Free Eats, and Delicious

After last year’s bumper crop of black walnuts, filberts, and acorns, I didn’t expect much this year, nutwise. As I looked up into the few black walnut trees bordering the farmden, my low expectations seemed justified. In desperation of securing my annual supply of black walnuts, I gave a shoutout to the local community for black walnuts. I got good feedback — of trees, trees that, as the nut season approached, proved to be barren.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a few black walnuts on the ground beneath a couple of my favorite trees right here. A few days later, the ground was littered with nuts, perhaps not as much as in previous years, but still plenty. So it was time to get to work (details a few paragraphs ahead).

Walnuts in tree

Too many people have never tasted a black walnut. That’s too bad. The nuts are distinctively delicious (if you like them). I much prefer them to English walnuts, the nut usually referred to when anyone says“walnut.” Black walnut trees grow and bear relatively quickly, casting a pleasant dappled shade beneath their limbs. Just don’t plant one or allow one to grow where tennis ball size fruits littering the ground each fall would be objectionable.

Black walnut trees are abundant over much of central and eastern North America. The nuts are free for the picking, and usually yield more than enough to satisfy humans and squirrels alike. Many a homeowner who’d like to get rid of the nuts strewn over their front lawn will let you come and pick them up. A homeowner once even gathered them up for me!

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Get Crackin’


It’s finally time to get crackin’. Literally. Black walnuts are ready for shelling.
This nutty story goes back to early this past autumn as black walnut trees were shedding their nuts. The nuts fall in their husks, the whole package looking like green tennis balls. Lots of people curse the trees for littering lawns, sidewalks, and driveways. We, on the other hand, praise and collect the nuts.Cracked and whole black walnuts

The first step to the present day crackin’ was husking the nuts. The soft, fleshy covering is easy to twist off the enclosed, hard-shelled nut. But we’ve also tried many methods to speed up the process, from spreading the dropped fruit in the driveway and driving over them to pounding them through a 1-1/2” hole in a thick piece of plywood to running them through a suitably modified old-fashioned corn-sheller.Black walnuts in husksVarious black walnut hullers

There’s no way around it: Husking black walnuts is a tedious job. And messy, because the soft flesh readily releases a juice which stains everything a deep brown color.
A friend recently told me of some novice black walnut enthusiasts that husked the walnuts bare handed, assuming the stain would wash off when they were finished. Not so. My wife Deb, who husks our black walnuts, chooses to sit herself down on a stool, don rubber gloves, and twist off the hulls, coaxing firm ones off with an initial tap with a light sledge hammer.

(The stain, which is colorfast and resistant to ultraviolet rays, is very easy to extract from the hulls for ink, for dyeing textiles, and staining wood. Just mix the hulls or unhulled nuts with water and boil for awhile or let sit a longer while. Strain and you’re good to go.)

In not too long, we had a number of 5 gallon bucketfuls of hulled nuts — a slimy, ugly mess from bits of hull still attached to the nuts and from the myriad white maggots crawling.

Now it was my turn — to clean up the nuts. I loaded all the nuts into shallow harvest boxes that had plenty of large holes for air or water and drove over to a nearby car wash. After suiting up in an old pair of rain pants, a rain jacket, rubber gloves, and a face shield, and spreading out the boxes on the ground in the car wash, I gave them a thorough, water-only cleaning.Husked nuts

I then spread the boxes out in the sun for a couple of days to dry out the surface of the nuts. Squirrels would be a serious threat but I spread the boxes on our south-facing deck where our two dogs also spend much of the day unknowingly guarding the nuts. Each night, or if any rain was predicted, I stacked and covered the boxes.
After the nuts were sufficiently dry, I stacked the trays in the barn where our cat is the squirrel deterrent.

Then the nuts needed to be cured, which involves nothing more than leaving them alone in a cool, dry, squirrel-fee area. And that brings us up to the present day.

