A Fieldtrip to Kentucky Nut Country

(scroll to bottom for a photo gallery)

There’s a good gang of new tree croppers here in western North Carolina. We’ve been exploring the wondrous world of fruits and nuts in our yards and public parks and on our homesteads and the crew, the van, and Fred Blankenshipfarms. We heard tell, through organizations like NNGA and NAFEX, that just over the mountain in Kentucky there’s a bunch of growers who’ve been at it for decades, collecting, selecting, and cultivating the choicest cultivars of tree crops. A crew of us got together and decided to organize a field trip to eastern Kentucky see what we could learn.

On the first weekend of October 2014, in a hard fall chill, a dozen or so of us piled into a big rental van and made our way west and north. Our destination was Cedar Creek Vineyards, where our host Micah Wiles and his family graciously let us set up camp for the weekend, and we would get there by way of Norris Dam, home of the Tennessee Valley Authority experimental tree crop nurseryDSCN2296 established in the 1930’s. After crossing over that megalithic monster of water retention, we rolled down into a long driveway with wide floodplain fields of tree plantings on either side. We looked out the windows as if on a safari tour at rows of 60-foot black walnuts, a sparse grove of towering cherries, sawtooth oaks spreading out gloriously in open fields, a hulking che shrub as big as a house, a stand of jujubes showering ruby fruits of all shapes and sizes. We ate a picnic lunch in the jujube grove, then grabbed our pails and descended upon the carpet of fallen and falling fruits, unleashing our inner Ziziphus zealots. We left Norris Dam several gallons heavier of not only jujube, but also autumn olive (nice, low-astringency fruits from shrubs heavy with the crop) and acorns (large, low-tannin sawtooths).

We arrived at the Wiles farm as the sun was setting, quickly pitched our tents and kitchen, whipped up a stew and made a fire. As we were huddled around the fire sharing food, music, and meads (blueberry ginger, wineberry, lemon and orange zest, and apple cider), there came a sound in the distance like a highway getting closer. What was it? A blast ofour encampment at Cedar Creek Vineyard damp cold air came and brought behind it an unholy downpour that sent us scurrying to our tents.

 A breakfast of Landmine Oats (including jujube pits and autumn olive seeds) got us going and we started out to find the home and orchard of Mr. Larry Dalton, a long-time home orchardist andChicken-of-the-woods nut enthusiast now in his 80’s. When we got near the house, we missed it, driving past in search of numbers on the mailboxes. Several people in the van commented on a giant chicken-of-the-woods mushroom on a large roadside oak. When we turned around, we discovered the mushroom grew on one of Larry’s trees! We took it as a good omen for the trip, especially when he invited us to harvest it (not so interested himself in neon yellow and orange, brain-shaped foods). The mushroom fed nearly 20 of us and we still had some to divvy up on our return to Asheville.

Larry Dalton

Larry greeted us at the driveway and guided us toward the backyard, where a tidy lawn with scattered nut trees gives way to the well-tended, parklike orchard he’s been raising since 1982. When Mrs. Dalton told us from the house to let Larry know he should put his teeth in, Larry waved off the suggestion, informing us with a gummy grin that “I ain’t eatin’ anything!” And so we began.

Larry’s growing lots of Carya varieties: seemed like one example of most of the known cultivars of hickory and hican, some local selections (like a seedling from a famous tree at Berea College), the ‘Indian series’ of pecans, several black walnut varieties, some Asian pears, and several other odds and ends. We learned a lot from Larry as we chased him and his dog around the two-acre orchard. Here’s a sample of entries in my notebook:

  • if the hull ‘sticks tight’, the nut was aborted
  • in pecans, wavy leaf indicated zinc deficiency. Granulated zinc binded by organic mulch(?)
  • in black walnut, lack of vigor, pale green leaves indicates boron deficiency
  • nuts with no leaves indicates anthracnose. The nuts are no good
  • grafting Carya: last week of April through June, let leaves get to the size of squirrel ear, 70° for graft take. Make 2 half rings below the graft to prevent ‘flooding’ for pecans
  • when pecan grafted to hickory, the top will outgrow the bottom
  • pecans take 6-7 years to bearing, hickory 10-20 years to bearing
  • T-92 is one of Larry’s favorite. Also loves Simpson #1Touring Larry's home orchard
  • “unless you want something to fool with I wouldn’t fool with a hican” – worms love them, pollination is tricky, often they don’t fill
  • it’s pronounced HICK-in
  • in a drought, pecan will abort its leaves and crop, hickory and hican won’t when grafted to pecan and can die
  • nut size varies from year to year
  • girdle a tree and let it dry out standing rather than cut it down, then when it comes down you can put it right in the woodhouse
  • black walnut – nuts will turn black if hull stays on too long. If you can push the hull in with your finger, it’s ready to come off.Larry's weevil trap on a hickory tree
  • Air dry the nuts a couple weeks, then return to the mixer to clean up
  • Hunt’s cracker is Larry’s favorite for Black Walnut
  • ridges in black walnut hulls means the nut is no good. Then hull them, then float test them
  • Larry sprays the ground around hickory and pecan and trunk for weevils. This is the only spraying he does

