Planting Nut Trees on Your Farm
by Jerry Henkin
If you want to plant nut trees, It’s important to research your land and the type of nut trees you want. Check the soil for the correct pH for the trees you want to plant. There should be good drainage, sunshine, and air flow. Will you want tall trees, which need to be placed far apart, or are smaller nut trees preferable on your property? Do the kinds of trees you want do well in your area? How much time will you have for caring for the trees? How much money are you willing to spend? Who can you go to for advice? Are you planting black walnut trees for food, or lumber, or shade for your farm animals in a silvopastural setting? This will determine the spacing of your trees.
Whatever you decide, start with a few trees rather than planting many acres of trees. You can expand little by little as you gain experience and as the trees prove themselves on your property. From early on, I learned the truth in the adage, “The best fertilizer for your crops is the farmer’s shadow.” You do have to be there for the trees and you do have to be committed to their best care. Procrastination makes small problems into difficult ones.
It is important from the beginning of your planting to protect the trees. Sturdy posts and fences are a must; otherwise the deer and small mammals will destroy the tree that you’ve spent so much care to plant. I use four 7’ fence posts and 6’ plastic deer fencing to protect against deer. To protect against small mammals, which gnaw at and girdle the trunkat ground level, enclose the young tree in either a tree shelter or a small wire cage buried partially in the soil. If you can afford it, a tall fence around the perimeter of the orchard will keep deer completely out of the orchard. Time and deer rutting will weaken posts. Check on the integrity of the fences from time to time.
The presence of predatory birds, like owls and hawks in the surrounding woods can assist you by removing rabbits, squirrels, voles, etc. Leave a few old and dead trees around the orchard to encourage these birds to perch as a lookout point. Be careful not to strip the bark of young trees with string mowers or other equipment. Placing a layer of mulch around the tree’s dripline is one way to protect it from mowing equipment. For the first three years, especially, young nut trees will need to be irrigated.
Consider bringing guard dogs trained to remain in a specific area in your orchard by an electrical fence buried under the borders of your property. (For an article on this topic, see http://agebb.missouri.edu/agforest/archives/v13n2/gh3.htm) These dogs will prevent, or at least deter, deer and other mammals from entering the orchard. One orchardist who uses guard dogs suggests Great Pyrenees, but there are other suitable breeds for this purpose. They will also warn people to keep away from trespassing on your property. In an unusual scenario, but one that has occurred, they will warn of poachers who enter your property to steal entire mature trees for lumber.
If the trees are growing well, there may be no need to fertilize, as over fertilization can do more harm than good. Avoid rapid nitrogen-stimulated growth rates at the end of summer. This can lead to tree damage from wind, ice storms, or frost. High-nitrogen synthetic fertilizers can compromise the tree’s natural ability to produce defensive compounds; this would render the trees more susceptible to pests and disease. To be thorough, a soil analysis and a leaf analysis can help guide you in proper fertilization and adding amendments to your soil. Most land grant universities offer these services; an extension agent can advise you whom to contact in your area. It is important to know when to fertilize, as well as what kind of fertilizer and the proper amount. Fertilizers can be applied to the soil or through the leaves in a foliar spray. If you need advice, it is best to consult with a professional arborist about fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide application.
Remove vines from the trees and the cages. If this is not done, the vines will quickly outgrow the trees, cutting off shade and preventing air flow. Bittersweet and other encircling vines will girdle the tree. Remove all vines from their roots and discard them far away from your trees. Mulching with wood chips prevents weeds and grass from taking over. It regulates soil temperature. In addition, mulching with wood chips encourages a fungal environment in the subsoil which is desirable for tree growth. (Mulching with cut grass, which yields a bacterial environment, is best for annuals.) Do not place mulch up against the truck of the tree, as this allows small mammals to hide from predators while they gnaw at the bark.
John Gordon, in his book Nut Growing Ontario Style, says that tree spacing is based on available light. To be fruitful and healthy, a tree must be in full sun from 10 AM through 2 PM. The ground in the orchard should be shaded by 50% of the tree canopies at noon. The tree should be as high as the rows are apart.
When it becomes necessary to thin the amount of trees in the orchard, deaden and remove the stumps. Herbicides are available to aid in stump removal. This minimizes the competition for soil moisture and nutrients when the stumps begin to sprout. It also clears the orchard floor to allow harvesting equipment, mowers, and hay balers to pass between the trees and the rows with greater safety for the operator.
For safety’s sake, work with another person, and let others know where you are. Use goggles, a hard hat, boots, and gloves. Make sure your pruning tools are in good condition and sharp. To protect against mosquitos, spray with Deet; to protect against deer ticks, tuck your pants into your socks. If you are using ladders, make sure they are in good working order. Shut your cell phone and avoid distractions when you are working.
Work with neighbors, community gardeners, and youth groups to start and maintain a nut tree nursery. In this way, replacement trees will be available when trees in the orchard need to be replaced, or if there is room to add more trees. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Give young people a challenge; acknowledge and reward them for their work, even if they fail. Help them to learn from their mistakes. You will be encouraging a spirit of cooperation and inspiring future nut tree farmers.
Jerry Henkin, Vice President, New York Nut Growers Association (www.nynga.org), and Librarian, Northern Nut Growers Association (www.nutgrowing.org).