Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Black walnuts are worth the wait

I'd just tasted the best black walnut kernels that I'd tasted in my whole life. I'd stomped and hulled walnuts since I was big enough to mash off that outer green hull. Smell it? There's nothing like the fragrance of those hulls. And there's no stain as permanent as the stain you get on your new tennis shoes when stomping walnuts. Our "squirrel-planted" walnut trees are trimmed to grow straight and tall to be harvested as lumber and have never produced a good crop of walnuts. This is the first crop from a new tree that I grew from a started seed that I bought from a fellow in Harper's Ferry, Iowa, in the mid-'60s.

I don't know the man's name, but everybody who knew him or bought seeds, seedlings or started seeds called him Johnny Walnut Seed. He and his wife were affiliated with American Youth Hostels Inc. Nine members of our bike club and several parents loaded bicycles and bags and drove to northeastern Iowa to cycle several days there and in Wisconsin. We liked Johnny Walnut Seed and were curious about his name.

As with pioneer Johnny Appleseed, this man dedicated his life to the idea that America should have walnut trees instead of thorns and other destructive "weed" trees. He traveled far and wide to get the best nuts as seed for big, tall walnut lumber trees.

"The space a scrub or useless tree might require might just as well produce black walnut wood, which makes the world's most beautiful furniture," Johnny said. He employed several work crews to establish walnut farms; a crew was in Australia at that time plowing, planting and fertilizing several hundred acres of black walnut trees, all from seedlings about a foot tall. I really liked this man and admired his devotion to making America better by starting groves of black walnut trees.

My husband, Chub, and I decided we could set out 100 knee-high trees and plant 100 "started" nut seeds in the vegetable garden. Of course, we ordered those from Johnny Walnut Seed in Iowa. We'd also trim, fertilize and improve all of the "squirrel-planted" Missouri black walnut trees on our 160 acres.

Chub plowed a fenced area where cattle couldn't trample the little trees, and we waited eagerly for delivery. This was in 1968, and our area was very dry; the order wouldn't be shipped until after rains came in May. Chub and our son, Walt, did the planting. No more rain came. We had no way to water 100 young trees except by hand.

Johnny bought the best nuts from existing lumber-type trees ­­-- huge, old, tall and healthy trees. When he learned of a great lumber tree, he'd fly his own plane to choose seed nuts for planting. I walked with him as he showed how his seeds were prepared, fertilized and watered as needed. When none of the "started seeds" appeared in the garden, I said, "We win some and lose some, and we've lost it all this time."

Chub plowed the garden that fall. We didn't give walnut trees another thought until 13 little walnut sprouts appeared. We were thrilled! The next spring we forgot where our walnut seedlings were, and they looked a lot like weeds. He cultivated the garden thoroughly! You win and lose! We were out of the walnut business for good.

The third year a strong, rapidly growing walnut sprout appeared in our garden! We were thrilled. We found Johnny's instructions again, and Chub carefully prepared a nice spot near my pottery workshop and transplanted it to a place where watering was convenient. It grew and prospered. I had a forester trim it properly and watered it regularly and fertilized it each spring and fall. It waited until 2000 to produce walnuts. Big, healthy walnuts fell on the lawn; when the green hulls were soft, I stomped them off and kicked the black nuts out of the way of the lawn mower.

Later that fall, I gathered the first crop of 31 perfect nuts, cracked and ate the best-tasting walnuts I'd ever put in my mouth! Thanks to Johnny Walnut Seed of Harper's Ferry, Iowa.

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