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Almonds & Hickories: A Tale of Two Nuts

Question. We planted almond trees three years ago; we have no previous experience growing them. (They look sort of like peaches.) One bore fruit this year and I was told to wait until the fruits fell to the ground, turned brown and split apart before trying to claim the prize of the almond inside. But the squirrels licked their choppers and got to them before any split apart. I didn't even get one little almond. What do I do next year?

    ---William in Bell County, Texas

Answer. You picked a tough nut for Texas, Bill. In a Southern Living gardening guide I often consult when staggering this far outside of my native Northern range, their entry begins: "In most parts of the South, growing almonds is no joy." Although there are selections bred for Oklahoma, Texas and Southwest Missouri, virtually all commercially grown almonds come from Southern California.

That's because those sunny SCAers have the perfect climate for reliable nuttiness: A long, hot summer, few to no freezing temps in winter, and mild Springs. That last part is crucial; any kind of late cold weather surprise in Spring generally ruins your chances of an almond harvest that year. That's why folks who don't hug the lower left hand coast should select late-blooming varieties and plant them in the most frost-resistant locations on their property.

Most sources also say that you should treat them like peach trees (to which they are closely related; good eye there, Bill!) to get good nuts. That means pruning the trees every year in late winter/early Spring; and thinning the young fruits to eight inches or so apart after they appear. I can assure you personally that both chores are essential with peaches, although the fruit thinning is a pain in the horticultural butt.

Most harvesting information is geared to large-scale orchard production. Here's my best shot at a small-scale approach: Keep a close eye on the trees in summer and watch for the first fruits to split open or drop to the ground. Then begin gently shaking the trees daily. Immediately collect any fruits that fall and take them to an airy squirrel-proof place to dry. Remove the fruity husk when it peels off easily, allow the nuts to dry some more and start testing them. When they crack readily, they should be ready.

You will probably also have to devise a way to keep squirrels out of the trees close to harvest time; I recommend a motion-activated sprinkler or death-ray equipped robot.

Bottom line: Enjoy the magnificent Springtime flowers. These blossoms rival those of peaches, and like many peach growers who share their terrain with tyrannical tree rats, those flowers may be all you get to enjoy some years.


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