Black walnut trees were rare in northern Vermont when I first looked around in the late 70s. There were a few in a cemetery in East Calais, and two on an old farm in Woodbury. Friends and customers later showed me some prolific ones in Burlington near the university. I used to collect black walnuts as they rolled down north street in Montpelier and settled along the curb. I watched that tree get larger and hoped no one would come in the night to cut it down. There are stories like that, as the wood is very valuable, but I don’t want anyone to get any ideas.
Black walnuts grow easily from seed. Just ask any squirrel. The squirrel forgets most of the places she buries the nuts in the fall, so in spring they are growing into trees. This will be helpful to the squirrel’s grandchildren of course, and to ours.
If you are planting black walnuts, use seed or young trees grown successfully near where you live. Plant them 20 to30 feet apart and to the north of other gardens or fruit trees, as they will get tall and shade out other plants north of them. Each tree can bear many buckets of nuts. It takes about ten years to get the first ones, but then it is a steady flow each October.
If you come across a black walnut tree and you are allowed to harvest some, here are the steps.
Get them before the squirrels! Use your hands or a rake or a nut wizard tool to gather them up. Float them in a bucket of water. The ones that sink should have good nuts and the ones that float won’t. Take the ones that have settled and spread them out on the gravel or asphalt and start lightly stomping on them to get the green husks off. Put on your work gloves, as the husks are used as a natural wool dye, and they also naturally dye your hands very quickly. Pick up the inside hard black nuts and put them in a five-gallon bucket. Sweep the husks away to use for mulch or dry them for herbal use later.
Now run the hard inner nuts that came out of the husks under water and stir, stir, stir with a two-by-four or wooden handle. Change the water once or twice until you can see the ridges appear on the inner hard nut shells. Then pour them into an onion sack or other bag that drains well and hang in a basement or attic, so they will dry. Put some newspaper under the bag so the floor does not get stained black. Shake the bag once in a while to get air moving through them. After about two months, they are ready to crack and eat.
Black walnuts will keep for two years or so unopened. Once cracked open, store nut meats in the fridge. Do not try a nutcracker on these, as you might use on a hazelnut or pine nut or English walnut. Remember, these are the hardy Vermont black walnuts! You need a hammer and a rock, or a vise or a special heavy duty black walnut cracker to get to the nut meats.
But what a reward is waiting for you inside! Sparkling rich full nutmeats with high nut fat content and a high-quality oil. You can use a nut picker to gently pry out the nut meats from the inner shell.
Vermonters like to press these black walnuts into fudge or maple dishes.
You can make a nut pie similar to a pecan pie, but with black walnuts.
They are excellent to eat fresh.
They do not taste like the thin shelled store walnuts.
These black walnuts are mysterious, richly flavored and deeply satisfying.
I have never seen them for sale in stores.
You can grow them so easily and have your own store of high-quality protein source right in your front or backyard. The squirrels and I recommend you plant at least three trees, as two are needed for pollination to get nuts and the third will both help you get more nuts and also be a backup pollinator should one of your trees get sat on by a bear or a moose.
Just as they say about firewood, a black walnut warms you three times:
Gathering them and husking them.
Washing them and drying them.
Cracking them and eating them.
And a fourth time if you include persuading the moose to get up off one of your small trees.
David Fried runs Elmore Roots Nursery where they grow a lot of young walnut trees from their large proven hardy ones.