When we moved to Wytheville, we inherited an inordinately large yard, raised garden beds and herbal paths and mature fruit tress and all. Everything looked really cool but we had no idea how to take care of them.
Jack and I like plants that have to be contained rather than cultivated, like mint; it beats up other sprouts and takes their lunch money. You don’t have to do anything except go out every six months after a hard rain and pull it up until you can find the wheelbarrow you left there last time.
My former student Erin agreed to give us her expertise (she is a gardening consultant) which resulted in a good news/bad news scenario.
“You have five black walnut trees in excellent condition. You won’t be able to grow tomatoes or peppers back there, but you will never lack for Christmas flavoring.” Erin also pointed out that black walnuts fetch a hefty price at farmer’s markets and sustainable living swaps – mostly because they’re such hard work.
“I’m not gonna lie to you; they stink while curing and they stain your hands, and the best way to crack them is to line your driveway and back an SUV over them. I’m not sure your Prius is heavy enough.”
Thank you, Erin. You had me at “hefty price.” Free money falling from trees sounded like “cat spays from heaven.” I duly read up (ok, watched several youtube videos) on how to harvest black walnuts.
The green-to-brown outer shell of the walnut is the easy part; you just rip it off, as much as you can, and then you wash the inner hard shell (very similar to what people see when they buy whole English walnuts) and hang them up to cure for a couple of weeks. Then you back the car over them and harvest the nutmeat.
Yesterday, armed with rubber gloves, a steel pot, three buckets of nuts, and six layers of bug spray, I initiated part one of Project Pioneer Woman Goes Nuts.
The websites suggested not getting too ambitious first time out. “This is a lot of work.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Twelve minutes in (equaling about four walnuts with their outer hulls removed) the fingertips of my gloves were gone, my nailbeds were a deep rich brown, and I had discovered the maggots.
Here’s the conundrum: if the outer nut is too green, it’s so hard to get into, you give up. After all, there are about 100 nuts per square foot in the yard; toss the troublesome ones “someplace where you don’t want plants to grow” advise the harvesting videos. Turns out, the stuff between the outer and inner shell is an excellent herbicide.
Pondering how a plant could produce a herbicide kept my mind occupied those first twelve minutes, but never mind. Making a midden pile of shells atop a troublesome Pokeweed patch made me feel bio-savvy. Kill two plants with one shell.
The brown hulls, the ones you can actually rip open with your fingers, are soft because of the maggots. They get between the two shells and go to town. Whole towns of them, all living together making roads and ditches and other maggot infrastructure. On the one hand, hulling their nut towns is easier, but on the other, you are literally brushing maggots off your fingers.
The videos of those nice green sustainable living people never showed maggots…
About an hour in, having made peace with the white crawly things and killed at least one pokeweed plant from the sheer weight of 40 walnut hulls, my left forefinger began to hurt. Badly. As though I had jammed a nail or something.
By then the gloves were a distant memory, so I soldiered on for a wee while before realizing something was seriously wrong. My finger was wafting waves of hot, sharp pain up my arm.
Imagination filled in: one of the smaller creepy white things had gotten up under the nailbed and was even now burrowing toward my heart. Death was imminent–and likely to be not only gross and painful, but the kind that gets written up at conferences in ways that make doctors laugh. “Here’s another Darwin award winner, this one with the old black walnut routine.”
Headed in to see if I could either flush out the creature, rip off my nail, or write a will before it got into the left ventricle, I informed Jack he was about to be a widower.
He looked at my finger. “Are you sure this isn’t a sting? Because, see that little thing there?”
Turns out, there are many critters that love walnuts. I am still alive, and can type. Jack has promised to process the rest of the nuts. He isn’t allergic to bee stings. I am sitting quietly, typing my will. The walnuts will be for sale in mid-October.