Nuts are one of those edible crops that people rarely plant because nuts are so widely available in grocery stores. However, nuts can be a great addition to your edible landscape. Some nut trees, such as pecans and walnuts, are large and double as excellent shade trees in your landscape. Nut bushes, such as hazelnuts, are great foundation plants or hedges and provide fall foliage color. Plus, nut trees and bushes are prolific, producing pounds of tasty nuts when mature. Even if you don't get to harvest all the nuts, wildlife will love them and a strategically placed nut tree may even keep the squirrels and other critters out of your other gardens. (Although you may have to pull seedlings that sprout from nuts buried by them.)
Most people think nut trees take a long time to mature and produce. While it's true that it can take years for a mature pecan, chestnut, or walnut to become a stately tree, most nut trees and bushes start producing within 3 to 5 years of planting. So you don't have to wait long for your first harvest.
Then there's the legacy factor. I like to think of planting nut trees as a way to give back to the Earth and future generations. Consider the beauty and bounty of a landscape with large shade or nut trees. Someone was thinking many generations down the road to plant a slow growing nut tree. So, if you have extra room, plant some large nut trees for posterity. If you don't have the room, tuck a few nut bushes in with your other plantings. Either way, nuts will be a fall treat that your family and neighbors will enjoy for years.
Pecans are one of the most popular nuts. They are high in antioxidants and the tree is large, making it a great shade tree.
There are nut trees for almost any climate in the country. While some of the more exotic nuts, such as pistachio and macadamia, can only be grown in warm, frost-free areas, such as coastal Southern California and Hawaii, most other nuts can grow in a variety of locations.
Nut trees and bushes all grow best in full sun on well-drained soil. In fact, soggy soils are the downfall of most nut trees. Here are some types to grow in your landscape.
Almonds (Prunus spp.)
Almond trees can grow where peach trees grow. They make attractive 15- to 30-foot tall-trees. However, they bloom very early, often with the first warm spell in February, so many times the crop is lost due to a late spring frost. This has restricted the commercial almond industry to the West Coast and protected areas. The fruit looks like a green peach, but it's the nut inside you want. Some varieties are self-fertile.
Chestnut (Castanea spp.)
While the American chestnut (C. dentata) has been devastated by chestnut blight, there are some partially resistant hybrids available. The Chinese chestnut (C. mollissima), which is resistant to the blight, was imported to replace the American chestnut. There are many blight-resistant hybrids of American and Chinese chestnuts to grow. These trees can reach 50 feet tall at maturity. The chinquapin chestnut (C. pumila) is a multi-stemmed bush that only grows 6 to 12 feet tall. Chestnuts are moderately fast growers and, in general, are hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9. It's best to grow two or more varieties of chestnuts to get proper pollination and nut production.
Hazelnut (Corylus spp.)
Also known as filberts, hazelnuts are great large shrubs for the landscape. They grow 6 to 10 feet tall and wide and are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8. Some varieties have purple leaves and the contorted hazelnut (C. avellana) has crooked branches that add fall and winter interest to the landscape. The nuts are produced 3 years after planting and the foliage turns a brilliant orange-red color in fall. It's best to plant two varieties for pollination.
Walnuts are slow-growing trees prized for their tasty nuts and highly desirable wood for furniture making. (Photo courtesy of the California Walnut Board)
Hickory (Catya spp.)
Shagbark and shellbark are the two most common types of hickory trees to grow. They are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8. These large trees grow to 50 feet tall, similar to black walnuts. The shagbark is known for its peeling bark. They are slow growing and have a taproot. A hican is a cross between a hickory and pecan. It's easier to shell than a hickory nut and tastes like a blend of pecan and hickory nuts.
Pecans (Carya spp.)
Pecans are stately trees that grow 30 to 50 feet tall at maturity. While most selections are hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9, there are newer types that can be grown in USDA zone 5. Some varieties are self-pollinating, but most do best with another variety nearby. Different varieties are adapted to specific regions of the country such as the Southeast, North, or Texas.
Pinenuts (Pinus spp.)
If you love pesto, you know pine nuts well. Two of the most popular pines to collect nuts from are the Korean and Italian stone pines. The Korean pine (P. koreaiensis) is hardy to USDA zones 4 to 7. This tree has a slow to medium growth rate and is tolerant of clay soil and blister rust disease. Italian stone pine (P. pinea) is more heat- and drought-tolerant than the Korean pine, but less hardy (USDA zones 7 to 9) and less tolerant of clay soils. These trees can grow up to 100 feet tall and start producing nuts about 5 years after planting.
The stately American chestnut tree once graced many yards in the East before chestnut blight wiped them out. There are now hybrids of American and Chinese chestnuts that are blight-resistant. (Photo courtesy of chestnut.net)
Walnuts (Juglans spp.)
Black walnuts (J.nigra) are hardy to USDA zone 4 and are large trees, reaching up to 100 feet in height. They are slow-growing and slow to produce nuts, sometimes taking more than 10 years to begin bearing. However, they have highly desirable wood and delicious nuts.
Carpathian walnuts (J. regia spp.)
Also known as English or Persian walnuts. They are shorter than black walnuts, growing only 40 to 50 feet tall. Carpathian walnuts grow faster than black walnuts and produce nuts sooner (in 4 to 10 years). They are also hardy to USDA zone 4. Heartnuts (J. sieboldianan), also known as Japanese walnuts, are large trees that produce heart-shaped nuts; they're hardy to USDA zone 6.
One common characteristic of all walnuts is the chemical juglone that is exuded by the roots, nuts, leaves, and branches. This chemical inhibits the growth of other plants nearby so you'll need to be careful where you site your walnut trees. Some edibles, including tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, apple, and blueberry, can be adversely affected. Other edibles, such as beans, corn, onions, cherry, and black raspberry, are more tolerant of the chemical.