Cooking From the Garden: Nut Trees

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


Cooking From the Garden: Nut Trees

You want to grow your own food, but you don’t have the time or energy to take on all the work a seasonal, annual vegetable garden requires.

Maybe, you want to build a more environmentally friendly garden with seasonal shade to reduce energy costs, piles of leaves for your compost bin, native plants, and some wood trimmings for your fireplace.  If this sounds like you, nut trees may be the perfect addition to your garden.

Nuts – some are technically called “drupes” – are some of the most nutrient dense food crops available. Most are rich in beneficial oils and high in protein. Plus, they tend to be relatively low in carbohydrates.  And, once planted, these leaf-shedding, shade-giving, woody, perennial crops can usually outlive the person who planted them.

North American gardeners can choose from a number of native and non-native nut trees for their gardens. Consider these options:

Cooking From the Garden Nut Trees-shelling-walnuts

Walnuts: The delicious Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) comes from a tree native to North America. While its nuts are delicious, they can be incredibly difficult to crack. Instead, many gardeners opt to grow English Walnut (Juglans regia) trees instead. Their large, dissected leaves offer fantastic shade, and the nuts are probably more familiar to home cooks. Both varieties of the Walnut tree grow quite large, can perform in many North American locations, but also they are allelopathic – meaning they put off chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants nearby. So, if you’re planning on the beautifully wooded Walnut, plan to give it lots of room all to itself.

Almonds: Although Almonds are not native to North America, they do grow well in many areas. Almond trees, like their close relatives peaches and apricots, can be relatively smaller nut trees. But some do grow quite large. Your garden will need to have a regular population of honeybees to pollinate them, or your almond nuts may never form.

Chestnuts: The American Chestnut (Castanea dentate) isn’t found in the wild as readily as it was in days gone by, but these large, beautiful trees are still a gorgeous option for the right location.   Remember that the delicious parts are encased in prickly outer casings that will litter the ground beneath the tree, so tread lightly in bare feet under its canopy.  If food is your goal, be sure not to plant a Buckeye or Horse Chestnut (Aesculus species), which are often confused with the true edible Chestnut and won’t provide the forage you seek.

Hazelnuts: There are several varieties of Hazelnuts for home gardens. In my own garden, the native North American Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) pops up everywhere thanks to the care of gardening squirrels. This plant tends to take a suckering shrubby form more often than a stately tree form. If you do decide to grow one, plan for a small tree/large shrub location, and keep your Fiskars pruners and handsaw handy to remove suckers regularly. Fortunately, the nuts are edible. Unfortunately, the squirrels tend to harvest them in summer before I do.
**Note: Hazelnuts are often confused with flowering WitchHazels (Hamamelis species), which do not produce edible nuts.

Cooking From the Garden Nut Trees-shelling-pruning

Pecan: Growing up in the south meant my Aunt Betty’s pecan pie on every holiday table, probably because this tree grows well in that part of the world. This North American native will live for many years and produce well – so long as you have a few of them for cross-pollination. Where you garden may dictate how well (or poorly) your nut tree will grow, so be sure to check with your local nursery or tree farm to pick just the right one for your location.

Cooking From the Garden Nut Trees-mixed-green-salad-toasted-hazelnuts

There are many ways to add nuts to your diet. If you have allergies or digestive issues or any other concerns, check with your doctor first. Remember that once nuts are removed from their shell, their shelf life diminishes rapidly. Soon they can become stale, rancid and bitter. Storing shelled nuts in the freezer can help extend how long they taste good. Also, know that if you choose to cook or roast your nuts, some of their beneficial Omega-3 oils may convert to Omega-6 oils as they are heated.  In our house, that’s why we usually opt to crack nuts fresh from the shell to enjoy while they are raw, snappy, sweet and filled with loads of beneficial nutrients.  On occasion, we will lightly toast and chop a few hazelnuts to sprinkle on a simple green salad with vinaigrette dressing.

Of course, I wouldn’t turn down a chocolate chip cookie with walnuts or a slice of my Aunt Betty’s pecan pie either!