Mrs. Dalton came out to chat with us and showed off some newspaper clippings where he was featured in articles about his nut growing. She was quite proud of his achievements but did not talk so glowingly about Larry having brown stained hands for several months in the fall from messing with walnuts! One of our crew asked him where he planted his Yoder #1 tree – he said it was in the front yard by his door. “Then where is your Grainger?” was the follow up. Larry grinned and said “it’s in the dog pen.”Larry's freezer full of bags of shelled hickories, pecans, and black walnuts he eats and sells to local bakers

Larry wrapped up by showing us the nut shed near the house, where he stores his crops. He then invited us to help ourselves to the many gallons of one- and two-year old black walnuts and hickories stored in buckets in the shed, which we’ve since been eating, sharing, and usingLarry Dalton, his nut-hungry squirrel dog, us, and our magnificent mushrooms!to show folks the amazing nuts NNGA has.  We also nearly cleaned out his chest freezer, buying up dozens of bags of the shelled hickories and pecans he sells to local bakers. We bid the Daltons farewell, packed our nuts and ourselves back into the van and cars, then caravaned over to England’s Orchard and Nursery to visit Clifford England.

After a very merry ferry ride across a river, and one of our caravan nearly running out of gas in theKentucky countryside, we arrived at Cliff’s for an afternoon tour. Clifford England is a large manIMG_4267 with a presence to match his stoutness, and the group quickly fell into the world of Cliff and his menagerie of tree crops. In his army boots and sunglasses, he strolled us through his workshop shed, greenhouses, nursery beds, and across a few acres of his sprawling, hilly orchard. Cliff is growing dozens of varieties of chestnut, Asian persimmon, and jujube, as well as American
persimmon, mulberry and others. He’s excited enough about
how Asian persimmons are growing for him (“persimmons will improvise, adapt, and overcome!” Cliff says) that he’s planting out several acres for orchard production. He’s growing persimmon seedlings and topworking them, leaving one branch to see what kind of fruit the seedlings make, hoping for novel varieties.One of the many, many persimmons at Cliff's

Cliff is enthusiastic about chestnuts too (he mentioned he’s growing all 11 species), but since his chestnuts were infected with gall wasp, he can’t offer chestnut scions or plants anymore. The gall wasp infects the last 3 buds of the branches and makes a very apparent gall that reduces vigor and nut productions and can kill the tree. But Cliff’s chestnuts were quite productive in spite of the gall wasps, some of them yielding fruits far larger than any chestnut I’d ever dreamed of (particularly Mariguele and Lockwood varieties). He bark grafts chestnuts when it’s hot and dry (usually in July) using dormant scion, similar to walnuts. Other random tidbits from our visit with Cliff:

  • Cliff prefers the splice graft to the whip and tongueA brief break among the chestnuts
  • graft jujube when it’s dry because they’ll bleed
  • grafts pawpaws by spring budding and June chip budding with dormant wood
  • On planting: “whatever dirt come out of the hole, put the same dirt back in the hole”
  • Korean #1 is a sour jujube variety that’s really nice, especially if you find jujubes overly sweet (or if you’ve just been bingeing on Asian persimmons all afternoon)palm-sized chestnut

As we ended the tour, a few of us bought some plants from Cliff, we gave him a bottle of mead to say thanks, and he made sure to give each and every one of us a bear hug. It had been an incredible day, and we still had a wine tour, tasting, and shared meal around the fire to look forward to.Cliff and the gang Not to mention the next day’s visit to see Fred ‘Mr. Hickory’ Blankenship himself.

We headed out from Cliff’s place in time to get back to Cedar Creek Vineyard, where Micah toured us around the farm and his parents toured us through the winery and gave us a tasting of their wines and mead. Micah showed us his nursery beds and test orchard near the house, where he’s trialing varieties he introduces. Out in some pasture fields, he’s planting a hedgerow of tightly-spaced fruits, nuts, and forage crops into the existing pasture, protecting the small plants with polywire fencing until they mature. He’ll manage certain species, like mulberry, by coppicing (cutting back nearly to the ground) to form a dense shrub. While we toured the farmstead, a chicken-of-the-woods stew was brewing on the stove, which very nearly burned when the whole group became locked in a staring match with his cattle herd. We enjoyed another evening around the fire with full bellies, retiring in time to get up before sunrise to pack up and head out to see Fred Blankenship.

