Walnut Trees On The Farm

Walnuts from the walnut trees on the farm.

Planting Our Baby Walnut Trees.

The McNamee family had a few walnut trees planted on the roadside near the home farm, so Grandma always had plenty of nuts to spare.

Long ago, when we popped our transportable house onto its current site, we created a perfect orchard space just over the fence. But while I was still procrastinating over the best fruit trees to choose, Terry decided to plant walnuts instead.

So one afternoon we packed up spades, containers and our four kids and trundled off to Grandma’s. There were plenty of sturdy little saplings growing under the old trees. We dug up a dozen and planted them over the fence.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. I wish I knew then what I know now. Back then, I thought all walnuts were the same. Now, I know there are Black walnuts and English walnuts. The difference is important.

Black Walnuts are small and the shells are thick and hard to crack. It’s almost impossible to extract the whole walnut from these tough nuts. These walnuts are mostly used to supply beautiful hardwood for  furniture.

We have many Black Walnut trees in our grove.

English Walnuts are larger and sweeter than their Black Walnut cousins. These are the eating nuts.

We have only a few of these – and how I wish we had more.

They’re easy to open and far more versatile to cook with, so these are mainly the nuts that I collect. The black walnuts we leave for other creatures to eat.

Walnut Trees on the farm.
The walnut trees that took over my orchard space more than 20 years ago. There’s some debate in our family as to the exact year they were planted.

Race For The Walnuts

Northern hemisphere nut-gatherers often have to race with the squirrels to collect their nuts. We don’t have squirrels in New Zealand but there are plenty of other animals who think that walnuts are a tasty treat.

Possums love to crunch them up and we often spot them up in the walnut trees at night. Rats love them too, and the birds will peck holes in the softer shells to eat the nuts inside.

Even the dogs sometimes crunch on a hard green outer fruit, only to spit them out in disgust when they reach the nut inside.

Harvesting Walnuts From The Trees

April (which is Autumn in the Southern Hemisphere) is when our nuts usually ripen and fall from the trees. Sometimes, we feel like we are gazing at those stubbornly attached nuts for days and days. But when the strong nor’wester wind begins to blow, suddenly they all fall overnight. Next morning, the ground under the walnut trees will be covered in nuts.

The first essential of walnut harvesting is having a good pair of gloves. Freshly harvested nuts will stain your hands an interesting shade of greeny-brown which can take days to wear off.

 Two nuts on the tree in their green rind.
These black walnuts are not quite ready to fall. Soon the rind will split and let the nuts fall from the tree branches to join those covering the ground.

On the trees, a thick, green rind encases the walnuts. When they’re ripe, this rind will often split open and let the inner nut fall cleanly to the ground.

Sometimes, however, the whole thing falls intact. Then you have to crack open the rind and pull out the damp-shelled nut inside. That’s when your hands are most in danger of walnut stains.

Next, You Need To Dry The Nuts

At this stage, the inner nutmeat is pale, soft and insipid. So we dry the nuts in their shells for a few days. That allows them to develop that familiar walnut flavour and crunch.

You can’t always tell from the outside how good the inside nutmeat will be. Sometimes we’ll open a perfect-seeming case and find a shrivelled specimen inside. Two years ago we had a terrible season, where every second walnut had rotted away inside. At least, that’s how it seemed to me when I was shelling them.

Nuts still  in their shells, drying in a box.
I bring the walnut shells inside and spread them out by the fire in the lounge. I’ve had some lovely flower arrangements given to me over the years and have saved these very handy long boxes from the florist. They make perfect walnut-dryers.

3 Ways To Store Walnuts

Unshelled

  • Unshelled nuts will stay fresh for years in cool, dry conditions.
  • Keep them in large bins, ready to scoop out as you need them.

😊 if you have plenty of storage space in a shed, garage or carport.

😦 if you’re time-poor and just want shelled nuts NOW!

Frozen

  • Get into production mode and spend a few nights watching TV and shelling all your nuts..
  • Pop them into repurposed plastic bags e.g. bread bags or resealable frozen veggie or cereal bags.
  • Freeze the bags. They stack easily and the nuts won’t stick together.

😊 if you have a large freezer.

😦 if you have a tiny freezer or don’t watch TV.

Vacuum Sealed

😊 if you’re into vacuum sealing and have shelf space in your pantry.

😦 are you ultimately adding unnecessary plastic waste into the world?

I’ve Got My Walnuts — What Next?

