Walnut Tree Harvesting: When Are Walnuts Ready To Pick

Walnut Tree Harvesting: When Are Walnuts Ready To Pick

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Walnuts are my hands down favorite nuts with the added benefit of not only being high in protein but omega-3 fatty acids as well. Omega-3 fatty acids are touted as extremely beneficial for the heart but beyond that, they are delicious! What better reason to grow your own? The question is, when are walnuts ready to pick and what is the best way to pick walnuts?

When are Walnuts Ready to Pick?

Walnuts may be either English or the black walnut varieties, with the latter having a thicker shell and more intense flavor. Both types are fruiting, deciduous trees that are fairly easy to grow and lacking in few serious issues especially once mature.

They can grow to 100 feet (30 m.) tall and 50 feet (15 m.) across, which makes the tree a bit unmanageable for some landscapes. Luckily, young trees can be trained via pruning. Walnut trees can be grown with a central leader or remove the leader which will encourage side shoot growth and restrict the tree’s size.

A pitted shell encases a fibrous, leather sheath that splits as the nuts begin to ripen in the fall and indicates that walnut tree harvesting is nigh. Once you are done harvesting the walnuts, you can eat them right away, but keep in mind they won’t be quite like those purchased ones at the grocers.

The nuts will be rubbery in texture and are, thus, usually dried which also extends their shelf life. Think your nuts are ready for harvesting but don’t know the best way to pick walnuts? Keep reading to find out how to harvest walnuts.

How to Harvest Walnuts

Depending upon the variety and region they are grown in, walnut tree harvesting starts from early September to early November. At this point, the kernels are light in color and the membrane between the halves has turned brown.

To determine if your nuts are ready for harvest, crack a few open. The nuts should show browning of the membrane and loosening of the hull. Take your nut samples from as high up in the tree as possible since those that are at this height ripen latest. Also, if your tree is water stressed, harvesting walnuts will be delayed. To speed things up, be sure to keep the tree well watered through harvest.

Begin harvesting when you estimate that at least 85% of the nuts can be easily removed from the tree. Delay too long and insects and birds may get to the nuts before your do. Additionally, if you delay too long, the outer husks become soft and black and the resulting nut has a bitter, rancid flavor.

To begin harvesting walnuts, you will need a pole or a pole combined with a hook for larger trees. Shake the nuts loose using the pole. Immediately pick the walnuts up from the ground. If they lie there too long, they will either begin to mold or become over run with ants, or both. The hulls of walnuts contain phenols, chemical compounds that cannot only stain hands but for some people cause skin irritation, so when handling walnuts, wear rubber gloves.

Once you have harvested the walnuts, hull the nuts using a pocket knife. Wash the hulled nuts and then dry them in a single layer on a smooth, flat, shaded area. Stir the nuts around on a daily basis to promote drying. If drying outdoors, cover the nuts with plastic netting to deter birds. The length of time until complete drying depends on temperature but, generally, will be dry in 3-4 days. At this point, the kernels should be brittle as well as the membrane separating the two halves.

Store the cured walnuts in a cool, dry area or to extend their shelf life, in the refrigerator or freezer. They can be stored for up to a year in the fridge and for two or more years in the freezer; that is, of course, if you can stay out of them that long.

Wait until nuts with split husks begin to appear on the ground in large numbers. Then, break open a few sample nuts and check for ripeness. English walnuts are ready for harvest when the tissue between the kernel and the shell turns brown.

You can harvest the nuts in one of two ways: either gather them off the ground where they fell or (if you're able) shake the tree to dislodge them. The second option will give you the edge on the squirrels and bugs, who will also be eager to claim the nuts. If you decide to go the tree-shaking route, first spread out an old blanket or sheet under the tree to make your job of nut collecting easier.

Gather Your Walnuts

The Spruce / Erin Huffstetler

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The Spruce / Erin Huffstetler

Black walnuts contain tannins, a juicy substance that will stain your hands for days, so be sure to put on a pair of work gloves before you get started. Then simply gather all the black walnuts that are laying on the ground and place them in bags or baskets so you can haul them home for processing.

Ordinarily, the wind is the most helpful factor in sending walnuts to the ground, ready for picking by hand.

In the absence of wind, however, you may need a long pole, even combined with a hook, to reach the upper branches. In this case you will need to shake them loose yourself.

Keep in mind that walnut trees can grow to enormous proportions, and it is not uncommon for a tree to reach 80, even 100 feet!

Not to mention the fact that walnuts spread their branches outwards, covering quite a bit of ground, as much as 50 feet across.

One other thing to remember when collecting walnuts: don’t leave walnuts sitting on the ground for too long. You’ll want to remove the outer green hull as soon as possible (if it hasn’t already come off naturally on its own).

When left on the soil/grass for too long, they are susceptible to mold during rainy and damp weather. Ants and other critters may also be interested in the fallen “fruit”.

