As a longtime gardener focused on growing edible perennials, fruit was an obvious first choice – but it didn’t take me long to realize my orchards were missing something. Don’t get me wrong, I love growing fruit (it’s pretty obvious I’m just about obsessed with it) but even I have to admit that there’s a whole lot more to growing a sustainable food forest that an apple tree and bramble bushes. Growing nuts – tree nuts, shrub nuts, even peanuts! – quickly became my next skill to conquer, and I’m thrilled to have added this incredibly versatile source of protein to my gardening repertoire.

However, most of our nation’s favorite nuts just plain aren’t suited to the frigid weather of zone 4 and colder America. When I started researching what I could and couldn’t add to the property, it was disappointing how many trees were almost hardy enough, but just couldn’t quite survive the dividing line between zones 5 and 4. After a lot of research and frustration, I finally compiled my list of reliably cold-hardy nut trees for northern gardening zones – and I’ve included that top-5 list below!

Cold-Hardy Nuts: Growing Hazelnuts / Filberts

For the small-space northern gardener, the hazelnut is an absolute lifesaver. This “tree” will naturally grow into more of a shrub form, not getting too tall or unwieldy for small properties or areas where overcrowding is a concern. The nuts aren’t insanely tough to crack, like some of the other cold-hardy types out there, and propagation is easy. On top of THAT, this is, in fact, the fantastic nut that is a classic part of Nutella… what more can I say???

Interested in more information on the hazelnut? As always, I recommend checking out fact-based scientific sources, rather than random blogs (even mine!). Check out this library of hazelnut growing information from Oregon State University Extension!

Growing Butternuts: A Walnut Relative

The butternut looks so much like the black walnut tree that it can be tough for most people to tell them apart. If you aren’t sure, check the shape of the nut; a butternut will be an oblong, oval shape, while a black walnut is spherical.

The butternut is insanely cold hardy, and is a strong, tough tree that gets large (75ish feet) but still not quite as enormous as their black walnut cousins, which is nice for those gardeners who don’t have unlimited space. Their taste is more like a typical supermarket English walnut than a black walnut, and they aren’t quite as tough to crack as the black walnut, either. 

For more information on growing these nuts, follow this link to the University at Middlebury’s article on growing butternut trees.

Growing Chestnuts in Cold Northern Zones

Not gonna lie, I’m kind of curious – how many Americans really have ever roasted chestnuts over an open fire like the nostalgic Christmas song dreams about? Although this used to be an incredibly popular nut, others have eventually surpassed the chestnut as the tree nut industry has swelled over the years – but this doesn’t mean home growers should pass on this classic and highly useful nut. Never grown Chestnuts before? You should be aware you will probably need to shop around for a Chinese-type tree, or a hybrid. Unfortunately, most of the traditional American Chestnuts have been wiped out due to disease, and if you plant an American variety, chances are it won’t survive to production age. 

For more information about growing chestnuts, check out this guide by Michigan State University. It’s geared towards commercial growers, but there’s still good info for the home gardener there!

Growing Hickory Nuts

The hickory is often overlooked as a tree nut, and there’s some good reason behind that; the shells are TOUGH. However, if you can get your hands on an industrial-quality nutcracker vise (or jury-rig one of your own!), this is an invaluable addition to your food forest or permaculture system. Word to the wise – you can’t plant just any old hickory variety, as some are not edible in the this-taste-good sense. Some of the species’ nuts are just plain bitter, so do your research and plant from a culinary-quality type (think shagbark). 

Looking for more details on growing hickory nuts? Check out Michigan State University’s article on growing hickory trees.

Growing and Harvesting Black Walnuts in the North

For many northern-zone gardeners, wintry climates make life difficult or impossible for the traditional English-type walnut that we all know and love… but fortunately for us, the English walnut has a hardy cousin in the black walnut tree. If you’ve never grown black walnuts, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news? It’s incredibly tough and hardy, and you will hardly have to put a thought into tending the tree once it’s planted. The bad news? Black walnuts are a) somewhat nasty to their plant neighbors, and b) the nuts are incredibly tough to crack. Be very careful about where you plant this tree, as the toxins put out by the roots will poison your apple trees, vegetable garden, and fruit patches (with some exceptions), and the leaves can be dangerous to livestock. Even stabling your horse in a stall with black walnut shavings as bedding is enough to make your horse sick, so be thoughtful about where and how you incorporate this tree into your property!

Looking for more information on growing black walnuts? Check out this article from Penn State University.

Choosing Cold-Hardy Nut Trees

As you have probably noticed, most of the cold-hardy nut trees listed above are less familiar — or less popular – than some of their warm-climate cousins. It’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving without a pecan pie, for instance, or a Christmas cookie platter without some almond sugar cookies in the mix. However, despite enjoying less of an audience than these southern-state nuts, these winter-hardy nuts are easy to grow, incredibly versatile, and can weather a blizzard without a qualm.

Yes, cold-hardy nut trees have some drawbacks. The shells tend to be much tougher than the southern nuts (with the noticeable exception of the hazelnut). The taste may not be as mellow as you are looking for, either; the black walnut, in particular, I find hard to get used to. However, their hardiness is absolutely unparalleled, and for the northern gardener looking to develop a permaculture system or a sustainable food forest, these trees are the best place to start.

Nut Trees Difficult to Grow in Northern Zones

There are other popular nut trees that unfortunately are not easy to grow in cold-climate gardening zones… but don’t rule them out as contenders. A few of these can be coaxed along through a bit of babying, or planted in pots if you can get your hands on a dwarf variety,

  • English Walnut Trees: It IS possible to find an English Walnut rated to zone 4, but it isn’t easy (and they are out of stock most of the time). Not all nurseries will guarantee the tree, even if it says it’s the same cultivar that another nursery rates to zone 4, so make sure you order from a company that is willing to make promises about the tree’s cold-hardiness.
  • Almond Trees: Typically not suited for zone 4, although I’m always hoping for a university’s breeding breakthrough to hit the news. In the meantime, I grow a dwarf(ish) variety in a pot… Garden Prince, in case you were wondering. You may be able to create a microclimate even in zone 4 that would enable a zone-5 almond tree to survive, but it would take some work and careful maintenance.
  • Pecan Trees: I’ve never seen any pecan tree rated for any further north than zone 5 (and even the zone 5 trees are considered wildly hardy for a pecan). I’ve not given up hope that one of those zone 5 “hardy” pecans will survive in my zone 4 winter, if I give it a little extra attention; so far though, we haven’t gotten very far, so no promises.
  • Macadamia Nut Trees: Not even remotely suited to a zone 4 winter. The Macadamia is possible to grow as a potted tree on your windowsill if you live in cold climates, but unless you are in zone 9(ish), you can forget any possibility of planting it in the ground for outdoor growing.

Please note that this list is not conclusive, and only lists the varieties I have planted myself or intend to plant within the next year or two. Beyond these varieties, there are other nut trees that can be explored… but just be aware that some are simply not suited to the zone and won’t make it, no matter how hard you try. (Brazil nuts, anyone?) However, the long list of cold-hardy trees should be enough to give variety in your orchard – windowsill or otherwise – for almost any home gardener.

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