In health circles walnuts are now described as a superfood. They’re easy to eat by themselves but delicious in cooking too.

Check out What To Do With A Walnut for recipes and more walnut  tips.

What To Do With A Walnut

Walnut picture montage

Walnut trees are both a valuable source of food and wood and come in several varieties. Some produce beautiful nuts, perfect for eating. Others are much sought-after for their furniture-grade hardwood.

We have both sorts on our farm — but we didn’t realise that when we planted them. Now that I’m older and a little wiser, I appreciate the joys of having these abundant and beautiful trees on my doorstep.

Here are a few reasons why I’m so pleased to have walnuts in my life.

Walnuts Keep You Healthy

Walnuts are a rich source of monounsaturated fats and an excellent source of those hard to find omega-3 fatty acids. We’re always being told how essential these are to keep your heart healthy.

They’re chock-full of minerals too, including magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron. What a lot you can get just by eating a few walnuts every day.

Recipes

Like most nuts, walnuts can easily be added into your diet.

The easiest way is to simply eat a handful raw each day. Or chop them up and add a handful to your favorite salad, vegetable dish, fruit, or dessert.

But if you get bored with that, or someone in your family doesn’t like eating them raw, here are some of my favourite recipes to try.

Mixed-Grain Salad

Apricot Balls

Candied Walnuts

Walnut Wood

Black Walnut is the variety many craftsmen use to build beautiful, richly-coloured  furniture. But it is by no means the easiest of woods to use.

Walnut trees have a lot of branches and a thick layer of sapwood between their bark and the inner wood which is called the heartwood.

All those branches plenty of knots in the wood which may or may not be a problem for you.

At worst the knots might shrink and fall out, which could weaken the wood. At best they’ll add texture, variety and beauty to your furniture. Often, it’s simply a matter of taste.

Walnut wood can have many variations in colour too. That, and the wide, lighter sapwood ring can make it tricky for a craftsman to work with walnut wood. That’s why some people prefer to layer a walnut veneer on top of another base wood. Many harvested trees actually go to veneer makers rather than being sliced up for timber.

One day, when our trees are past their fruiting best, I hope that we’ll preserve them as a lovely table or dresser.

Can You Really Do This?

I tried this with both a freshly picked nut and a dried nut. The dried nut didn’t have any effect on the scratch on my table, but the fresh nut did reduce it a bit. Not quite as well as in the video, I must say.

New Zealand Walnuts

Walnuts are becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand and the NZ Walnut Industry Group has an interesting website.


Mixed Grain & Walnut Salad

A delicious and filling salad which makes a light main course, or substantial side dish.

Ingredients

  • 1 microwave pottle of “Steamed Grains”  (I use a “Super-Grains Multigrain Blend which includes brown & red rice, buckwheat, quinoa and chia”)
  • 2 cups leafy greens (lettuce, rocket, baby spinach etc)
  • 1 cup sweet grapes (cut in half)
  • 1 cup raw blueberries
  • 1 cup raw pineapple or apple (cut in chunks)
  • ½ cup cheddar cheese (cut into small cubes)
  • ½ cup walnuts (chopped)

Dressing                                          

  • 2 tbsp rice bran oil
  • 4 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp chia seeds
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Microwave the mixed grains as recommended on the packet then allow to cool while you prepare the other ingredients.
  2. Toss all the salad ingredients (including the cooled grains) in a large salad bowl.
  3. Tip all the dressing ingredients into a jar with a lid and shake them well to mix.
  4. Pour the dressing over the salad and mix gently.

Serves 2 people as a main course, or 4 as a side dish.

Variations

Substitute cooked quinoa for grains to make this recipe grain-free / paleo.

Substitute any raw fruit for the pineapple or apple portion.

Substitute cherry tomatoes for the grapes

Bowl of mixed grain and walnut salad.
When I made this dish (both to photograph and eat) I discovered that I’d run out of grapes. Since we live an hour away from the nearest supermarket, I couldn’t just pop out to buy some. Fortunately, there were heaps of tiny cherry tomatoes growing in the tunnel house. That’s how I discovered this delicious variation.

Sweet Walnut & Apricot Balls

These Apricot Balls use walnuts, seeds and dried fruit to make a sweet and healthy snack. They will fill you up as well as satisfying sweet cravings.

