Two years ago, the two Chinese chestnuts that Alice planted here bore fruit for the first time — three chestnuts in total. They ranked as some of the best chestnuts I’ve ever eaten, and I’ll even eat chestnuts with mold on them and mostly enjoy them. These were fresh, sweet and delicious and made me want to grow more. Chestnuts represent the old foods of this country, things that I remember instinctively. The first time I ever tasted a chestnut it struck me as familiar and remarkable, something that carried over from past lifetimes. Fresh coconut struck me the same way, a food that I’d never eaten before but felt I had been looking for since I was born.
Growing chestnuts hasn’t been exactly easy and I’ve tried it several times in different parts of the country without success. I was amazed that the two trees planted here have even lived. Last summer ended with a moderate drought and nearly killed one of the trees in the back yard, but some of the branches are still alive now, in late winter, and with some careful pruning and a little fertilizer it still has a chance. Last fall the chestnut crop doubled in size, to six chestnuts, and instead of eating them I decided to use them to expand the forest.
When you look around at all the trees that spring up naturally, seeming to thrive without care, you might think that planting chestnuts would be only a matter of putting the seed in the ground, instead of on it. In a wild setting, only a tiny fraction of the seeds that fall actually grow into new trees. If all you do is plant the seed, like squirrels do, your chances of seeing a result are next to zero. Squirrels are part of the problem. Driven in the fall to gather every nut in the world and bury it, they spend the rest of the winter sniffing them out and eating them. A chestnut seed buried in the back yard won’t last far into winter. A squirrel will smell it and eat it for supper.
Chestnut seeds behave more like fruit than nuts. If you store them in a dry spot, they quickly dehydrate and die. Chestnuts need humid environments and cold temperatures to shield the nuts overwinter and stimulate sprouting at the right time. Some acorns sprout soon after fall planting, but chestnuts lie dormant until late winter. A deep tap root develops before any top growth occurs, and the plant is already well established below ground before the stem and leaves emerge. At that point, the young seedling encounters many enemies. Chestnut sprouts taste sweet to deer and rabbits, and my Chinese chestnuts that I planted in the Ozarks never rose above deer level, in spite of my efforts to guard them from browsing teeth.
In Indiana where deer find plenty of forage in the harvested fields during the winter, there’s apparently less grazing pressure on chestnut trees. I’m still taking no chances. I stored the chestnuts indoors in a windowbox planter filled with damp potting soil, placed in an unheated room that probably fell close to freezing temperatures throughout the worst of the winter cold. I watered the planter only twice, and lightly, and checked occasionally to make sure the potting mix hadn’t dried out completely. Early in March, I dug up one of the chestnuts and found a root sprouting from the tip. That’s at least a partial success.
The official Extension Service advice about planting chestnuts recommends extreme measures such as digging a planting hole two feet in diameter and three feet deep, and filling it with a mixture of ground soil and potting soil or compost. That advice applies primarily to transplanted chestnuts, which often don’t thrive due to root damage. Alice’s trees survived the trauma, but I’m tested a different method with the sprouting seeds. I do hope it works.
From years of observation of planted and transplanted trees, I’ve noticed that trees planted from seed often do much better than transplanted seedlings fare. Getting the seed to the sprouting stage is the worst hurdle, and in natural conditions most of the seeds don’t make it that far. So far I’m six of six with the chestnuts, passing that first barrier with a 100 percent success record. However, when I tried this in Arkansas, none of the seedlings lived long enough to put up a stem. I think it was a matter of false timing there. I planted chestnuts from a European strain in the late fall. Some sprouted but none survived the winter.
My current opinion is that if trees aren’t suited to a particular soil and climate, no amount of hole digging will fix the problem. I’ve dug out dead landscaping trees that died in the middle of those ample, amended soil holes, and never put roots out beyond them into the real ground. Trees have to tolerate what’s here, or there’s no hope. That two chestnuts have survived here for about ten years is a very good sign. I dug planting holes in old turf, about six inches deep and a foot wide, inverted the turf to provide rotting organic material in the bottom of the hole, and set the chestnut seedlings about three inches deep, covering the seeds with broken chunks of sod and the yellow clay that forms the agricultural world in this area. To keep squirrels away, I covered the planting holes with squares of chicken wire, and set tomato cages on top to keep the larger browsing animals at bay.
Now it’s just wait and see. If I’m lucky, I’ll at least have a picture of new chestnut seedling leaves to post here in a month or two. (Ha! Yes! I actually do and it’s inserted above.) If I’m not, I’ll have another winter to puzzle over the problem. Winters just keep coming.