Go nuts in the garden
In a world where six tonnes of topsoil can be lost for one tonne of wheat, animals sweat in terror at abattoirs and asparagus flies from Brazil to Sydney, growing your own protein makes sense. And if that protein comes from a nut tree in your backyard, well, going a bit nuts can be fun and productive and create shade in long, hot summers. Once established, nut trees are drought-tolerant. Most are very long-lived, as they grow huge roots that burrow deep into the Earth and to survive harsh climates.
Some of my favourite childhood memories are of picking backyard macadamias and bashing them open with a brick on the paving in our backyard. The paving was never the same again, but the macadamias were wonderful. If you’ve never eaten a truly fresh nut straight from the tree, you’re in for a treat.
There is a nut tree suitable for any Garden and any climate. Just choose exactly how nutty you’d like to be.
I eat fresh, unsalted “raw” almonds every morning in my homemade muesli and can’t think of any other protein that could start my day so well. Almond trees need full sun and a temperate climate. They don’t like the tropics or late heavy frosts. You’ll get a few almonds a year after planting a grafted tree and at least a bucketful after three to five years. Stick to self-pollinating almonds — cross pollinators may not bloom together.
Bunya pines are truly magnificent, tall, wide, Australia native trees that are extremely imposing and not suited to small gardens. It grows slowly, fruiting only after 10 to 20 years and may not fruit every year. It can be grown wherever you can grow a lemon tree.
The bunya pine produces enormous pinecones weighing up to 12kg, with the nuts, up to thumb-size, contained in the cone. You’ll need a hammer to husk them, and probably gloves, too, as the cones are sticky inside.
These are tropical trees but have been known to grow as far south as the south coast of New South Wales. They need plenty of sun and deep, rich, well-drained soil with lots of moisture.
The cashew nuts themselves will be produced covered in a fleshy “apple”. The apple is also edible, but its tastiness varies from tree to tree. Never try to crack unprocessed cashew nuts: the shells contain a bitter, caustic sap. Make sure you know exactly how to process them, as they can be very dangerous, and never touch your face or eyes while processing cashews. On the other hand, cashews are among the great luxury nuts.
Chestnuts prefer a cold to temperate climate, deep soil and lots of room, though you can prune them heavily to keep them small or hedge-shaped. Grafted trees fruit in about five years if well-fed and watered or 10 years if neglected. After about a decade of good treatment, a chestnut will give you several boxes of nuts — delicious boiled or roasted.
These can reach seven metres if grown by themselves. They are much smaller when planted thickly for a hedge. Hazelnuts will tolerate cold to temperate climates. Seedlings can take many years to flower, while grafted trees produce better results. Two varieties are needed for pollination.
We grow hard-shelled or tetraphylla macadamias here (southern NSW), with up to five degrees frost. The shells are too hard for white cockatoos to bother with them and we use a nutcracker these days rather than an old brick to crack open the hard shell.
Macadamias tolerate cold conditions as long as they are surrounded by other trees — as ours are — to protect them from cold winds. Macadamias grow slowly from seed or you can buy a grafted one. They prefer moist, fertile soil.
A fresh pecan is delicious without the slight bitter flavour of older nuts. These are enormous trees, but if you prune off the lower branches you will have room for other plants below or you can prune them to a lower hedge shape. Knock off the ripe nuts with a long stick. Pecans need deep, fertile, moist soil. Don’t grow them too near the house in case the roots grow under the foundations.
For some reason, few backyards grow pistachios, which is a pity as they are both easy to grow and very beautiful, with gold autumn leaves and bright pink “fruit cases” when the nuts begin to form. Pistachio trees tolerate drought, frost and poor soil but grow better if they are watered and well mulched, though they hate humidity. Pistachios thrive wherever olives can grow. In good conditions, the trees grow up to 10 metres tall. You need at least one male to every six female pistachio trees.
Fresh walnuts are far milder than the ones you buy in packets. I love to grind them to make walnut flour — good with any other nut, too — and use them as a substitute for regular flour in cakes and biscuits. Usually about one-third of the flour can be exchanged for “nut flour” and the result will be richer and more delicious.
Walnuts need deep, fertile soil and a cold-to-warm temperate climate. They can grow to be enormous and aren’t really suitable for backyards, but they tolerate heavy pruning, so they would make great avenue trees along a footpath. As well as the more common English walnuts, try black American walnuts — they’re not quite as meaty and have a different flavour.
Green walnut pesto
This is good, rich and oily — a good winter topping for pasta when the basil is just a happy memory and you’ve forgotten to buy pinenuts or the budget won’t run to them. It’s also good as a filling between lasagne sheets with cheese sauce on top and is lovely with boiled potatoes.
1 large bunch chopped mixed greens
1 cup walnuts
6 cloves garlic
1 cup Parmesan cheese
3 tbsp olive oil
This can be stored covered with a layer of olive oil in an airtight container in the fridge. Unlike the traditional pesto made with pinenuts and basil, walnut pesto can’t be frozen as the walnuts turn soggy.
For more great garden ideas, why not check out our Wellbeing Directory
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