A Tough Nut

Black walnut is a hard nut to crack. No run-of-the-mill nutcracker is up to the job. The usual tool, which is effective, is a hammer against the nut resting on an anvil or concrete. Used with care, a vise might do the job.

Two problems: With the hammer, hitting your finger occasionally as you hold the nut is inevitable. You could, I guess, hold the nut in a pliers. With either method, you have to use just the right amount of force to crack the shell sufficiently in order to extract the nutmeats in reasonable sized pieces without crushing everything too, too small.
The hands-down best job for cracking black walnuts is, in my opinion, the “Master Nut Cracker” ( It’s expensive but well worth the money for the speed with which the nuts can be cracked and the large nutmeats that result from efficient cracking. Besides which, it’s a very well-made tool with a very ingenious design.

Once nuts are cracked, nutmeats still occasionally need further coaxing to free them from the shell. A useful tool that I use that almost everyone has is a type of wire cutter sometimes called a diagonal cutting plier. The right squeeze in the right place, the result of observation and practice, yields large nutmeats that pop right out.Prying out nuts with pliers

But Is It For You?

Black walnuts have a strong flavor that, like dark beer and okra, is loved by some but not enjoyed by everyone. But there’s no reason why everyone should like everything. Leave that goal to MacDonald’s. As L. H. Bailey, a doyen of horticulture, wrote back in 1922 (about apples), “Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many kinds of folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate tastes.”

Black walnut is one of my favorite nuts. And, the trees and nuts abound around here, and elsewhere, free for the walnuts in jar



A Good Harvest, But . . .

The black walnut harvest was abundant this past fall. Back in October, we gathered about a dozen 5-gallon buckets of of unhusked nuts, and, after husking, cleaning and drying them, set them in the cool, dry, squirrel-proof loft of our garage/barn (gabarn?).

The nuts are now sufficiently cured and ready for cracking. Two tools have made quicker, easier, pain-free, and more effective the once difficult and thumb-threatening job needing a concrete floor and a hammer. The Master Nutcracker makes elegant use of cogs and levers. For any nutmeats still gripped in a piece of shell, a “diagonal cutting plier” nips the shell piece to create a fault line that opens to drop out a piece of nutmeat, or to twists off a piece not fully cracked.Black walnuts and Master Nutcracker

This year’s harvest was from two trees. Most was gathered from the ground beneath a decades-old tree. That tree grows on what, in spring, is periodically waterfront property when the swale that it borders fills with rushing water. The other tree sprouted in well-drained soil a few years ago at the edge of woods along the north edge of our property. Now with an 8-inch diameter trunk, it began yielding nuts in earnest only a few years ago.

The opening day of nut-cracking season has highlighted the difference in nuts. Nuts from the younger tree not only are significantly larger, but they’re all well-filled with nutmeats that come out in large pieces. The old tree has yielded too many nutmeats that are dark brown and shriveled, or totally dried out, black, shriveled, and inedible.Good nuts and shriveled nuts

Genetics could be at play. Although both trees are black walnuts, each is a distinct individual within the species. Water might also figure in. Periodic flooding in the spring might leave too many of the old tree’s roots gasping for air at critical moments in nut development. Perhaps the old tree is still recovering from being swamped in water a few feet up its trunk during hurricane Irene back in 2011.

Perhaps it’s age. Probably not. Black walnuts are long-lived trees and I assume their fecundity goes hand in hand with their longevity.

Up to a few years ago, the large, old tree bore regular and reliable nuts that were plump with nutmeats.

Winter Dreaming

You’d think, after gardening for so many years with sufficient room for planting, that I would have by now grown every plant I could possibly want. Not so!

