Nutty about nut trees for small gardens
by Emma Cooper
Credit: Chris Battaglia
If you’re just nutty about nuts then you might be thinking about adding some to your garden, but it’s not as easy as you might think. A lot of our favourite nuts are tropical plants, and although there are several nut varieties that are hardy enough to grow in the UK, most of them make very large trees and aren’t suitable for small gardens. You don’t have to miss out entirely, though, as there are one or two nuts that will fit the bill.
One of the best nuts to grow in a small garden is the hazelnut. Cultivated hazels are often referred to as cobnuts or filberts. Although they naturally grow to around 3 metres (9 feet), smaller varieties are available, and trees that are winter-pruned to around 2 metres (6 feet) tall will still be productive. Many of the varieties available are ornamental – the purple filbert has copper-coloured foliage, purple catkins and purple nuts, and ‘Red Cracker’ is a filbert with dark red leaves and red nut husks. The contorted hazel, so pretty in winter with its twisted stems, also produces an edible harvest.
Nuts can be harvested from late summer (the traditional start to the harvest is St Philbert’s day on 20th August), when they are soft and succulent with a bright green husk. At this stage they are lovely in salads and stir-fries. The husks turn golden brown in September, and ripen to a deep brown in October. These are the familiar hazelnuts, which pair well with cheese and port.
Hazels can be planted in large containers (at least 30 cm in diameter), but if there are no wild bushes nearby then try and find room for two different varieties, as this improves pollination and gives you a bigger harvest. If you aim to plant your hazels in the ground then you might like to consider buying trees that have been inoculated with truffle spores – there are no guarantees, but in a few years you could be harvesting truffles, as well as nuts, from your garden!
Other varieties to consider include ‘Kentish Cob’, which is reliable and used on commercial farms. ‘Webb’s Prize Cobnut’ is popular with gardeners and has well-flavoured nuts. The nuts on ‘Princess Royal’ are smaller, with a subtle pink hue to the husks.
Almonds are dual-purpose plants, as they have ornamental blossom in spring. Dwarf varieties are available – make sure you buy a plant that has a dwarfing rootstock, such as St Julien ‘A’, if you’re short on space. You can also fan-train almonds against a wall or fence (one facing south-west is ideal), and further north in the UK an almond grown in this way is far more likely to be productive. Almonds fruit on wood that is two years old, so the best time for pruning is after the tree has fruited, so you’re not pruning out fruitful wood.
If you only have the space for one almond, then choose a self-fertile variety such as ‘Lauranne’ or ‘Robin’ (also sold as ‘Robijn’). Robin is a very popular variety, known for giving a good blossom show and following with a heavy crop of nuts. It also displays some resistance to peach leaf curl, which is otherwise only avoidable if you can cover the tree to keep it dry from mid-winter through until late spring. Unfortunately, almonds do not make good container plants.
Neither walnuts nor sweet chestnuts are suitable for small gardens, as they are both large trees that take several years to start producing nuts. The dwarf chestnut, Castanea pumila, is a better bet as it is a slow-growing shrub that reaches a final height of 4 metres. Also known as the chinquapin, its nuts are similar to sweet chestnuts – and grow in burrs – but are sweeter and can be eaten raw.
The European bladdernut, Staphylea pinnata, is a woodland shrub that grows up to 3 metres tall and can tolerate some shade. Happiest in moist soil, the bladdernut produces fragrant, pink, bell-shaped flowers. After flowering, these self-fertile plants develop green ‘bladders’, inside which you’ll find several nuts. Mature nuts are about 1 cm long, and are reported to taste very much like pistachios.
Yellowhorn (Xanthocerus sorbifolium) grows as a leafy bush, or a small tree reaching up to 5 metres, and is often grown as an ornamental plant, with sprays of white flowers appearing in May and June, before the emergence of the glossy green leaves. The fruits are capsules containing numerous small black nuts, likened to both chestnuts and macadamia nuts. If you’re headed to London, pop in to Kew Gardens – they have a lovely specimen of yellowhorn growing on the lawn outside the Princess of Wales Conservatory.
A fun project for small-scale gardeners is growing your own peanuts. They don’t grow on trees, but on small, bean-like plants. Shell your peanuts just before planting, as the nuts can dry out easily and won’t then germinate. Peanuts aren’t hardy, so start them off indoors in early spring. Choose a wide container, as the peanut’s party trick it that its flowers bend over and bury themselves in the soil – you’ll have to dig up your harvest at the end of the season!
Almonds, cobnuts and filberts are readily available from major plant suppliers, such as Thompson & Morgan and Suttons, and you’ll also find a good selection at Victoriana Nursery Gardens. Bladdernuts, dwarf chestnuts and yellowhorn are harder to come by – try the Agroforestry Research Trust. You can buy peanuts from Seeds of Italy, but any unshelled ‘monkey nuts’ are suitable for planting.