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.


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

Hops In A Hurry

All the stars aligned last weekend and suddenly the hop harvest was underway. The flowers are not supposed to be ready for another ten days, but the weather gods smiled and the hops ripened fast.

Fortunately, it was Easter and those of us with other jobs were free. The plans I had for a quiet holiday were shelved. The hops had to be picked fast, so the call went out — HELP!

And, luckily for us, people responded.  

A Trial Crop

Hops are an interesting crop — and an experimental one for our farm. You see, according to some experts, hops shouldn’t thrive this far south in New Zealand. It’s too cold; too windy; too far down at the bottom of the world. But the experts hadn’t seen the vine Cousin Matt had been quietly nurturing in a sheltered corner of his garden down the road. We knew that one hop plant would grow, but could they grow on a larger scale? We decided to find out.

Hop frames in a tree lined paddock.

It didn’t take long to identify the perfect hop-growing-spot on our farm. We call it the “Tree Surrounded Paddock.” Sheltered from the wind in every direction, flat as a pancake, beautiful soil… a southern paradise for hops we felt. And, two years down the track, the hops seem to agree.

Little boy measuring a hole in the snow.

Hops seedlings may start out small, but in just a few months they shoot up four metres or more. Everyone in the family helped to build the frames needed to support such tall plants.

Tall Hop Plants

Hops need plenty of water and fertilizer, so we put in a small automatic watering system. Last year the timer worked perfectly. This year it didn’t. But, with the drought sucking every drop of moisture out of the farm for months, the hops had to get by on short rations, just like the rest of us. They got watered each week, but not on the ideal daily basis

Interestingly, the hops don’t seem to have worried too much. I mean, just look at all the flowers!

Hop plants on the sorting table.

Harvesting Hops

To harvest the flowers we cut the vines at the top and bottom and carted the whole plant to the picking room aka my brother-in-law’s carport.

On a large hop farm with a huge volume of flowers, this is all mechanised but we must pick and sort every flower by hand. Again friends and family and even the brewers rallied round and we got the whole crop done in two days. It’s not hard work, but it can be tedious. Fortunately, there was lots of good conversation, music and huge home-cooked meals to keep us all going.

Hop flower split to show yellow resin inside.
Inside a ripe hop flower. The yellow is not pollen, but the resin which provides the distinctive hop flavour.

Hops are used for making beer. The flowers contain a yellow resin which is used to flavour the beer. Different varieties offer different tastes and a brewer will blend them to get a distinctive flavour in the beer. Normally the flowers would be dried and made into pellets, to be stored and used when needed. But this year our hops are heading straight to Queenstown’s Altitude Brewing, who plan to make a special green-hop brew. Time is of the essence: the flowers must arrive fresh. There is a very short window of opportunity when making this sort of beer.

In New Zealand, and indeed worldwide, there is a burgeoning interest in craft beer. Homebrewing is on the rise and microbreweries are springing up in all sorts of interesting places.

Now, people are interested in beer as a drink to savour and appreciate. I think it’s all part of the slow living, back to our roots movement that’s happening all over the world.

Beer bottles with sun between them.

We aim to support our local micro-breweries by providing them with naturally produced, locally grown hops. Minimal food miles and maximum goodness. Sounds perfect to me.

Cheers!

More Hop and Beer Stories To Enjoy On The Blog

Altitude Brewing: The Great Adventure

Town and Country: Team Building At Its Best

Precious Pears

There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Harvest season is upon us here on the farm.

While my farming men are busy bringing in the grain, my own focus is on the bounty given to me by nature and the foresight of our pioneer ancestors.

This week the pears are ready to pick and preserve.

Bounty from the past.

When pioneering families settled their farms here in Garston 120 years ago, the land was devoid of trees. Grass, tussock and rocks were the main features of the narrow, river valley they would come to call home. Mountains lining both sides of the valley kept it freezing in winter and scorching in summer. Food was scarce and largely home-grown. The top priority was establishing a large vegetable garden beside a small, rough farmhouse. And next on the list was always planting the orchard.

For many years orchards, both small and large, were lovingly tended up and down the valley, but with the advent of sealed roads, speedy cars and modern supermarkets, the orchards have become overgrown and neglected in modern times. All the same, the sturdiest trees persist and each autumn they dot the valley with fragrant fruit for us to pick and be thankful for.

Harvest in the present.

So it is, that this week I’m harvesting the pears. It’s not as easy as you might think.