Cleaning up my desk, I recently came across a pile of papers clipped together, my pile of “plants to grow.” Over the years, whenever I see a plant of interest in a magazine or newspaper, I’ve torn out the page to add to the collection. The same goes for plants I might come across on the web or in conversation.Plants to grow

Swelling over the years, the pile has become intimidating. Daring to look at it would force me to decide whether such and such still worth growing and, if so, where to plant it. If an ornamental plant, where to incorporate it harmoniously into the landscape? If an edible, where best to site it for convenience in care and harvest? And do I have time to care for yet another plant? If there’s a plant offering both good eating and good looks, how to . . . well, you get the picture.

Perhaps the approach should be the same that some guy with too large a collection of shoes or some gal with too large a collection of cars might take: Vow to get rid of one for each new one collected. Or not.

Now Really, What To Plant Next Year

Okay, I’ve segregated the pile of “plants to grow” into two piles, one for plants to order this coming spring, and one for plants to keep on the back burner.

At the top of my list are three daphnes. I already grow Carol Mackie (Daphne × burkwoodii) for its fragrance and white-picoteed leave; the new daphnes can share a bed with her. Briggs’ Moonlight (D. × burkwoodii) has the reverse leaves, white with a green-picotee — a nice foil for Carol Mackie. Joining them will be Summer Ice (D. x transatlantica), which has just a thin line of white on its leaf edges. Also February Daphne (D. x mezereum), this one for its rosy-purple flowers that open in early spring on leafless shoots. All these daphnes are attractive but their main draw, for me, is the flowers’ jasmine-like perfume. They will make sitting on the nearby deck an olfactory delight from early spring right through summer.

How can I resist a plant called roof iris (Iris tectorum), both for its flowers and low fountains of foliage? It tolerates cold or dry conditions, and grows in sun or shade, so would be a perfect addition in name, needs, and appearance for MY green roof.

Another perennial slated for entrance next year is royal catchfly (Silene regia), a native of American prairies with fire engine red flowers. My plan is to grow them from seed to get enough seedlings to  plant in part of MY meadow.

That’s all for the coming year. What, no fruits, one of my specialties? No, I have all I need. Hmmm . . . what about quince?


Nuts Galore

    What a nutty time of year, literally! Chestnuts and black walnuts, two of my favorite nuts, were raining down, figuratively, just before the middle of the month.
    Black walnuts are free for the taking. Wild trees are everywhere around here, and keep increasing because of overlooked nuts buried by squirrels. The nuts are so abundant this year, and most years, that squirrels and humans can have their fill. (Not so with my filbert nuts; squirrels will strip those bushes clean.)
    Black walnuts have a strong flavor. Like dark beer, fresh blackcurrants, and okra, not everyone likes the flavor. That’s fine. Fast food chains might purvey foods that everyone sort of likes, while a home gardener and gatherer can grow and gather fruits and vegetable and nuts that he or she really, really likes, and ignore what he or she really, really does not like.
    There’s also, if you’re not a squirrel, the getting-to-the-nut problem with black walnuts. The first step is to remove it, as soon as possible after gathering the soft, messy, dark-staining husk. My wife, Deb, does this; I try and come up with contraptions to ease the job of husking 10 five-gallon buckets worth of nuts that eventually transmutes to 8 one-quart mason jars filled with nutmeats.
    We’ve gone through a few incarnations of huskers. One year I bought an old fashioned corn husker, which needed some modification with an angle grinder. It didn’t do the job. Another year I ran the tractor back and forth over the nuts in the driveway, a common method, but not effective enough.Various black walnut hullers
    In years past, Deb has given each nut a tap with a light sledge hammer, which is enough to loosen the husk so it can be easily twisted off. Another year, I mounted a flat piece of metal in a slot I cut in a short length of 2-by-4 wood. Rolling the nut over the metal edge was enough to make the husk easy to twist off.
    This year I drilled a nut-sized hole in a piece of wood and mounted it over a bucket. One whack with a light sledge hammer drove the nut through, minus the husk. Or, it was supposed to do that. One piece of husk, on the leading edge, alway stayed attached to the nut.
    So now Deb is back to one of the standard methods for de-husking black walnuts: Stomp on them with your heel, then pick them off to rub off any remaining husk.

