The best work-desk snack
Jackie French / Words
Forty-something years ago, we acquired a block of land and 16 giant walnut trees. No walnuts, of course — the white cockatoos got those. We tried everything from scare guns to tangles of computer tapes (from the ye-olde days when computers contained tapes) to shoo the birds away. Hawk kites, the transistor radio left on for a football match … nothing worked. At one stage, the cockatoos turned into stealth bombers, flying silently below tree height so we didn’t notice them and stopped interrupting their dinner.
This was a blow. I love walnuts.
They are rich in health-giving substances including protein but, just as importantly, truly fresh ones are sweeter and less bitter than the elderly ones so often in the shops. I did try pickling a few bathtubs of immature walnuts but then, surfeited for the next decade or six, gave up. And so things continued … till the white goshawk arrived.
I thought it was a cockatoo at first, sitting a little way from the others regarding them thoughtfully. It wasn’t. The cockatoos flew off a few hours later — slightly fewer in number. The goshawk stayed around to eat a solitary rabbit that had ventured into our garden, then flew off after the cockatoo flock. And presumably, in the days before DDT thinned predators’ eggshells and other dangers, that is what kept cockatoo numbers in check: each mob was followed by its predator.
But to get back to the walnuts, which we are now harvesting, though I still don’t bother picking all 16 trees (walnut skin stains your hands black when you pick them, you see). Each nut comes in a fruit with a green shell that splits when the nut is ripe. Walnuts are BIG trees. They need deep, fertile soil and good feeding and watering to crop well.
Sounds impossible for your garden?
Walnuts can also be pruned each year to keep them to the size you want. They can even be hedged or grown in an extremely large pot. But they do need protection from strong winds. Ours are grown in a sheltered valley, but yours may need windbreaks or to be grown in a position sheltered by a shed.
Plant bare-rooted ones in winter or potted ones at any temperate time of the year. Keep them moist for the first three years while they get their roots growing well and after that they should survive drought, hail and even the odd not-too-fast-flowing flood. If you have the room, they are the most gloriously canopied shade tree, giving dappled light for kids to play under on hot summer days and losing their leaves to let in sunlight in winter.
A few decades ago, walnuts were only grown in climates with cold winters. Now you can grow “low chill” varieties that fruit even in the subtropics. Some varieties are self-fertile — they don’t need another variety to pollinate them to get nuts. Others are sort of self-fertile, though sometimes even a self-fertile variety does best if grown with another.
When I first began walnut growing, the English or Persian walnut was the only commonly grown variety, with medium-sized nuts that fell in late autumn — or were guzzled up by the cockatoos a month or so earlier. They need cold winters and survive hot summers once established and must have very deep soil for the roots to extend into.
The following are only a few of the other varieties available. Ask your local nursery which grow best in your area, or find a supplier online and email them to see what they suggest for your soil, your climate and weather.
The ‘Iron’ variety:
Bred from Chinese walnuts and is low chill, suitable for the subtropics, like Brisbane, or coastal areas, too, although it needs to be protected from salt bearing sea winds.
The ‘Wentworth’ variety:
If you are in a cold climate, consider ‘Wentworth’. It’s slow growing, just like most cold-climate trees, and may not bear for eight years but gives an enormous harvest of large nuts. It also survives stinking-hot summers.
The ‘Tulare’ variety:
A good dependable walnut is ‘Tulare’, self-fertile so it doesn’t need another variety to pollinate it. It grows quickly and bears young. It’s a good choice in very frosty areas as it blooms late, so there’s an excellent chance that it won’t be cut by late frosts. The nuts mature in early autumn, cockatoos permitting.
The ‘Franquette’ variety:
‘Franquette’ is an old French variety, fast-growing and self-fertile but bearing better with another variety nearby. It also has the useful habit of flowering late in spring when, hopefully, frosts are over — unless, like us, you can get frosts right up till Christmas. The nuts are delicious.
If you are offered a black walnut, accept it only if you need an exceptionally hardy tree. It’s used as a root stock because of its hardiness, but the nuts are smaller and the “meat” harder to extract from the shell. It does give gorgeous timber, though, if you decide to get rid of your tree once it has grown up — especially if you have pruned off side branches so it grows tall and straight.
And, if you can’t afford a three-year-old tree from the nursery, plant your fresh walnut about a thumb’s depth in spring or summer. Keep moist and in two months or so you will have a small tree. Five to 10 years later, it will fruit … and your local cockatoos will rejoice.