Ingredients

Ingredients for Apricot Balls
  • 1 ½ cup raw, shelled walnuts
  • ½ cup sunflower and pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 1 cup sultanas
  • ½ cup dried apricots (chopped)
  • ½ cup dried, shredded coconut
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 1 tbsp runny honey
  • 1-3 tbsp water (as needed)
  • More dried coconut to coat the balls.
  • 1 food processor with an “S” blade.

Directions

  1. Put the nuts and seeds into the food processor and process on high until they are well chopped (but not pulverised into crumbs.)
  2. Add the dried fruit and ½ cup coconut and process again until the fruit is thoroughly chopped and mixed with the nuts.
  3. Add peanut butter and honey and mix on lowest speed.
  4. The mixture should be sticky enough for you to easily form a small ball with your fingers. If not, add 1 – 3 tbsp water and mix again.
  5. Wet your fingers with water (to prevent them from being covered with sticky mixture) and form the fruit and walnut mixture into small balls.
  6. Coat the balls in dried coconut.
  7. Store in the refrigerator, where they will firm up and keep for several weeks.
Sweet walnut and apricot balls

Candied Walnuts

A healthy recipe for a sweet treat.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups shelled, raw walnuts

Caramel

  • 3 tbsp rice bran oil
  • 3 tbsp brown rice syrup
  • 1 tsp cinnamon powder
  • ½  tsp salt

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 180℃.
  2. Put the caramel ingredients into a large saucepan.
  3. Bring them to a rolling boil then simmer for 1-2 minutes. (If you cook this mixture too long the oil and syrup will start to separate.)
  4. Remove saucepan from the heat and add all the walnuts.
  5. Stir very well to coat the walnuts with the hot, sticky mixture.
  6. Tip onto an oven tray, and scrape all the leftover caramel over the nuts.
  7. Cook for 5 minutes, then stir the nuts well to coat them again.
  8. Cook a further 5 minutes
  9. Remove from oven and scrape onto another tray to cool. Clean the caramel off the tray immediately (or it will harden and become difficult to clean.)
  10. Once cool, keep the nuts in an airtight jar.

Variations

Brown rice syrup is a fructose-free sugar alternative, which makes this recipe ideal for those who are eating a low-sugar diet.

Substitute maple syrup for the brown rice syrup for a sweeter caramel.

Substitute popped corn for walnuts to make this recipe nut-free.

Candied walnuts

The Old Apple Tree

There’s nothing quite like crunchy, crisp apples straight from the tree. But if you ask your great-granny about her youth, I guarantee she’ll say, “Apples tasted better back then.”

And it’s true!


Since the 20th century we’ve let many old varieties of fruit and vegetables slip quietly into oblivion — and with them have gone taste… aroma…and diversity. Count up how many different apple names you can see on the supermarket shelves. You might see six, but years ago there would have been dozens throughout the country.

It’s both sad and dangerous for the environment that we’ve lost so much plant diversity in the last hundred years. That’s why we treasure the oldest tree on our farm.

Mystery

In a quiet gully, far from prying eyes, stands an old apple tree.

Why is she there, far from the houses and sheds on the farm?

The now-dry creek used to wash down through the paddocks and home orchards on the terraces above. Perhaps an apple tumbled downstream, or a bird deposited a seed as it flew by?

However it happened, a seed sprouted and against all the odds, our tree thrived. How long she’s been there no-one can say but she’s old in New Zealand apple-tree-years, make no mistake about that.

An ancient apple tree, grows alone in a farm gully.
The old apple tree nestles in a gully, far from prying eyes.

A Special Apple Tree

But it’s not just the isolation, nor even her age that makes our old girl special, for she is a heritage tree. Because she has grown from seed this tree is actually unique — the only one of her kind in the world. You can’t be more special than that.

And her apples are beautiful; cooking apples like your great-grandparents grew. Raw they are tart on your taste buds, but cooked they turn fluffy, sweet and delicious. You might find apples like these in a farmer’s market, but never on the supermarket shelves.

Apples on the tree on a rainy day.

Our family loves this old apple tree, and when we climb up the gully each year at harvest time there’s a niggle of worry at the back of my mind.

“What if a fire raced unexpectedly down the dry gully? Would we lose her if disease struck? Even trees succumb eventually to old age…”

The world is losing its unique plants and animals at an alarming rate. I would hate for our old tree to join that list.

And yet, we may have worried, but year after year we stayed stuck in procrastination mode, until one day we met Riverton’s famous tree-saving duo.