Readying for Cold Weather

    Enough with the nuts . . .  tonight (October 10th) temperatures are predicted to be in the low 30s, which means the high 20s in this cold spot. Mostly, I and the garden are ready for cold. Still to be done are:
    •Close all hose spigots and open ends of drip emitters and main lines, watering wands, and hose sprayers to prevent the expansion of freezing water water from causing damage;row covered vegetables
    •Set up hoops and either clear plastic or row covers over beds of lettuce, Chinese cabbage, endive, arugula, and mustard greens. These vegetables tolerate temperatures well into the 20s, but I’ll cover them just in case. And they’ll anyway need the protective coverings soon;Row covered vegetables
    •Bring tropical plants indoors. Banana “trees,” staghorn fern, avocado, and clivia have laughed off cold so far, but tomorrow morning would not look so cheery if left outdoors. They get bright windows. A banana’s growing point is below ground which allows some gardeners to merely lop the whole top off the plant and store the bulb, in its pot, through winter under cool, dark conditions;Tropical plants indoors
    •Subtropical plants could survive temperatures into the 20s. I’m hoping for a crop from Golden Nugget mandarin, Meyer lemon, and Meiwa kumquat, so they’ve been walked indoors and perched near the most sun-washed windows in my house.
    •Feijoa, olive, and Chilean guava are, like citrus, evergreen, subtropical plants, except they can tolerate colder temperatures than citrus. They sport neither fruits, flowers, nor flower buds now, so will remain outdoors until temperatures dip into the low 20s. Potted rosemary is also in this category; because I will be visiting it many times over the months that follow to clip off sprigs clipped for pizza and salad dressing, it’s new home is a sunny kitchen window.
    •Basil will be dead tomorrow. Leafy stems picked today, their bottoms plunked into a glass of water, will provide fresh basil for a few weeks. Then it’s on to frozen basil pesto.

Cold Weather Takes a Rain Check, Without the Rain

    The Morning After: No drama. That’s the way I like it. The slider on my min-max thermometer registered a low of 29° last night. A far cry from my first gardens, in Wisconsin, where it seemed every year (for the five I gardened there) around September 21st I would be wake to a frigid morning and a garden of blackened tomato, marigold, and pepper plants. This morning, marigolds and peppers have felt the chill, but live on to die slowly day by day as the sun dips lower in the sky and temperatures creep lower and lower.


Watch Out, for Black Walnuts

Citizen scientists (that could be you and me), look up! At black walnut’s leaves. At the recent meeting of the New York Nut Growers Association (, Karen Snover-Clift of Cornell University went over the ins and outs of “thousand cankers disease of walnut.”
    Like Dutch elm disease — it pretty much wiped out American elms, once valued for creating a cathedral effect as their branches arched over tree-line streets — thousand cankers disease is spread by an insect. But the walnut twig beetle is only part of the problem. When it bores into the bark, it spreads a fungus that clogs up a tree’s “tubes.”
    With Dutch elm disease, once a tree is infected, the fungal culprit spreads within the tree to kill it. Not so with thousand cankers disease. With this disease, death comes from fungal infection that follows thousands of dark, dead cankers of insect feeding.
    Who cares about black walnuts? I do. Each fall the trees bear an abundance of nutritious and delicious nuts. (Not delicious to everyone; the strong flavor does not appeal to everyone. But no reason any food should appeal to everyone unless you’re MacDonald’s.) And, quoting from The Tree Book, written in 1914 by Julia Rogers, “The black walnut is majestic as a shade tree — a noble ornament to parks and pleasure grounds. It needs room and distance to show its luxuriant crown and stately trunk to advantage. Then no tree excels it.”

