smaller gardens as they are ultimately more compact and also early in producing nuts. Walnuts really do need as much sun and shelter as you can give them to excel in fruiting but will make a lovely tree despite this. They will self pollinate as they bear male and female flowers at the same time but with single plants polination can be erratic as the cross over flowering period is not always aligned exactly. Two would be better than one if space allows. Walnuts produce a growth inhibitor called juglone that impeds growth beneath the plant, grass usually copes however.

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