Sunday, July 02, 2006

Nuts & Horticulture

Badgersett Research Farm has some interesting commentary on chestnuts and hazlenuts, specifically their hybrid varieties that bear heavily beginning at 2 years and respond well to coppicing. While this is interesting on its own, several features of the chestnut/hazlenut arboriculture potentially mesh very well with what I've previously written on Creating Resiliency & Stability in Horticulture and on Tuscan Hilltowns and Hamlet Topology.

To start with, chestnuts have been a traditional staple crop of much of Italy (Tuscany and Sicily still harvest significant quantities) where they have been successful partners with localized human culture for several millenia. Second, the hybrid species of chestnut and hazlenut in development by Badgersett bear heavily, early, and very consistently year on year--even in drought--as tall shrubs (~12') rathern than towering trees while simulaneously producing excellent quality and quantity of coppiced fuel wood. Finally, the two nuts complement each other quite nicely from a nutritional and practical stanpoint:

Hazlenut is very high in fat, about 70%, and produces a very high-quality, light oil for use in cooking, as fuel, etc. And its excellent flavor and versatility in cooking make it a welcome part of any horticulture scheme.

Chestnut is almost the exact opposite of the Hazlenut, with about 1% fat and primarily carbohydrate (78%). While it spoils quickly when fresh, it can be dried out to last for years, and makes a gluten-free flour that is a common part of vernacular Italian cooking. The lack of gluten (unlike all cereal flours) means that it has the same health advantages touted by the paleo-diet concept, but without the gluten it is best in unleavened breads, cakes, muffins, pastries, etc. Because the dried nuts can be stored for years, the surplus from one harvest can be stored and made into flour to compensate for any future shortfalls in horticulture-system productivity.

Both hybrid species of the Chestnut and Hazlenut appear to work well in Zone 4 (having survived winters to -40F), so this pairing may be a viable alternative in most temperate zones. Dryfarming these species seems to work best with 30"+ of annual rainfall, but this can likely be extended into drought-prone regions by use of mulch basins, rain-collection basins, swales, or a variety of other techniques.

Add a permanent green-manure/forage cover-crop and a flock of chickens to the pairing of chestnut and hazlenut and a very small area (1/2 acre) could likely meet the nutritional and fuel-wood needs of four people, consistently and sustainably, and with very minimal labor input--in fact, I think that such a system could rival the low labor requirements of even the most favorable hunter/gatherer systems... even if this is a stretch, it seems like a very good component of a more diverse horticultural system.


Fazal Majid said...

Chestnuts are very common in the Ard├Ęche region of France, which was very poor. In olden days, chestnut flour was used as a cheaper substitute for wheat flour in bread, in the proportion of 1/4 chestnut flour for 3/4 wheat flour.

rich said...

There's a couple of characteristics of this guild that should be taken into account....

-First, chestnut likes a rich soil. I've had some problems with mine (in Western OR) when I didn't amend the soil enough. Now that I've discovered the neighbor's horse stables, I think they'll work out.

-Filberts like a somewhat sweeter soil (again, this is in OR). I've read that you should never lime a chestnut, so soil preferences could get a little complicated with these two.

My chestnut - filbert orchard went in this spring...the wierd spring weather killed some of the chestnuts, but I've found that if you aren't killing a few plants, you're not growing

The Humanity Critic said...

Great post. I never thought I would enjoy a post containing chestnuts, but I did..

Jeff Vail said...


Good luck with your orchard. I am actually looking at Oregon specifically (though somewhat abstractly) as I think about Filberts and Chestnuts--my parents have a few acres in Amity, so I'm envisioning how this could be applied to their property. Ultimately I'm envisioning a kind of super-guild that would include a number of each interplanted with fruit trees as appropriate, some kind of appropriate N-fixing shrub and/or green manure cover crop, as well as any supplemental forage required to support a (small) flock of chickens--ideally a complete forest garden anchored by Filberts and Chestnuts. Any thoughts?

rich said...


Hey, Amity's just down the road from us...we're in Yamhill, about 20 miles away. Drop a line sometime when you're visiting your parents.

Goumi, Autumn Olive, and Siberian Peashrub would all be good N-fixing components of your guild. The downside of a cover crop with chickens is that they end up decimating it unless you have less than 10 chickens per acre or so, and even then the area around their housing and feeders gets wrecked regardless.

Once the trees get established, a few sheep grazing the understory keep the greenery in check, and provide for nutrient cycling, as well, keeping you from having to manage the spring flush of growth. Ruminants essentially flatten the boom-bust growth curve of the cool-season crops, which are what most of the cover crops that do well out here are (annual rye, crimson clover, field peas, fava beans).

There's a relevant thread that just started on the permaculture listserv...its only open to members, but is worth signing up for

nulinegvgv said...


White Dutch Clover (Trifolium repens) and Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)both work well as perennial cover crops for fixing nitrogen. They'll also provide forage for the chickens given you don't have so many that they decimate the crop.

rich said...

White clover and alfalfa are stellar as perennial cover crops...the downsides in western OR are that they need summer water (or good summer subirrigation) to thrive, and the gophers have a field day.

Jeff, is your folks' place in the flats (where subirrigation is a possibility), or in the fruit and wine-growing hillsides?


Jeff Vail said...


It's on a hillside (upper half is flat on the hillcrest, lower half is on the North slope) at about 550' dropping to 500' (I think). They have a couple acres in pinot noir on Jury soil (I'm told that's significant, but...) and a large vegetable garden, but in particular they're thinking of clearing the lowest acre on their property to plant with something (it's flat and fairly damp, currently overgrown with blackberries.) It's the start of a seasonal stream so there's plenty of soil moisture--possible too much. I've also considered a variety of utilitarian bamboo species which might really thrive in that environment, but I think that something that is lower-effort but provides good edible return is their preference. Either way, good chance I'll be out there in a month or so--If they're interested I'll get in contact with you, perhaps we can take a look at your farm?


rich said...

The pinot noir-ists love those jory jacks up the sale price 150% these days

Sounds like there's some pretty good microclimates to play around with...drop a line when you'll be in the area; I'd love to show you the farm.