Walnut twig beetle

Walnut twig beetle

    And finally, black walnut yields among the most beautiful of woods for furniture and gun stocks. Again quoting Ms. Rogers, the wood has “silvery grain, rich violet-purple tones in the brown heart wood [and] exquisite shading of its curly veinings.”
    Thousand cankers disease moved into southwestern U.S. from Mexico (would a wall keep them out? will Mexico pay for it?) and has remained mostly in that region. Black walnut is native to eastern U.S., but the tree has occasionally been planted out west. More importantly, the disease has recently reared its ugly head at a few locations in the east. If infected trees can be identified, the disease can be contained to check its spread.

Thousand cankers

Thousand cankers

    Any tree with an infected branch is usually dead by the end of the season!
    So look up, scan the tops of any black walnut trees for limbs that are dead or show flagging foliage. Your job, and my job, is to look for these trees and then report them.
    For a more thorough treatment of thousand cankers disease, as well as reporting guidelines, see A good start in confirming the disease would be to take some good digital photos and send them to the state diagnostic laboratory, the county Cooperative Extension office, or department of environmental conservation.

Chipmunks, Still Cute Here

    I find chipmunks cute, as I’m sure everybody would — except for anyone for whom chipmunk is a garden pest. This year, for some reason, an especially good crop of chipmunks are scurrying about. I see them everywhere, except on my farmden. Their absence here could be attributed to my dog friends Sammy and Scooter, and my cat friend Gracie.
    I would not tolerate chipmunks if they were to eat my blueberries, my filbert nuts, my . . . pretty much anything I’ve painstakingly planted and nurtured. Besides dogs and cats, traps also are effective.

No, I’m Not a Strawberry Pest

    As if plants didn’t have enough pest problems. I recently attacked my strawberry bed with my scythe, swinging the sharp blade low enough to cut off every last leaf from the plants. No, I’m not just another plant pest, trying to kill plants; I was “renovating” the bed, preparing it for next spring.
    Shearing off the leaves not only removes leaves, but also disease spores on the leaves that inevitably find their way into any strawberry bed. Obviously, I raked up the old leaves and carted them over to the compost pile.
    The next step in renovation was to pull out any weeds in the bed. The major weed in the bed was  . . . strawberries. Strawberries spread by creeping stems along which grow new plants that take root, making them usually their own worst weed. Each plant needs about a square foot of elbow room to realize its full potential of one quart of berries per plant.
    So I ruthlessly ripped out enough plants so that my 3-foot-wide bed was left with a double row of plants spaced a foot apart. Older plants get decrepit with age, so those were the first to go.Spreading compost in strawberry bed
    Finally, icing on the cake. I laid a 1 inch depth of compost all over the bed and tucked up to each of the remaining, leafless strawberry crowns. A little fertilizer and straw, pine needle, wood shavings, or any other weed-free organic material would be almost as good.
    It’s been a few weeks and already new leaves are sprouting. The plants are on their way to a healthful and healthy crop of sweet, juicy berries next spring.Strawberry plants, a few weeks after renovation

Too Much Respect, Walnut Tech, and Nasturtium Homage

Last week I wrote that popcorn “don’t get no respect,” but should. This week: garlic, why so much respect?. It may be sacrilege — although it was not the case 50 years ago — to say that I’m not crazy over garlic. The amount of space people now devote to garlic in even small gardens never ceases to amaze me. If pressed for garden space, I’d fill every square inch with tomatoes, peppers, peas, and other vegetables that you can sink your teeth into right out in the garden, rather than garlic. You can’t purchase that experience; you can by garlic.
Okay, I do grow some garlic. But not well. My garlic’s roots don’t get to wallow in soft, mellow, compost-enriched, drip-irrigated soil along with my other vegetables. The cloves get tucked in an out of the way place where neighboring plants force its green shoots to stretch for light and the soil is not nearly as nourishing.
A challenge to grow something well can be more attractive than a good harvest, which is what induced me, a few weeks ago, to purchase some heads of California Softneck garlic for planting. Potential problems with this purchase did nothing to restrain me — again, for a potential challenge rather than future flavor.

