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Getting nutty in the garden

Hearttnuts are well suited to the climate and soils of Atlantic Canada. (Photo Credit: Grimo Nut Nursery)

Hearttnuts are well suited to the climate and soils of Atlantic Canada. (Photo Credit: Grimo Nut Nursery)

More and more people in Atlantic Canada and the Northeast United States are looking to go ‘nuts.’ And, the benefit of nuts – and specifically nut trees – are numerous.

Not only do they offer ornamental value in the garden, but their shade, timber and edible fruit are helping make these trees popular with gardeners.

Charlie MacInnis grows a variety of nut trees on four acres in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, including heartnuts, hazelnuts and chestnuts. “What I’m doing is very much experimental,” he says. He’s trying to discern which trees grow best.

So far, his experience suggests the best nut trees for the region are hazelnuts and heartnuts, a Japanese walnut variety with nuts that are easy to crack. But, MacInnis says success depends on many factors, including site selection, spacing, soil conditions and climate (hardiness) zone, which vary widely across the Maritimes.

“The heartnut probably has the best potential, but you also have to plant it in the right zone and the right type of ground,” he says. Heartnuts prefer sandy, well drained soils with organic matter and generally thrive in areas with fruit trees or grapes.

He hasn’t had his American and hybrid American/Chinese chestnut trees long enough to decide if they’re an option. “The issue with the American chestnuts is blight,” says MacInnis. “It has now been confirmed in the Annapolis Valley, which is a huge concern.” Chestnut blight – a fungal disease – is capable of destroying trees once infected.

The possibility of blight make chestnuts a tricky choice. (Photo Credit: Grimo Nut Nursery)

The possibility of blight make chestnuts, such as these pictured, a tricky choice. (Photo Credit: Grimo Nut Nursery)

One of the factors to weigh, says MacInnis, is the longer-term intent and purpose for growing nut trees. “You can have a walnut tree that’s also, in 40 years time, going to give you some pretty decent wood fibre,” he says. In the interim, it will provide an ongoing crop of edible nuts that can be sold or transformed into other value-added products. “There are a lot of decisions to make,” MacInnis adds. “There’s not one right answer. It depends on what you want to do.”

Leslie Corkum, Honorary Director of the Canadian Chestnut Council, is another avid nut tree grower. He has a seven-acre hobby farm in Falmouth, Nova Scotia.

When the 93-year-old first started back in the 1970s, he planted fruit and Christmas trees but soon decided to experiment with nut trees. His primary interest was, and remains, American chestnuts because, “they’re on the endangered species list in Canada. That got me interested in it,” he says. He also grows butternut, hazelnut and walnut trees.

Leslie Corkum has been pursuing his passion for nut trees for decades. (Drawing courtesy of Leslie Corkum)

Leslie Corkum has been pursuing his passion for nut trees for decades. (Drawing courtesy of Leslie Corkum)

Given his decades of experience and wisdom with nut trees, Corkum is the go-to expert on grafting and is quick to offer sage advice. For example, taking a scion from a 30-year-old nut producing tree and grafting it onto a two-year-old sapling means that, if the graft is successful, the tree, “is no longer a two-year-old tree. It’s a 30-year-old tree,” he says. “It will start producing nuts immediately.” He warns that the American chestnut tree is finicky. “Be prepared to lose some,” when grafting and planting.

Any gardener that does make the effort will be well rewarded. Aside from the amazing diversity these trees add to the garden, the nuts they produce have been long acknowledged as excellent sources of protein, heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, fibre and vitamin E.

Nut trees are always planted in the spring. As the tree matures and begins to produce nuts, these fall to the ground and dry quickly; they need to be gathered within 3 to 4 days. “Once the nuts start to fall you have to be quick to pick them up and harvest them,” says MacInnis. Otherwise you will face competition from mice, rabbits and birds. And, “Every squirrel within 100 miles is going to find them.”

Born and raised in Toronto, Anne Wentzell and her husband now call the South Shore of Nova Scotia home. She started freelance writing seven years ago and also enjoys reading, cycling, amateur astronomy and long walks along the beach, especially at sunset.

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