The beauty, graceful shapes and easy care of nut trees make them a natural addition to any garden
Last year, when I decided my garden centre should be more conveniently located and began searching for a property, I came across a stunning yellow house, nestled right in the middle of our downtown shopping area in Port Alberni. One look at the 1913 heritage house and I knew it was meant to be. After renovating the back and side yards for the new nursery, I was left with a 37-square-m (400-sq.-ft.) patch of grass in the front yard. It was hardly enough to warrant the purchase of a lawn mower, so - inspired by several customers who commented that they wouldn't grow a plant unless they could eat it - I decided to till it up and create an ornamental vegetable garden.
The vegetables, blueberries, raspberries, and kiwis were easy choices. The dilemma arose when it came time to decide on trees. Fruit trees were an obvious pick, but then I thought of the often forgotten nut trees - their beauty, graceful shapes and easy care swung the balance in their favour. Many nut trees grow wonderfully in our part of the world. Chestnuts and walnuts are well-suited to large gardens and are resistant to deer, while smaller yards can accommodate hazelnuts (also deer resistant) and almonds quite nicely. Perhaps the easiest and hardiest nut to grow is the hazelnut (Corylus avellana), a deciduous bush to small tree that loves full sun and is hardy to zone 4. It can take extremely tough growing conditions and tolerates poor soil, though it does prefer it to be slightly acidic. All hazelnuts require a pollinator to produce nuts, so be sure to plant a qualified cross-pollinator. Late summer is harvest time for hazelnuts; you'll know it's ready when the nut readily turns in its husk. Hazelnuts make lovely small specimen trees or can be mass planted as a wild hedgerow. One of the more ornamental nut trees is the almond (Prunus dulcis var. dulcis). Hardy to zone 6, almonds have beautiful hot-pink blossoms, similar to peach blooms - in fact, if you grow peaches you can grow almonds. I've been growing almond trees with great success in my garden for many years now. They do bloom two weeks earlier than peaches, so if you are in a colder climate, plant the almond under an overhang to prevent frost damage to the early blooms. Almond trees do not like clay or heavy soil, they must be planted in free-draining, light and loamy soil, in a full-sun location. There are many almond cultivars available. Some can reach a mature size of 9 m (30 ft.), while others are so dwarf they can grow in a container. Not all almonds are self-pollinating, and those that do need a mate are very choosy. Look for a dwarf almond, such as 'Garden Prince', which is self-pollinating and later blooming. Dwarf trees also tend to fruit sooner. Almonds are ready to harvest when the casing, which resembles a shriveled peach, splits and releases its stone - the almond. Most of us are familiar with the large arching chestnut trees and the messy, green, spiky pods they produce. As children, we packed the spiky pods with mud and had chestnut wars in the horse field. Not everyone has a field to plant chestnuts, so fortunately breeders have developed smaller-growing cultivars and you can now get standard and dwarf chestnuts. Chestnuts (Castanea spp.) prefer full sun and are very picky about soil. When planting, make sure to supply organic fertilizer, glacial rock dust and a deep loamy soil, rich in humus. After planting, mulch with 5 cm (2 in.) of compost to protect the soil from drying out. During the first three years, water diligently. The most disease-resistant chestnuts are the Spanish (Castanea sativa, zone 5) or Chinese (C. mollissima, zone 4) types, so be sure to get either these or a hybrid with one of them as a parent. American chestnuts (C. dentata) are very susceptible to the chestnut blight fungus and should be avoided. A few chestnuts do not produce edible fruit, so always check before buying. Chestnuts are ready to harvest when the green spiky case splits open to reveal its shiny brown nut. The nuts are wonderful roasted, boiled, chopped and added to stuffing, or puréed for desserts or soups. If you're in the market for a new tree, consider nut trees. They are reliable, easy to grow, long-lived and attractive. My new neighbours and I are looking forward to seeing the beautiful pink almond blooms in front of the yellow house.