First, it was a little late for planting. Garlic likes to be settled into the ground in early fall, even as early as late summer. Roots grow as long as the ground temperatures remain above 40°F.. Planted early, then, roots can begin foraging for nutrients and anchoring the cloves against being heaved up and out of the ground as the soil freezes and thaws.

The second problem is with the variety California Softneck. Softneck varieties are generally grown in — guess where? — California, and are generally, not always, less cold-hardy than hardneck varieties. Perhaps my purchase was a cold-hardy softneck. Perhaps not.  California Softneck does not seem to be a true variety name.
Oh well . . . into the ground the cloves went, 4 inches apart. Because everything else was so iffy about this planting, the cloves were awarded prime real estate, right in the vegetable garden. Because of late planting and dubious cold-hardiness, these cloves got further coddling with a mulch of pine needles to slow cooling of the soil.
I like a little garlic and even if California Softneck puts on a poor showing, next summer I will harvest some of the hardneck varieties I planted, as usual, in late summer in an out-of-the-way spot outside the vegetable garden.
Buckets of black walnuts awaiting processing have spurred new technology in backyard black walnut husking. The nuts are ubiquitous, delicious, and free for the taking. Problem is that they are wrapped in spongy, green husks that are messy and tedious to remove.
The usual approaches to husking are stomping on the fruits or driving repeatedly over them, then rubbing off the barely clinging pieces of husk. It’s a lot of stoop labor.
Enter a trowel, the kind with the serrated edge that’s used to spread tile adhesive. One edge of said trowel went into a slit I cut partway into a sturdy piece of wood, which kept the trowel oriented vertically.
  To husk, roll a nut along the serrated edge. With that done, a twist of the halves in opposite directions leaves half the husk in one hand. The other half peels away with ease.  This walnut-trowel technology works especially well with husks whose flesh is still plump, as they are when freshly harvested. Husks go into a bucket and nuts onto a tray for a couple of days of drying, then to the barn loft for a couple of months of curing.
My friend Bill is sticking with his stomping-on-the-fruit method of husking. Sometimes I also walk along and stomp a few nuts before stooping to gather them up. For bulk processing, though, I like using the trowel.
Every time I walk past the arbored gate into my vegetable garden, I get to admire the nasturtium vines hugging and trying to climb the locust posts. Red, orange, and yellow flowers continue to peek out from among the round leaves that still ooze the freshness of summer growth.
Nasturtium offers a lot of bang for the buck. No need to start plants ahead of planting out in spring. I just poke a hole in the ground and drop in one or two of the pea-sized seeds wherever I want a spreading

glob of greenery and flowers — perfect for, softening the stark contrast between a vertical post and flat ground or the sharp-looking edge of a wall.

If that’s not enough to recommend nasturtium, eating them would almost be. Either the leaves or the flowers are a spicy addition to any food. The taste is too sharp to wolf down in any quantity. Nasturtium is good en masse to look at and good with a light touch for eating.

        Late news flash: A few days after I wrote about and was admiring my nasturtium, night temperatures plummeted to 24 degrees F. The flowers melted into a tawny mass of ones and stems, all of which I whisked over to the compost pile before it turned to mush. It was a good run while it lasted.

Rational in Spring? No.

