Almond harvest time

Green almonds pre-harvest before the husks have opened
Green almonds pre-harvest before the husks have opened

Apart from all the fruits that are grown commercially in the orchards on our farm, we also have a pretty big garden, with a wide variety of fruit and nut trees, including 8 almonds (2 each of 4 different varieties) under net.

We’re big fans of nut trees in gardens, particularly if you’re trying to build a permaculture (which stands for “permanent agriculture”) system. We’ve written about them before here and you can find out more about how to create a permaculture system here.

Almonds ready to harvest - the husks have opened and started to dry
Almonds ready to harvest – the husks have opened and started to dry

You can tell when they’re ripe because the husks open up, as you can see above, exposing the shell underneath (and the almond nut is inside the shell).

This week we started picking them, because some of them had started opening up. The other indication they’re ready is that some are on the ground, but we don’t want too many on the ground because in past years we’ve found they’re a pain to find in the grass, because we usually let it grow quite long underneath the almond trees.

Long grass under the trees can hamper the harvest!
Long grass under the trees can hamper the harvest!

This year we learned from previous year’s pain, and cut the grass a few weeks before harvest, which made the process much easier!

After we’ve picked, we remove the husks before we store the nuts, and then we shell them as we need them through the year as they stay much fresher in the shell.

Mowed grass under almond trees makes it easier to find the fallen nuts
Mowed grass under almond trees makes it easier to find the fallen nuts

Now that the trees are mature, 8 trees supply us with enough nuts for eating all year, plus we grind some into meal and use them in cooking as well.

Our small almond block is planted in 2 rows, with 2 trees each of 4 different varieties. Like so many other well-meaning but vague gardeners, we lost the tags, so we don’t know which variety is which! (This is one of the things we caution against in our Grow Great Fruit program — so do as we say, not as we do!)

Variety 1 in our almond block

Normally we pick the whole crop together, but this year we’ve kept the different varieties separate, and will attempt to identify them. As you can see from the photos of the first 3 varieties we’ve picked, they’re all quite different. Variety 1 has a very papery shell (which suggests it might be Canadian Papershell).

Variety 2 in our almond block

We planted pollinisers together, so variety 2 must be either Ne Plus Ultra, Mission or IXL. Ne Plus Ultra has very large kernels, and as you can see from the photo (the sunnies are there to give a size comparison between varieties), #2 is much smaller than #1, so that rules out Ne Plus Ultra. It’s more likely to be Mission, which yields relatively small kernels. Other options include Johnsons Prolific or IXL.

Variety 3 in our almond block

Varieties #3 and #4 were also pollinisers for each other, so the likelihood is that they are Brandes Jordan and Chellaston, but we have no idea which is which! Oh well, they’re all delicious, so it doesn’t really matter, though it’s going to leave me forever curious…

A beautiful almond flower at sunset
A beautiful almond flower at sunset

How To Grow Almonds

The new almond crop

How do you grow almonds?  Well, we don’t really know! As commercial growers of all sorts of deciduous fruit, we can tell you pretty much anything you want to know about cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples or pears. But almonds? No, we’ve never made a dollar from an almond.

However we do have them in the garden, so we’re gradually learning about them. Having studied permaculture and designed a permaculture plan for the farm, of course we were keen to include nuts in the garden, because they’re one of the great sources of protein and oil that we can easily grow and process in our climate, and on our scale. (Avocados is another, and we hope to plant them in the near future as well).

With the growing interest in healthy diets like vegan, vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free and dairy free, almonds are the perfect addition to a small garden, as they fit well and provide lots of benefits in all these diets.

So far we have eight almond trees (which are five years old), and one established and productive macadamia, with plans to add walnuts and hazelnuts.  These are the things we’ve learned about almonds so far:

  • They are in the same family as peaches and nectarines, and grow in a very similar way (they’re both in the subgenus Amygdalus of the Prunus genus). It’s easy to see the similarity when you compare the following photo of a peach tree with the one at the top of the page:

peaches at shuckfall

  • The grow well in the ‘vase’ shape we favour for other deciduous fruit trees
  • Similarly to peaches and nectarines, they produce almonds only on the wood that grew last year
  • Some varieties are more productive if they are heavily pruned, others seem more productive if they are lightly pruned
  • Birds LOVE them, so they must be netted if you want to pick any nuts. This means you need to prune them in such a way that you can trim the tops to keep the height low enough each year to get your nets over. It’s also a good idea to choose a spot in the garden where they will be easy to net without obstructions around them.
  • They like plenty of water (but their need for water is minimised if you improve the soil, and keep a good ground-cover of grasses and weeds under the tree)
  • They respond well to a once a year feed of compost and well rotted chook manure
  • They don’t seem to be vulnerable to blossom blight, brown rot, or any other fungal diseases (hooray!)
  • They are the very earliest deciduous trees to flower in spring, which makes them very vulnerable to frost . Choose the most frost free spot in your garden for your almonds, apricots and cherry trees, and from the beginning of August keep an eye on them so you notice when they start to flower, because this is your trigger to watch out for frost warnings from the weather bureau, and get the trees covered on frosty nights with some frost cloth. They’re also a good candidate for planting near a water tank, or against a north facing wall.

Like deciduous fruit trees, almonds need the right polliniser nearby to set a good crop of fruit, but there’s four easy ways to solve this problem:

  1. Plant two trees known to be pollinisers (they can go in the same hole if you’re really short of space)
  2. Stick to self-pollinising varieties
  3. Plant a multigraft tree (with more than one variety on the same tree)
  4. Plant a single variety, then graft a pollinising variety onto the same tree

We’ve been experimenting with the best time to prune our almonds. Last year we pruned one tree of each variety – and learned that it made some varieties more productive, and others less so!

This year we pruned two varieties in early spring, and will prune the other two in early autumn, after they’ve finished cropping for the year. Even though they don’t seem to get any fungal diseases, there’s no need to tempt fate by pruning them in winter!

Our conclusion? Almonds are an easy care tree to add to your garden, and a great way to get your garden producing more of the healthy protein and oil we need to be including in our diets. They can also be ground and used as almond meal (a great flour substitute for those on a gluten free diet), or made into almond milk for those on a dairy free diet. All in all, they’re a winner!