Nut trees are often overlooked by the backyard orchardist. They shouldn’t be. Of course nut trees take longer to reach maturity than most fruit trees, but once they start producing, nut trees will continue to reward for decades, even centuries. Most make handsome shade trees in addition to providing delicious and healthful nuts. The best time to plant a nut tree in your backyard was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.
Here’s a brief rundown on some important kinds of nut trees available to the hobby farmer.
The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) has been pretty much wiped out by the devastating chestnut blight. However, the Chinese chestnut (C. mollissima) is resistant to the blight and is widely available in American nurseries. More recently, a hybrid between the Chinese and American species, called the ‘Dunstan’ chestnut has become available. It combines the best qualities of both species and is apparently immune to chestnut blight. ‘Dunstan’ and Chinese chestnuts can be grown as far north as Michigan and Canada and as far south as Georgia and northern Florida. They get 40-80 feet tall and begin producing in as little as four or five years. Chestnuts are very easy to grow and require less spraying for pests than most fruit trees. Since chestnut trees are not self-sterile, you will need to plant two different cultivars. The only drawback to a chestnut in the back yard is the spiny husks that fall to the ground and create a barefoot hazard.
Perfect Plants does not offer our own Chestnut trees but contact us and we may be able to find you one!
The American native, black walnut (Juglans nigra) is a large, imposing tree that can get up to 100 feet tall. With its deciduous leaves and wide spreading form, a black walnut makes an excellent shade tree during the summertime. The nuts are oily and sweet and somewhat of an acquired taste. They are hard to crack and command a high price when you can find them in the grocery stores. Black walnuts are mostly used in baking. The wood is among the most valuable of American hardwoods, used for many things including gun stocks, veneer, and furniture. Walnuts produce a chemical called juglone that inhibits other plants from growing near its roots, so you don’t want to have one near the garden. Black walnuts can self pollinate, but you will get better yields if at least two trees are near each other for better cross pollination. Grafted black walnut varieties should begin producing in six or seven years after planting.
The butternut (Juglans cinerea) is another native American nut tree worth considering. Reaching a mature height of 60-80 feet, butternut trees are more cold hardy than other nut trees and can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 3-7. Like other members of the walnut genus, the butternut is technically self-fertile, but will produce more nuts if another tree for cross pollination is nearby. The nuts are similar to those of the black walnut, but not as oily and strong tasting. Their sweet, buttery flavor is prized in cakes and cookies. Butternuts also produce a chemical from their roots that inhibits the growth of other plants.
English walnuts, also called California walnuts (Juglans regia), are the common walnuts you see in grocery stores. They are native to the Middle East but have been grown in Europe for centuries and in California for decades. English walnuts are much milder in flavor then black walnuts; easier to shell, too. They can be grown in USDA zone 5, south to zone 9. The Carpathian walnut, (J. regia var. Carpathian) is a variety of English walnut that is hardy to Zone 4. Like black walnuts, English walnuts produce a toxin the inhibits the growth of other plants near their root zones.
The pecan (Carya illinoensis) is North America’s finest native nut tree. Pecans are widely cultivated across the southern US, and many varieties with different properties and adaptations are available. Pecan trees take 20 to 25 years to reach full maturity and get 60-100 feet tall, with a spread of 30-50 feet. Pecan tree cultivars started from container grown stock (such as the pecans Perfect Plants offers) will begin to produce nuts in as little as 4 to 8 years. Select at least two different varieties since fruit set is improved by cross pollination.
Read more about growing these nuts on our Pecan Grow Guide
There are eleven different species of hickories (genus Carya) in North America, growing in hardiness zones 4 through 9. All produce edible nuts, but only the pecan (Carya illinoensis) is commonly cultivated. The other hickory nuts are smaller and harder to crack open, but just as tasty as pecans. Shagbark (C. ovata) and shellbark (C. laciniosa) hickories are probably the best eating and the best for the backyard orchardist. Hickory nuts are used in cookies and cakes or just eaten as you crack them. Native Americans relied heavily on hickory nuts.
The almond (Prunus dulcis) is closely related to peaches and nectarines. The edible part is actually the seed which is inside a peach-like fruit that is not eaten. Almond trees can get about 25 feet tall. They do best in hot, dry climates, but they still require a couple hundred hours of winter chilling, so they cannot be grown in the tropics. Grafted trees can start bearing nuts about 5 or 6 years after planting. At least two trees are needed for cross pollination.
Hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) and filberts (C. maxima), are shrubs or small trees native to Europe and Asia. They typically get about 10 or 15 feet tall. Most cultivars grown for the edible nuts are hybrids between these two species. Hazelnuts are grown in zones 4 through 9, and require a period of winter dormancy chill hours, like many of our favorite fruit trees. Hazelnuts can be pruned to a central leader if you want a treelike form, or they can be allowed to grow into a much branched, bushy shrub as wide as it is tall, and best suited for the hedge row.
Consider adding nut tree to your back yard landscape. Your children will thank you for years to come!
Many of these trees we do not have on our website but we may be able to find for you. Contact us to see how we can help!