Gardening with Diarmuid Gavin: going nuts outside
From hazelnuts and almonds to sweet chestnuts, plenty of our healthy nibbles can be grown in your own garden
Between Halloween and Christmas - not to mention after gym sessions - nuts are in demand in our kitchens. As a gardener, have you ever considered which ones you could grow yourself?
Starting with peanuts is technically cheating, as they're not nuts but rather members of the pea or legume family, but let's explore growing them anyway.
Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) grow underground and are sometimes called groundnuts. Once the flowers are pollinated, the stems lean over and bury the pod in the ground, where it develops into a peanut. Like many other legumes, they can fix nitrogen themselves so don't require the farmer to add lots of nitrogen to the soil. They do, however, require about five months of warm weather so if you wanted to grow your own, a greenhouse or polytunnel would be the best option.
Hazelnuts, also known as cobnuts, are easier to grow. The hazel tree is a much loved native plant and wonderful for wildlife, with the leaves providing food for caterpillars, while birds and squirrels will quickly devour the nuts if you don't get there first. To get the best crops, grow hazelnuts in groups, for example in a hedge, where pollination will be highest.
Unchecked, the hazel will grow large but can be coppiced - which means cutting it back very hard every few years to encourage growth. In past times, the cut hazel was used for fencing and traditional wattle and daub building. Today, the twigs and branches are most useful for the gardener as peasticks and supports. As they are pliable, they can be bent into shapes as well.
Long yellow catkins in early spring and good yellow autumnal foliage add to the ornamental value of this plant. A particularly beautiful variety is 'Princess Royal', available from victoriananursery.co.uk, which has delicately pink suffused husks.
Do you fancy roasting chestnuts over a bonfire? The common horse chestnut gives us conkers to play with but not to eat. It's the hard fruit of the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) that is edible. You'll need a good bit of space in the garden for the sweet chestnut to grow to its full size, which can be over 12m in maturity. You'll also need heavy gloves to remove the prickly skin from the fruit - the spikes are nature's method of keeping squirrels and birds from eating the fruit before it gets a chance to fall and germinate.
Almonds strictly speaking aren't nuts, they are seeds contained with a hard shell. The almond tree (Prunus dulcis) has one of the prettiest spring blossoms, bearing pale pink flowers on naked stems. It is possible to grow them for fruit if you have a sheltered position or can train one against a south west wall, as frost will hinder crop production. 'Garden Prince' is a dwarf variety from Thompson and Morgan which would be ideal for a small sheltered patio. They hold that hand-pollination is best and that you can expect cropping after two to three years.
So, if you're a nutty gardener, it's time to get cracking!
This week in the garden:
* I’ve written recently about how winter is a great time to lift and divide herbaceous perennials. It’s also a super time (provided the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged) to plant them. Firstly consider what will look good together. Then, make sure the ground is free from perennial weeds, dig in plenty of organic matter and some slow-release fertiliser. Plant in groups of three or five, allowing one species to ‘drift’ into the next. Water in and keep the new plantation warm through the cold months with a blanket of mulch. Your new plants will be anchored and ready to perform once the soil heats up in spring.
* Lawns are now at their most vulnerable stage of their annual cycle. They are in danger of being smothered by leaves, waterlogged by rain, or being frozen. Try not and add to their woes by trampling on them. This can lead to compaction which damages the soil structure, hinders drainage and makes the vital exchange of gasses more difficult.
* Harness the power of garden frosts by digging over vegetable plots in the cold weather. This will help to improve the soil structure by breaking down large clods into crumbly particles. To improve any soil type in your veg garden add tons of well-rotted farmyard manure or, if you are near a supplier, harvested seaweed.