We met Fred at the park and ride near his place, us in our big, white rental van, Fred in his red ‘82 Ford pickup with HICKRY for the license plate.The Hickorymobile His site is in flattish, corn-tobacco-spray-erosion-country in north central Kentucky. When he arrived 17 or so years ago, the soil was spent, hard, and dry. A testament to this is a 14 year-old hickory he planted that’s barely reaching past 15 feet. Under his stewardship, a layer of topsoil has returned and bears an open, savannah-like, multi-layered garden of tree and shrub crops.

Fred BlankenshipFred, in his 70’s, is full of energy and excitement, out ahead of the group nearly dashing from tree to tree. Each little place in his landscape is full of stories and reminders of stories and keeping up with him felt a little like trying to catch a wise old squirrel to ask him about the mysteries of the nut universe. I scribbled madly to catch what he was offering. Here’s some of it:

  • He has a 16 year-old Grainger seedling that has not yet fruited
  • Fred says in selecting rootstock, look for good lenticels. The tree will grow faster because it has a higher capacity for gas exchange
  • Fred spoke of ‘first generation influence’, where the pollen source affects the qualities of the fruit. This depends on sensitivity of the receptor and dominance of the pollinator. For example, he has a Baird #2 hickory that when pollinated by Bullnut hickory (which apparently was one of Bud Luer’s favorites), looks more like a Bullnut
  • A good nut ‘fills tight’
  • Fred often gets 3 years to bearing from grafting on a 25′ hickory
  • say ‘shuck split’ 5 times fast
  • Fred says Browse makes rootstock grow better, “it’s an improver for sorry rootstock”. I’m pretty sure he was referring to a variety and not the pastime of deer.
  • Says Chinkaburr oak comes true to type
  • Buart nut, pronounced “beeyART”, one syllable; acorn is pronounced ‘AY-kerns’
  • Says human hair deters squirrels, gets it from local barbershop or salon and spreads it around some trees
  • Nuts, nut grower, newbiesFred taught us how to know if a hazelnut is filled: drop it on a hard surface from about 18” – if it bounces, it’s empty. If not, there’s a nut in that shell
  • He uses white electric tape, writes on the sticky side and tapes it together for tagging grafts
  • He showed us his 90-degree cleft graft (just what it sounds like), which has 4 points of contact
  • for zinc deficiency, he uses zinc coated nails driven into the trunk
  • cows like black walnut, says ‘it’s like licorice to them!’
  • His Crestwood seedling oak began bearing at 5 years(!)
  • He soaks corn in whiskey to poison squirrels, as well as hunts them as he mows and employs a squirrel dogold corn sheller adapted for hulling walnuts
  • Fred uses the Hunt nut cracker for black walnuts
  • Selber and Simpson are good keeper hickories, Grainger goes rancid quickly
  • walnuts will keep in a dry place for 2 years
  • he stores seeds in damp sawdust in the garage
  • for shellbarks, he dries them til they crack, then stores them; otherwise, they’ll rot.
  • the ‘head’ of the tree is from the ground to the first limb
  • Fred used modified corn sheller for hulling walnuts. Larry uses his foot.
  • Fred let us dig some suckers of his best American hazel, a variety he calls ‘Front Porch’

Thin shells, big meats!We weaved through most of Fred’s savannah orchard and then gathered around Fred’s cracking table where he cracked out, compared, and commented on the various varieties of nuts we had gathered on the tour. We then had a massive buffet of fruits, nuts, and leftovers before hitting the road back to Asheville.

We learned a ton of useful information from these veteran growers and began to build relationships across regions and generations. We also, by physically being in those landscapes, being in the presence of these men, and eating the delicious fruits of their labor, developed a clearer picture of what we have to look forward to and a feel for the beauty and abundance we are working to create. We’re very much looking forward to our next field trip and we hope you’ll join! Keep up with us at NuttyBuddyCollective.com.  -JH

2 thoughts on “A Fieldtrip to Kentucky Nut Country

  1. Joyce Evans

    What a wonderful story. Are you thinking about a trip to far western KY to sample the papershell pecans that grow on islands in the Mississipi River? Also the scaley bark (may be the same as the shell bark you mention) hickory nuts of western KY are wonderful as are the black walnuts……..When I was a child, those three were really the only nuts we gathered and ate. It is so good to learn how people are cultivating and caring for this wonderful fruit. Thank you, Joyce


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