Planting walnuts

December 3, 2017

It was a perfect day for it this afternoon, so after our walk I grabbed the “Nut Wizard” Tom Stutzman gave me a while ago and had at the matt of blackened hulls under the walnut tree in the orchard. In no time a five gallon pail was full of mostly-hulled black walnut seeds, perfect for planting.

Over the years I have observed that black walnuts grow best from seed planted in late fall, and they’ll grow tall and straight if they have to struggle to get to sunlight because of competition from overhanging trees. The shelter belt of white pines on the north side of the property has quite a few young walnuts fighting their way to the top of the canopy, giving the hope of long, clear, veneer logs in sixty years. The nearest mature walnut tree is a half-mile away. Never underestimate the ambition and the horticultural talent of a grey squirrel.

For the last two years in November a pine-boughs merchant has sent a crew in to trim the lower branches of my white pines as they mature. The foliage ends up in a variety of Christmas decorations resold by vendors in the Toronto area. This activity enables the businessman to keep his construction crew working for an additional month in fall. They’re pretty good guys and they care about the trees. Ministry of Natural Resources personnel approve of this trimming procedure as it encourages the growth of higher-quality logs.

These five guys had spent a month walking around the stand of pine, so the grass was well packed for easy planting between existing stems. I kept a careful eye out for the shagbark hickory, yellow birch, and various oaks planted in clumps along with the pine. I left them to grow on their own, but I interplanted walnuts between the pines, every second row.

On an earlier planting project MNR Forester Gary Nielson told me that the black walnuts will eventually kill the pines and we’ll end up with a hardwood forest. That’s the theory: the pines are a nurse crop.

So on this lovely afternoon in late fall I picked my way down the long rows of healthy, seven-year-old pine saplings, pushing walnuts into the soft ground with my custom black-walnut planting stick. I put one in about every twenty feet. After I’d stomped 137 nuts into the turf the stained pockets of my oldest coat were empty and I decided to leave the remainder of the seeds for another day.

Should anyone care to try this pleasant task, I’d be happy to show you where to gather nuts. Be sure to wear gloves. While there is zero risk of infection from the walnuts because the rotting hulls are a powerful antibiotic, the dye contained in the dark mush will stain your hands so as to give you the once-in-a-lifetime experience of “seal flipper.” Donna O’Connor told me that high test gasoline will remove the stain, but I have yet to try it.

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My dad always had the view that if you were going to plant a tree, you should choose the biggest you could handle because it would produce shade more quickly that way. On the 24th of May, 1984, I used my dad’s loader to lift three, twenty-five foot maples out of the woodlot, hauled them, leaves and all, to Smiths Falls in the back of my Ford Courier, and planted them on Ted and Maria Ferrant’s lawn. When we moved away twenty-six years later, the three maples were fine shade trees.

Around the house on Young’s Hill I used the same technique: dig a hole with the forked bucket on the loader. Then, as soon as the footing allowed it during spring thaw, drive into the woods and pick up an appropriate maple to fill the hole. Keep the tree out of the ground for as little time as possible. Water sporadically the following summer.

As long as I dug the trees into a sloping bank in a fairly dry location, they all lived. Similar plantings along the road did not succeed, though. I guess a shoulder next to a ditch, showered regularly by sand and salt, is too extreme an environment for a hard maple.

This weekend Charlie wanted trees to shade the back windows of his garage. The only problem was the high water table where he wanted to plant them. If we dug them down, the maples would have wet feet, and when we planted the maple orchard on the northern corner of the property for the plowing match, any of the bare-root saplings we plunged into a flooded hole died soon after.

Mom and I had decided to cull one maple from her perennial bed. It grew in the shadow of a promising, taller maple, so it was the first target today. Charlie and I dug enthusiastically around the root ball, but we couldn’t move it, no matter how much we pried.

Away I went for the old Massey Ferguson 35. Its lopsided loader has a narrow bucket with forks, though Peter Myers made me a plate to keep topsoil from falling off the root ball during these operations. It could be relied upon to push a 29″ wide “shovel” quite deeply beneath the roots of the tree. Charlie directed me into position with a series of frenetic hand movements. The tractor grunted, but the down pressure on the loader enabled me to get under it and lift the ball free of the rose bushes.

We carried our victim over to the back of the garage and I plunked it down on the turf. The tree needed to be higher than the surrounding land, so I brought a bucket-full of topsoil from a pile and put Charlie to work with a shovel. I think the covered root ball made a rather elegant berm on the lawn. Promising to do all mowing around them, Charlie brought stakes from the shed and carefully tied the sapling into place. The thing was done.

That had gone well. I had earlier shown Charlie a larger maple on a corner in the woodlot where it clearly wasn’t enjoying itself, covered with several species of vines and overshadowed by a black walnut tree. We decided we might as well try to dig it up and drop it into an abandoned hole at the other side of the garage.

My early memories of the Massey 35 involve getting the thing stuck in the road to the woodlot, two springs running. But conditions have improved with gravel imported for the plowing match. The ground showed no frost when I skidded the bucket off various rocks in an attempt to undermine the maple. Overpowering this tree wouldn’t work; I’d have to dig all around it. The poor old Massey dug and pried. On the fourth attempt the tree came free of the ground. With large pruning sheers Charlie disconnected our specimen from the trailing vines and we headed for the house.

This tree with its root ball was pretty heavy, but it slid into place just like the other maple. It sat up quite high above the soil level, hole or not, so I hope this maple will find enough dry soil to survive.

Family members came to look and all agreed that the back of the garage looks better with a couple of shade trees.

Tree Planting Day

April 29, 2010

Leeds County Stewardship Council contractor Jane McCann demonstrates how the mechanical tree planter works.

Jane and her crew put in about 7,500 trees today, primarily white pine, but with sizable clumps of tamarack, white oak, yellow birch and shagbark hickory as well.