Sometimes the season is poor and there is scarcely a fruit to be seen, but this year there’s an abundance of pears on every tree. There are also birds, who can savour the best fruit on the highest branches which are impossible for me to reach. Not content with their share, however, they like to invade my territory on the branches below as well. They don’t eat the whole fruit: oh no! They would rather sample, leave a small hole, and move on to try the pear next door as well.

And then, we have the wind. Autumn can be a windy season around here, and this year is no exception. Many of the pears end up on the ground before they are ripe. These windfalls are often the ones I collect. They are easy to reach, and being still quite firm, have not taken any harm from their fall. However, danger lurks below. There’s a wasp nest somewhere around the orchard and the wasps begin feasting long before I arrive. They go for the half-rotten fruit, preferably already holed by the birds. So I tread very carefully under the trees, and restrict my haul to the unripe pears, preferably well away from the busy wasps.

The windfall pears are poles apart from Emerson’s perfect 10 minutes, and unfortunately, they are most unlikely to reach that happy state. For years, no matter how carefully I stored them or what ripening tricks I tried, many pears ended up going bad before they’re ripe enough to eat.

But I’m ever hopeful and this year I’m trying a new trick. I read some helpful pear hints in “This NZ Life” and they shed some light on my past pear problems.

Apparently, pears ripen from the inside out, so that even if a pear feels rock hard on the outside it may well be ripening on the inside.  So the best thing to do is to chill the pears as soon as you pick them, then bring out a few to finish ripening as you need them.

Pears and bananas in a paper bag to ripen
Apparently bananas and apples emit ethylene which will help to ripen, or at least soften the fruit.

Pears are a-cooking for the future.

Fortunately, if these new ripening ideas still don’t work, cooking will save the day. Poaching the pears in a sweet and delicious liquid will add flavour and soften the unripe fruit. I don’t have the time, skills (or quite frankly the inclination) to spend hours this week preserving multiple jars of fruit. I’ve tried it before and failed miserably every time.  So now I pick a little every day, and while the evening meal is cooking it’s often joined by a pot of pears bubbling gently on the stove. To preserve them, I’ll simply portion the cold pears into containers with the syrup and freeze.

Soft pears are cooked in a matter of minutes. I don’t trust these to the cooktop: they go into the microwave, with a little maple syrup, a knob of butter, cinnamon, vanilla essence and lemon juice for just a few minutes. They form their own delicious juice and taste exquisite. I’ve just finished cooking up the latest batch that did manage to ripen successfully.  I can’t wait to serve them up for dessert tonight.

But most pears will not be so ripe, so here’s how I’ll treat the main crop of windfall pears.

Pears poaching in a pot.
Pears in their sweet poaching liquid.

Simple Sweet’n’Spicy Poached Pears

8-12 firm pears            4-5 tbsp brown sugar or coconut sugar                

1-2 tsp ground cinnamon            1 lemon

Water                                                     Raisins or sultanas (optional)

What to do:

    1. Cut the pears into quarters, discarding core and stem. There is no need to peel.
    1. Put them into a deep saucepan on the stove (cooktop).
    1. Finely grate the lemon rind.
    1. Juice the lemon. (Use a lemon juicer to get as much as possible.)
    1. Add these to the pot.
    1. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon into the pot and add water until the pears are almost covered.
    1. Cover and bring to the boil.
    1. Simmer gently until the pears are soft but not falling apart. This could take 20 – 30 minutes, or even longer depending on the size of the pieces and the temperature of the cooking liquid. Slow is best.
  1. Once cooked, add a handful of raisins or sultanas if desired. Leave everything to cool in the pot. The pears will increase in sweetness and the dried fruit will plump up and add more flavour.

To serve:

I love these pears with maple-walnut ice cream. The walnut flavour goes so well with pears, but really any ice cream would be nice. Sometimes I add an extra topping of chopped, toasted walnuts. Cover the pears and ice cream with spoonfuls of the hot cooking syrup.

To download this recipe as a PDF click the link below.

Simple Sweet’n’Spicy Poached Pears PDF

There’s something deeply satisfying about eating food you’ve gathered and cooked yourself. It hearkens back to our hunter-gatherer roots perhaps? Or maybe nostalgically to what we think of as a simpler time.

Your Turn To Talk

Are you a forager who enjoys finding food in the wild?

Or are you, like me, lucky enough to have an orchard nearby, or random trees growing in the backyard? 

Maybe you have hints or recipes to share.

Let’s start a fruitful conversation in the comments.

Harvesting Stories Abound On The Blog

Mushrooms Galore.

Walnut Trees On The Farm

The Old Apple Tree

Hops In A Hurry

Gathering In The Grain