People are funny, and that includes gardeners. Gardening is basically simple: You put a seed in the ground and, backed by millions of years of evolution, that seed grows. Sure, there are a few more wrinkles, like choosing a sunny spot (for sun loving plants), a well-drained soil (except for bog and water plants), and enriching the ground with organic materials, and, perhaps, fertilizer.
But people love to complicate things. Hence, compost tea, biochar, and now, straw bale culture. A recent article in the New York Times about straw bale culture has everyone — or at least the handful of people who told me of their plans for the season — trying out this new and allegedly wonderful alternative to merely dropping seeds in the ground.
Actually, straw bale culture is not “new.” I wrote, over a decade ago, in my book Weedless Gardening, “Straw bale culture of vegetables originated in Europe from a need to grow plants where diseases had built up in greenhouse soils. The idea is to set a bale of straw on the ground and grow a plant right in the bale. You do this by poking a transplant into a hole gouged in the top of the bale and sprinkling some fertilizer on it. Given adequate water and nutrients, the plant roots grow throughout the bale, hardly realizing that they’re not in real soil. There’s no reason why this method could not be used to start a small garden anywhere. Put some paper down on the ground and create mulched paths between the bales.”
Yes, the method could be used “anywhere,” but there are also good reasons not to. First, straw bale culture is not really organic. With this method, plants are fed mostly by soluble fertilizers sprinkled on the bales. The essence of organic gardening is to feed the soil which, in turn, feeds the plants. Plant foods are released from the soil matrix through microbial action. Microbes respond, as do plants, to warmth and moisture, so nutrients become available to plants in synch with plant needs. In straw bale culture, roots are bathed in readily available nutrients whether they want them or not.
Barring diseased soil or trying to garden on a rock ledge, why use straw bale culture in the first place? What’s wrong with dropping a seed in waiting furrow in the ground? 
Not that I’m that rational a gardener, especially this time of year.
I’ve admonished many a person to begin with a site that needs a plant, determine what plant would do well with those site conditions, and then — and only then — to go out and get the plant or order it. All that’s

opposed to wandering into a garden center this time of year, when such places are awash with all sorts of desirable plants, picking out a plant you like, and then running around the yard with it trying to decide where to plant.

I, of course, did the latter. A couple of weeks ago, I read about Concorde pear, notable for having “the beautiful shape and crisp texture of the Conference, which gives it an elongated neck and firm, dense flesh. Its flavor is vanilla-sweet, reminiscent of the supple sweetness of Comice pears.” (Supple sweetness?)
The plant is readily available in Britain, but not here. All of which made it all the more desirable. Did I really need a Concorde pear tree? Aren’t the more than 20 varieties I now have sufficient? Evidently not.
As luck would have it, a nursery an hour away had Concorde. The nursery, of course, had  many other desirables also. So I also bought Black Gem, a named variety of black walnut. Not that there aren’t plenty of wild black walnuts around here, but this was a named variety.
So today I will run around the yard with these two plants trying to decide where to plant them.
The appeal of Black Gem is that it has a name. A “named variety” of plant is one that was either bred or selected from a wild population and found to be superior in one or more ways. Said plant is given an official name and then reproduced by some method of cloning, such as by cuttings or, as is the case with most fruit

and nut trees, grafting. McIntosh is a named variety of apple. Seedling apple trees that pop up randomly along roadsides are not. All plants of the same variety name are genetically identical.

Named varieties are not available for every plant and, for some, pretty much all seedlings are quite good. The hedge of Nanking cherries along my driveway — and now in bloom! — are merely seedlings, but all the plants are beautiful and yield, in a couple of months, great quantities of tasty cherries with virtually no effort on my part. No varieties are available.
Black Gem, according to the tag, yields “huge crops of light-colored, high-quality, delicious nuts that crack in large segments and offer a superior nutmeat-to-shell ratio. Thin husks slip off easily.” How could I resist?
Colossal chestnut


