When I think of Hickory, I think of Southern BBQ. Hickory adds a smoky, bacon-like flavor and a wonderfully deep color to barbecued meats and vegetables. That’s why it is a must for smokers in the home. But beyond BBQ, growing hickory is useful for the homeowner.
You can build from wood, sell it for a considerable price, or use branches to make tool handles. Then, of course, there are crazy ones.
Hickory nuts are harvested in the fall and ready to eat at Christmas time, and they are nutritious as well as delicious. Ready to dive?
- 1 what is hickory
- 2 varieties of hickory
- 3 how to plant hickory trees
- 4 hickory tree care
- 5 Companion Planting for Growing Hickory
- 6 Common problems and solutions for growing hickory
- 7 Harvesting and Using Hickory Nuts
what is hickory
Hickories are large trees in the Carrie genus (which also includes pecan trees). Most are used for ornamental interest, wood production, and nuts. Some larger species can grow to be over 100 feet tall and 75 feet wide, which makes them more suitable for large, rural properties rather than suburban yards.
However, there are some smaller species that remain 50 feet long and 40 feet wide.
Related to walnut trees, hickories are deciduous and include about 18 species. In North America, you’ll find about 12 species, although there are four that you can usually find growing wild. Other species grow in Mexico, China and Indonesia.
You can often find hickory trees in moist soil along river banks and along rivers. Because they grow slowly, the wood is dense and strong and can be used to make baseball bats, walking sticks, drumsticks, and flooring.
varieties of hickory
Not all species of hickory are grown for nuts, but we will focus on those that are. Below they are widely regarded as the best for nuts and wood for smoking. If you want to plant hickory for landscaping or ornamental reasons, you may have additional options. Talk to your local extension office.
Shagbark hickories have a unique bark that looks like it is separating from the trunk, which is where the name comes from.
This tree produces nuts that can be recognized by the thin white shell. They are slow growers, so you might want to buy an older, grafted shagbark so you don’t have to wait long for those wonderful nuts. Some nurseries sell shagbarks which start producing nuts as early as three years.
These average 60-80 feet.
Shellbark produces larger nuts than shagbark. Nuts have a thick brown husk, and are sweeter than shagbark nuts. These trees reach about 60-80 feet in the home garden.
Mocknut produces small nuts that are sweet. They are perfect for salting in salt for savory snacks. The tree tops out at about 60 feet.
This tree produces tiny nuts that can be bitter, but they are well suited to candied or ground into flour if you have the patience. They grow to be about 60 feet tall.
how to plant hickory trees
Hickories grow natively in the eastern United States in USDA Growing Zones 4 to 8. They thrive in moist, loamy soils found in eastern forests and woodlands, but are actually quite adaptable.
Having said that, if you want to give your hickory a good start, you have to be specific with your soil. Aim for a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. The earth should be well drained and loamy.
Hickories use specific microorganisms in the soil in the areas where they grow, so if you can, collect soil from where they thrive and add it to your soil when you plant your trees. Of course, make sure it’s legal in your area.
When planting, you need soil that holds moisture, but make sure it drains well and doesn’t pool. Hickories do not do well in standing water.
Plant in full sun, but they can tolerate a little shade. Hickory needs at least four hours of sunlight each day, but you will get a smaller crop and slower growth.
planting in the ground
Hickory develops a long, thick root, which makes transplanting difficult, so plant it where you intend to grow it. Because it can take up to 15 years for hickory trees to produce nuts, I recommend that you get a grafted variety, if one is available. You want one that is bred to produce as quickly as possible.
Dig a hole large enough to contain the root system of the tree you are planting, with a little extra around. Do this in early spring so the tree is well established before the next winter. Put the plant in the hole.
Fill the hole halfway and add water. Work in some native soil, if you have it, and then fill in the hole with the rest. Mix in plenty of good quality compost.
hickory tree care
Once you’ve got them out in the field, it’s time to start caring for your growing hickory.