Tree-Saviours Arrive On The Farm

Robert and Robyn Guyton are passionate permaculturalists and have developed their once-gorse-covered Riverton property into a food farm which supplies most of their daily needs. They are also the guiding lights behind the Riverton Environmental Centre and are well known in Southland for their conservation efforts and their enthusiasm about saving trees.

One windy, wet Sunday in early spring, Robert and Robyn decided to explore the old orchards around the Garston area. Our son Chris found them peering at some trees near the woolshed.

“These trees aren’t bad,” he told them, waving his hand around the nearby orchard, “but would you like to see the best tree on the farm?”

Of course they would. So he drove them up the gully to the quiet old tree.

So that’s how it came about that when Terry and I drove home from church that Sunday morning, we discovered Robert, Robyn and Chris all dripping wet and happily stowing cuttings into their car.

“What a find!” the Guytons smiled.

Robyn Shields

One of the Guytons’ missions is to train other people up in the art of tree-saving. So they passed the cuttings onto Robyn Shields, a former student of theirs, who lives not far from Queenstown.

Robyn Shields photographing the heritage apples.
Robyn Shields photographing apples from our heritage tree.

Robyn’s always loved old things so the idea of saving plants that might otherwise disappear for good immediately attracted her interest.

Naturally, she was keen to learn how to graft trees from the Guytons as part of their programme aimed at saving Southland heritage apple trees. In fact, the idea combined Robyn’s two favourite passions: gardening and antiques.

Not long ago the Shields were immersed in running a busy paua shell and souvenir business in Riverton but when they retired to Queenstown, Robyn ‘seized the day’ and set up a tree-saving haven in her backyard.

Grafting Baby Apple Trees

To get a true replica of an apple tree you need a cutting — or scion —  from the new growth of your original tree, and a rootstock to graft it onto.

Rootstocks come from trees that are particularly hardy and disease-resistant. They’ll ensure that the new tree has well-developed roots and a good uptake of nutrients. The rootstock also determines the size of the new tree and you can find ones from dwarf all the way up to vigorous (which are likely to be huge.)

When the new growth has hardened up — usually in late winter — Robyn takes cuttings from the old tree, pops them in the fridge and ensures that she’s got enough rootstock growing in her nursery.

When spring arrives it’s time to graft the scion.

First, Robyn carefully makes a split in the top centre of the rootstock stem. The next step involves shaving the bottom of the scion into a wedge and inserting it into the split. She tapes the two together with a special tape which will wear off over time.

Our Baby Heritage Trees

When I went to visit Robyn this summer she showed me a group of splendid, year-old saplings from our tree,. They’re growing strong and straight in her nursery garden.

Heritage apple tree saplings in growing in Robyn Shield's tree nursery.

Interestingly, these saplings are hardy, and appear to be particularly resistant to insect damage. The weather had been warm and wet and Robyn’s garden was plagued with aphids, but there was not one to be found on our young apple trees.

In winter it will be time for the trees to move on from their protected nursery, so we’ve got until then to decide where to plant them on the farm.

Looking Ahead

Now that Robyn’s got the tree-saving bug she hopes to be able to replicate other rare fruit trees around the Queenstown area.

After all, there are remnants of old orchards which date back to Queenstown’s gold mining days — especially out in isolated areas such as Macetown, or closer to civilisation at the Chinese Settlement restoration in Arrowtown.

Of course, Robyn would need permission from DOC and other organisations before she can work in those sorts of places. But she is allowed to plant some of her newly-produced trees in a designated area around the lower Shotover. In the future, that could mean that some rarer fruit is available for all to enjoy.

Thanks Are Due

The English and Scottish settlers who came to Southland and Otago brought many trees from their homelands. They have adapted to New Zealand conditions and have now become unique to us.

In these days of mass production where plant diversity is plummeting in the world, it’s wonderful to have people who care enough to work to preserve nature in all its many diverse forms.

Thank you Robyn, Robyn and Robert for your work to preserve our own little slice of apple tree history.

Black bucket full of heritage cooking apples.
A bucket of heritage apples picked last April, ready to be cooked for meal-time goodness.

Autumn on the farm is such a busy season. The men are busy harvesting the grain but I’m focused on gathering all the other food that nature is providing. My 2018 “Autumn Harvest On The Farm” series is a celebration of nature’s bounty and the foresight of the farmers who began developing this farm more than 100 years ago.

Mushrooms Galore

Precious Pears

Hops In A Hurry

Gathering In The Grain