“Cure” is a funny sort of word. It means, on the one hand, to relieve from illness, and, on the other hand, to subject to some sort of preservative process. (And, on yet another hand, a few other things.)
The chestnut variety ‘Colossal’
Which brings me to my chestnuts . . .  no, they’re not diseased, but they do need to be cured. We chestnut growers face two opposing goals with our harvested nuts: Good storage versus good eating. A freshly fallen chestnut is rich in starch and moisture and, because it is alive, it’s able to fight off mold and store well if kept near freezing temperatures. But it doesn’t taste good. For best eating, the nuts need to cure, a process whereby some moisture is lost and some of the starch changes to sugars, dramatically improving flavor. But cured nuts don’t keep well.
This story has one other wrinkle, the chestnut weevil. This bugger lays eggs in the nuts while they’re on the tree and, after nuts drop, eats some nutmeat and then crawls into the ground for winter. 
Chestnuts begin to lose moisture usually as soon as they touch ground. They start at about 50% moisture and once moisture drops below 35%, they’re dead and will rot unless eaten quickly or thoroughly dried (for chestnut flour, for instance). The way to store chestnuts, then, is to make sure they’re plumped up with water, and the way to do this is with a dunk in water for about a week. Soaking also kills weevils. The nuts may begin to ferment, so the flavor is ruined after the dunking — but they’re not supposed to be eaten yet. 
Another way to deal with hydration and weevils is with a 30 minute dunk in water heated to 120° F. The temperature and timing are exacting so I this week opted for the less exacting week-long soaking from my just-harvested nuts.
Kept plump with moisture and at temperatures near freezing, nuts subjected to either water treatment will store well until — since they are alive — they begin to sprout.
The way to get chestnuts ready for eating is to bring them to a drier and slightly warmer, but still cool, location. Depending on temperature and humidity, the transformation from foul to flavorful could take from 3 to 14 days. Cooler temperatures and moister air lengthen the curing time, but also offer better flavored chestnuts.
(Much of this information was gleaned from an article by Greg Miller in The Chestnut Grower, Greg is the owner of the Empire Chestnut Company,, which sells high-quality chestnuts, chestnut trees, and chestnut seeds.)
The sweet potato harvest is in, as it should be before cold threatens. Soil temperatures below 50° F. cause chilling injury to the roots and internal decay. As I’ve written previously, I planted the vines atop piles of wood chips and leaves that arborists and landscapers dump here and that I spread as mulch later in autumn. All summer, the sweet potatoe vines multiplied and stretched out as far as 20 feet from my original plants. 
Unfortunately, it looks like the plants put more energy into making vines than fat roots. From 4 plants and a lot of vine growth I harvested a mere half-bushel of sweet potatoes. A couple of the potatoes were football-sized, others were below average, and too many were like swollen, orange strings. 
Stringy roots result from too rich a soil, but I didn’t even plant in soil! Probably the hot summer and sometime moist weather sped decomposition of the chips and leaves to release nutrients.
But we’re here to talk about curing. Like chestnuts, sweet potatoes need to be cured for good storage and good flavor. In this case, what’s needed are a week and a half of temperatures 80 to 85° F. and high humidity, not easy to find this time of year. My greenhouse benches are cleared and temperatures there  get quite warm on sunny days, so that’s were I’ve spread out the sweet potatoes. Longer curing times are needed at cooler temperatures, such as at room temperature. Covering potatoes with cloth or putting them in perforated plastic bags, or keeping them in the greenhouse, maintains high humidity.
Once cured, sweet potatoes are ready for eating. My paltry crop will be eaten soon, but for longer storage, medium humidity and temperature around 60° F. are ideal. Refrigeration is a no-no. The roots get chilled, just as they would in the ground (or my mulch pile), and show it. 
Black walnuts trees abound and the nuts are raining down and free for the taking. The sooner the fleshy husk is taken off, the less stained and better-flavored the nuts. No end of innovative ways have been devised for separating the husk from the shell, everything from spreading the harvested nuts on the driveway and running over them with your car to stomping on each nut to cutting the husks off to letting the weight of a small sledge loosen them and then twisting them off with gloved hand. We opt mostly for the latter, followed by hosing and drying them in the sun for a couple of days.
Of course, hulled black walnuts are not yet ready to crack and eat; they need to be cured, for a couple of months. Curing black walnuts is simple, involving nothing more than storage in any cool or cold, dry location impervious to squirrels. There are plenty of black walnuts for human and squirrels alike, but a cache of hulled, clean nuts is too tempting to those rats with tails.