Time to germination: 5 to 7 months after winter cold
Time to harvest: 5 years
Light requirements: Full sun or lightly shaded
Soil: Well-drained, and loose to a deep level
Hickory trees are a bit shorter than other large nut trees, usually under 80 feet in height though it depends on the specific variety of tree you’ve planted. Their dense leaves make them excellent shade trees for your yard too.
Hickory is related to the pecan, and has a very similar flavor to the nuts. Not all hickory nuts are fit for human consumption though. Some varieties are quite bitter and not really considered edible, though they do end up in animal feed. If you are shopping for seeds or saplings, look for Shagbark or Shellbark. They have the finest nuts.
The trees do fine in warmer climates, but can tolerate some cold as well. You will have the best success with hickory if you live in zones 5 to 9, but a sheltered spot in zone 4 would be suitable as well.
As an added benefit, you can use branches from your hickory trees for smoking other foods. The taste of hickory-smoked meats is highly sought after. Even if you don’t smoke meat yourself, the wood from your trees is a hot commodity.
Starting Your Tree
Hickory has a very long taproot, so they are not very good candidates for transplanting as seedlings. You can either start your trees off by seed, or buy a grafted sapling that has the root stock of another tree (making it an easier transplant).
If you decide to plants seeds, you will have to soak your hickory nuts for 4 days but you shouldn’t remove the shells. The husks should come off, but not the hard shells. Plant them out in the fall so they can have their requisite winter chilling period. Protect your nut planting from squirrels with a wire cage until it is growing well. If your planted nut doesn’t seem to be doing anything, don’t worry right away. Hickory has a tendency to grow a lot of roots before breaking through the soil to start making leaves. It may be many weeks before you actually see any activity with your new plant.
Choose a sunny location for your tree but a bit of shade won’t harm it either. The soil should be well-drained very deep. Locations with layers of rock under the surface will not work well for hickory trees.
Before you finalize your planting details, you should consider that you will need at least 2 trees in order to actually get any nuts from your hickories. The way their male and female flowers bloom makes them incapable of self-pollination. Plant your trees at least 20 feet apart.
Generally, the hickory tree is very sturdy and will require little care once it has established itself in your yard. There are a few insect pests that you should be ready for.
The pecan weevil is just as happy eating your hickory nuts as it is going after pecans, so watch out for it. The weevils are distinctive bugs with long noses, and the adults come out in the late summer. The females drill a small hole in your growing nuts, and lays her eggs. When they hatch, the larvae then start eating and finish off what is left of your hickory nuts.
Your best approach is to get rid of the adults before they lay any eggs. Put a sheet or tarp under the tree and start to give it a shake. Don’t be too rough with it, but rattle the branches enough to knock out the bugs. If you see weevils on the sheet, you know you’re on the right track. Kill the ones that fall out and hopefully you will get a handle on the problem before it ruins your crop. Do this for several days until you stop finding the bugs.
Because of its close relation to the pecan, hickory trees are prone to getting pecan scab. Watch for spots or patches of dark green or black that spread on the new leaves. The affected parts of the leaves may eventually break apart, leaving open holes. When it attacks the newly developing nuts, the fungus causes the husk to tighten around the young nut. They are called “sticktights” and the nut inside usually dies or ends up small and stunted.
Many varieties of hickory tree are resistant against scab, but if you’ve planted grafted trees, you are likely to have a problem with it because they are usually more susceptible.
Harvest and Storage
Hickory trees as young as 5 years old can start producing nuts, and you are certain to start getting your harvest before they reach 10. Trees grown from grafted saplings will usually start giving you nuts sooner, more like 3 years.
The nuts grow inside a smooth green husk, about the size of a golfball. As they mature, the husk gets darker and eventually splits open into four “petals”. That’s when you know your nuts are great for gathering. Many of them will fall to the ground, but you may have to go after the rest. A little shaking can help, as long as you don’t shake so hard to break the branches.
There are various tools and gadgets out there to help you with your nut harvests. Some long-handled nut pickers can get some of the higher nuts though you won’t likely be able to reach right to the top of the tree without mechanical assistance. Rolling wire “basket” gadgets can help pick up fallen nuts so you won’t have to bend over so much.
Once the nuts are ready to go, you’ll be competing with every squirrel, chipmunk, mouse and raccoon in the area. Pick your nuts as quickly as you can as there is little you can do to keep squirrels out of an entire tree.
Break off the dried husk, and there will be whole hickory nut in the shell inside. Check nuts for weevil (holes or actual worms) and dispose of them immediately. Don’t just toss them back into the yard or you will help the insects complete their life cycle for next year.
Intact nuts should be dried right away, both for storage and to help the nuts develop their flavor. Keep them in a ventilated container or lay them out on screens for a few weeks. Crack one open and the nut meat should be thoroughly dry, not soft or rubbery.