If you are concerned about staining your hands, simply wear rubber gloves to protect against brown stains and skin irritations.

After harvesting, it is often suggested to wash the nuts and remove all dirt.

Only do this if they are very dirty. Once they are fully dry, you can wipe them with a thick towel and call it a day.

When to harvest walnuts? Autumn is the time of the year that generously rewards with such useful and beloved fruits. It is worth knowing that in the walnut tree its leaves are also useful, whose decoctions well help with skin, gastrointestinal and female diseases. As a therapeutic raw material, bright green young leaves are selected, pinching them from the central petiole. The collection is recommended in dry weather, the month of harvesting is June.

Drying is required in the shade, under a canopy or in a ventilated area. Store dried raw materials in a cool, dry place in paper bags. The smell of walnut leaves drives flies away. It is precisely because of this peculiarity that nuts were planted in places where it was planned to gather important people, discuss plans, and wait a long time. In small doses, the smell of walnut leaves is pleasant for a person, to a large extent causes headaches and sleep disturbance.

The nuts aren't ready to eat until they have been hulled, washed and dried. Some ways of removing the hulls include using cement mixers, automobile tires, corn shellers or stamping them with your feet. The hulls stain anything they contact a dark color. Wash the hulled nuts with water in a tub or bucket, and let them dry for two or three weeks. The tough shells are hard to crack, and nutmeats often shatter in the process. You can eat the shelled nuts, use them in baking, or store them in the freezer.

Carolyn Csanyi began writing in 1973, specializing in topics related to plants, insects and southwestern ecology. Her work has appeared in the "American Midland Naturalist" and Greenwood Press. Csanyi holds a Doctor of Philosophy in biology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

MSU Extension

Harvesting this hard-to-crack nut is worth the time and effort.

Fall brings hard work and rich rewards around harvesting all the wonderful fruits, nuts and vegetables grown throughout the season. Enjoying the earthy flavor of Michigan’s native black walnut (Juglans nigra) is no exception. Black walnuts have a distinctively different flavor from the English walnut (Juglans regia) meats found in grocery stores. The native black walnut can be used in exactly the same culinary ways as the English walnut, but with superior results.

Photo: There is no need to try and pick black walnuts from the tree's branches. They are ripe only after they have fallen on their own. Photo by G. Peterson.

The biggest challenge in harvesting the nuts is getting to them before the squirrels do. When the nuts have fully ripened, they will fall to the ground with the lightest breeze. The husk will be yellowish-green and often with black or brown mottling. Pressing a thumb into the husk should result in an indentation. If there is a lot of resistance, let it sit for a week or so to soften.

Remove the husk simply by rolling it on a hard surface with a heavy foot. Rolling over them with a car can also remove the husks, but also risk the chance of crushing the nut itself if the road surface is too hard. Regardless, be sure to wear old shoes and gloves to pick out the nuts—the husk juice will stain anything it touches.

Rinse the nuts in a large bucket of water or with a garden hose to remove most of any hull material that remains, then allow to dry. The nuts should then be cured in a mesh bag, onion sack or any other sack that allows air flow (to retard mold development). After 4-5 weeks, they’re ready to be cracked open. The hard shells will require a solid tap of a hammer on the bottom of the nut or a gentle squeeze in a vise. The nut meat can then be picked out. The oils in the nut meats will go rancid easily, so keep in the freezer for long-term storage.

Black walnuts are an important component of open forests in southern Michigan, often found along fencerows or edges of woodlands. Besides the obvious value to certain wildlife species, the wood’s rich, dark color and durability also make it a favorite for furniture, cabinetry, paneling and veneer.

Photo: Nuts are ready to be collected when the husks are yellow-green. Photo by G. Peterson.

While out admiring this valuable, versatile and tasty species, however, be on the lookout for the latest disease threat: Thousand Cankers Disease (TCD). This disease was first discovered infecting black walnut trees in 2010 in Tennessee, and it is slowly spreading to other states within the black walnut’s natural range. The tiny walnut twig beetle is responsible for transmitting the fungus from one tree to another when it travels to new hosts to feed and lay eggs. Each fungal introduction leads to cankers on the twigs and branches, eventually spreading and girdling the tree, causing it to die. The disease has officially been spotted in Ohio, so it is especially important to remain vigilant here in Michigan. Although it may be hard to spot any signs of it now that most walnut trees have shed their leaves for winter, this is a good time to read up on the disease before next year’s growing season. Be sure to review USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Thousand Cankers Disease website for details on what to look for, and go to the Michigan State University Extension news article on the disease for quarantine information. The best way to avoid unintentionally spreading the disease is to purchase and burn local firewood only.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit https://extension.msu.edu. To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit https://extension.msu.edu/newsletters. To contact an expert in your area, visit https://extension.msu.edu/experts, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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