Are you nuts about nuts? Do you give the squirrels a run for their money when those delicacies are ready? The climates and soils of Virginia can produce nut crops from a handful of different nut species. Be forewarned: growing nut trees requires adequate space – it is not something for the city dweller!
Probably the nut species that we are all familiar with in the South is the pecan. The Southern pecan grows best in the Southeast (Georgia) and Southern Plains (think Texas and Oklahoma). Unfortunately, the Southern pecan requires a long growing season to properly fill nuts and only the shortest season varieties can be grown in southeast Virginia. A better option for our area may be the Northern pecan, native to Ohio and the upper Mississippi river basin. Although superior in flavor and disease resistance to the Southern pecan, the Northern pecan is a much smaller nut.
Pecan trees are large at maturity, so plan on spacing trees 60 to 80 feet apart. Due to the way pollen is released from the tree, it is recommended to plant at least 3 different cultivars. Of course, plant trees away from the house and away from overhead power lines. Pecans can become dangerous in hurricanes!
Black walnuts can be grown in our climate, but extraction of the nut can be challenging. Stay away from Carpathian and English walnuts, for they are not well-adapted to the area. Since pollination is similar to the pecan, you will need to plant a few different walnut cultivars for best pollination. A word to the wise: the black walnut tree produces a chemical called juglone that is toxic to many plants. Juglone is produced in all parts of the tree, including the roots. This means that walnut toxicity can continue for years in the soil even after the tree has been removed.
Hickory trees don’t just produce great wood for barbeque, but they also produce edible nuts. The hickory tree may not be at the top of the list for landscape trees (although the peeling bark is quite attractive). However, this tree is quite common in our forests. The hickory is closely related to the pecan and nuts are eaten in a similar fashion.
Hazelnuts (or filberts), almonds, and pistachios do not grow well here and will produce a pitiful crop (if any).
Nuts are ready to harvest once they start to fall to the ground. Using a ladder for large trees is not advisable. You can harvest the remaining nuts by shaking the tree or its limbs with a long pole. Pick up nuts from the ground quickly to prevent quality degradation and, worse yet, animal scavenging.
Most nuts have a high oil content that can go rancid quickly if not stored properly. Nuts can be stored in the freezer in airtight bags. Before freezing, shell the nuts to save space.
If you have space, nut production can be a fun and rewarding endeavor. Feel free to go a little nutty (for nuts that is!). For more information on growing or harvesting nuts, reference VCE Publication 2906-1377: Specialty Crops Profile: Introduction to Walnuts, Pecans, and Other Nut Crops or contact my office at 493-8924.
Stephanie Romelczyk is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent for Virginia Cooperative Extension in Westmoreland County.