Almonds & Hickories: A Tale of Two Nuts
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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.
Question. We have some great shagbark hickory trees on our property. We would like to start seedlings from the nuts. Any help or references would be appreciated. Thanks,
- ---Donna in the Lehigh Valley, PA
Answer. Well, you're either young or altruistic, Donna, as most sources report that hickories normally take 20 or so years to flower and fruit. Most hickory lovers buy a property with some trees already there or learn their locations in the woods (that shaggy bark is a dead giveaway) and harvest the nuts as they fall. Planting stock is available, and some professionally grafted varieties are said to bear fruit within their first decade in the ground, but these trees quickly grow legendarily deep taproots, so you can't start with mature specimens. You must buy very young trees and plant them very very carefully.
To propagate your own trees for future generations, act like a squirrel. When you've collected as many nuts as you want for the season, bury some of the extras around 10 to 20 feet apart.
Whether you're nut planting or new tree installing, it's a noble and wonderful thing to do. The trees are native, long lived, have exceptional bark, very useful wood, grow virtually anywhere in the United States, and the nuts are a nutritious delicacy that's rarely found in stores. Just don't expect to get an annual harvest from even the most mature tree. My shagbarks (I have two growing near my house) only drop their tasty bounty a couple of times a decade.
Question. Mike, I've got five mature hickory trees in my backyard. The nuts are too hard to crack and eat. What can I do with them?
- ---Ron in Kitty Hawk, NC
Answer. Ha—you think hickories are hard? Try cracking black walnuts; you'll never complain about a tight lug nut on your car again!
In my experience, most of the outer husk of a hickory fruit flies off—or at least splits open—when it hits the ground. Collect these fallen fruits quickly, pull off any split husks, and let everything air dry under a big ceiling fan for awhile. Then remove any last husks and toss all the nuts into a bucket of water. Keep the floaters and toss the sinkers. (Preferably at some squirrels.)
Then store the good nuts in a cool airy spot for awhile. When the moisture content becomes low enough, start cracking. Some people gently tap the shells with a hammer on a hard surface; I prefer using a big C clamp from the hardware store (these nifty devices are strong enough to crack black walnuts!).
The nutmeat inside the shell is very irregular in shape, and does tend to require quite a bit of picking to obtain. That's why many people wait until the dead of winter to crack and pick, when the nuts are good and dry and you're probably looking for something to do with your hands until its seed starting time once again.