Fertilize your hickory trees annually in spring or fall. To find out how much fertilizer to use, measure the diameter of the trunk at four to five feet from the ground.
Each inch of diameter should correspond to one pound of fertilizer. Use an NPK of 10-10-10 and never use more than 25 pounds.
Starting three feet out from the trunk, spread the fertilizer covering the area of the canopy to the dripline. Give it water in the well.
You should water this tree regularly in its first year of growth. Instead of frequent light irrigation, give frequent deep irrigation. You want to encourage the root to grow deep into the ground.
After the first year, as long as your normal weather pattern is present, the hickory tree will need a little extra water from you. However, provide additional water if needed in a drought.
In the spring, lower branches that get in the way of your mower or that can kill people walking under it. Remove diseased and damaged branches as needed throughout the year.
Thin the tree every few years to maintain good air circulation, which helps prevent disease.
Companion Planting for Growing Hickory
Don’t plant anything under the hickory the first year. After that, you can plant various herbs or smaller vegetables, as long as they don’t need a lot of sunlight. try:
- lemon balm
Common problems and solutions for growing hickory
Although a strong tree, especially when well established, there are some pests and diseases that affect hickory trees.
It is a fungal disease that enters the tree through a damaged branch or bark. This makes the infected area look almost like a swollen wound. It can spread throughout the tree.
Fungicides are not effective for canker, so the best way to deal with them is to cut and remove the infected branch. Use sterile tools and make sure you wash them before using them on another tree. Avoid injuring your tree while mowing or working around it.
This is another fungal infection that causes small twigs to grow at the ends of the branches. Tucked together they look like a broom, from which they get the name witches’ broom. This disease can cause the tree to drop nuts prematurely.
Be vigilant and cut off symptomatic branches as soon as they appear.
The first sign you might notice on a hickory tree with anthracnose is red spots on the leaves. If left unattended, it will spread to the branches causing those and leaves to fall from the tree.
Cut off infected areas and use a fungicide specifically for anthracnose.
On hickory trees, the first sign is wilting and leaves are turning a dull brown. Then, entire branches and sections go wherever they go and fall off the tree. Broadly speaking, you can address this problem by cutting off infected parts, watering thoroughly in dry conditions, and fertilizing each year.
See our article on Verticillium Wilt for more information.
I think this is usually only a problem of young hickory; A mature tree can withstand infection. If you have this disease, you will see a white powdery fungus on the leaves. The best thing to do is to treat it as soon as you suspect it is present. See our article on powdery mildew treatment for more information.
hickory bark beetle
This is probably the most destructive pest to hickory trees. This beetle remains under the bark before emerging in the spring. They feed on new growth and then leave to target trees that are struggling or showing signs of lack of vigor.
During the summer, the males burrow into the surface of the tree, from which the female lays eggs. Then, she will close the hole, and the larvae will eat the inner wood of the tree. This prevents enough water and nutrients from flowing out to keep the tree healthy.
During winter and spring, you’ll see yellow leaves and twigs, with woodpecker-like holes. The leaves of infested trees eventually turn red, then turn brown, and the tree dies.
These beetles rarely attack healthy hickory trees. If necessary, good cultural practices of watering, fertilizing, pruning and thinning are your best defense. If your tree experiences disease, be sure to address it immediately.
Harvesting and Using Hickory Nuts
Around September and October, the husk of the hickory nut turns from green to brown. The soft, green leather-like exterior hardens to a brittle outer layer. When they are ready to break, they will be brittle enough that they can split open directly when they fall to the ground.
It’s best to wait for this dry husk to dry before you attempt to crack open the nut to reveal the flesh inside.
However, do not keep the dry fruits on the ground for a long time. There are many creatures that crave these wonderful nuts as much as we do, especially rodents. As cute as chipmunks, squirrels and raccoons are, we don’t want to share our hickory nuts with them.
You can eat nuts raw, make oatmeal, refrigerate and freeze them, and use them in sweet dishes and savory dishes.
Use the wood to smoke meats and cheeses and to flavor your barbecue.
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