Winter's when we go nuts for nuts! Enjoy them roasted (on an open fire...or in the oven), munched naked straight out of the shell, or baked with herbs and pulses to create a satisfying vegetarian alternative to traditional roast meats. Nuts are highly nutritious but eat them in any quantity and your wallet will take a fair whack. The solution, as with any premium produce, is to grow them yourself.
Many of the kitchen gardeners I speak to about nuts are put off by the thought of growing them. They need lots of space, right? It's easy to see why this prejudice exists when you think of the grandeur of a mature sweet chestnut or the statuesque beauty of a walnut tree. But this isn't the complete picture. Some nuts, including hazelnuts, are perfectly suited to garden growing – and they'll put on quite a show while they're at it.
Hazelnuts are the easiest nuts to grow – perfect for nervous would-be nutters! The hazelnut family Corylus includes the common hazel and closely related cobnuts and filberts. You can tell the difference between a hazel or cob and a filbert because the husk of the latter completely envelops the shell.
All members of the hazelnut family produce stunning dangling yellow catkins in late winter/early spring. These are the male parts of the plant that contain the pollen necessary for fertilising the female flowers and ensuring a good crop. Clouds of pollen waft forth on a windy day to pollinate the tiny female flowers held at the branch tips. It means that these wind-pollinated nuts actively prefer a site in the open. Furthermore, they are exceptionally hardy, putting up with both wet and cold winters. This makes them very useful plants for problem parts of the garden.
Some hazels have additional beauty queen credentials in addition to the chandelier-like mass of spring catkins. The corkscrew hazel Corylus avellana 'Contorta' is so-named for its twisted, contorted stems, which are tailor-made for winter flower arrangements. A purple-leaved filbert Corylus maxima 'Purpurea' will add contrast in the garden and in the nut bowl with its purple-husked nuts. All hazelnuts, cobnuts and filberts will provide additional shelter and food for wildlife, particularly when grown as part of a hedgerow.
How to Care For Hazelnuts
Hazelnuts prefer soil that's well drained and fairly low in nutrients; overly rich soil gives plenty of leaf growth at the expense of flowers and nuts. The trees are technically self-fertile, but you will always get better results if you plant them in a group so that the pollen can drift from one hazelnut to the next, though other trees in the neighbourhood will also help with pollination. Don't worry – the word 'tree' is a technicality here; hazelnuts are generally grown as a bushy shrub and can be kept to a very manageable size by pruning.
If you have the space, try planting a small orchard of hazelnuts, setting trees about 4m (15ft) apart to give them plenty of room. Create a matrix of different varieties to maximise pollination potential. Check the pollinator compatibility of the trees you want to grow to ensure a good match. Varieties need to be in flower at the same time to secure successful pollination.
Caring for hazelnuts is straightforward. Prune them in winter to encourage an open bush. Do this by removing about a third of the oldest growth, cutting or carefully sawing the stems back to ground level. Thin out areas that are overcrowded to keep the centre light and airy. Cut back any crossing branches, but leave the young, twig-like growth, which bears most of the female flowers.
Suckers are stems that grow directly from the roots of the plant, often at some distance from the main stem. These need to be dug out or pulled right off to prevent a mass of impenetrable stems. Keep on top of these suckers and they won't cause a headache later on.
The nuts are ready to collect in autumn/fall as soon as the husks have yellowed. Pick them from the tree, or if they're perfectly ripe you may be able to shake them off onto a tarpaulin or sheet. Store you cache of nuts in a dry, airy place within crates, nets, cloth bags or slatted boxes.
Squirrels are natural acrobats. And they're very determined! How to keep your nuts safe from their marauding grasp is a tricky one. Due to the way hazelnuts are grown, there's little you can do to keep squirrels off your trees, other than enclose them in a wire mesh-clad fruit cage, which seems a bit excessive. The only practical answer is eagle-eyed vigilance. Should squirrels take more than their fair share then get out there and pick them at once. They may be slightly under-ripe but the squirrels wouldn't be after them if they didn't think they were ready to eat.
Dry your nuts by spreading them out onto trays, turning them every few days for an even result. Dry them indoors in a warm place for two to three weeks. Once they are dry you can scrape away the papery husks and store, either in or out of their shells.
I would love to hear from other gardeners who grow hazelnuts, cobnuts or filberts – or indeed any nuts. Do you have any tips for squirrel-proofing your crop? And how do you use them in the kitchen? Share your comments below.
By Benedict Vanheems.