WHY PLANT CHESTNUT TREES?
This is a question that you have to answer before deciding what to buy. From the following list, choose one or two categories that best fit your intentions. Under each category is a list of options and recommendations.
A. Reforestation and timber. The only species that have timber-type growth are the American chestnut and some European chestnuts. Both of these species are susceptible to chestnut blight, and the European is usually not very cold-hardy. At the present time, there are no chestnuts available for large-scale timber plantings in eastern North America. However, progress is being made toward breeding blight-resistant "American"-type chestnut trees, most notably by The American Chestnut Foundation and other groups. We do have a few timber-type hybrids that seem to have adequate blight resistance. We offer seedlings from these, suggested only for small-scale experimental plantings.
If you want to see and grow some pure American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata), give us a call. Even though they are blight susceptible, they often get big enough to bear a few crops of seed before they succumb to blight. We work closely with the American Chestnut Foundation and will be able to help you obtain trees or information. Visit the American Chestnut Foundation's website at www.acf.org.
B. Wildlife and conservation. For wildlife or open-field plantings (e.g., strip mine reclamation) the best choices are Allegheny chinkapin or Chinese chestnut seedlings. The chinkapin is a native North American shrub or small tree that is a precocious, prolific bearer of tiny nuts that are a premier wildlife feed, especially favored by game birds. Compared to the chinkapin, the Chinese chestnut is a bigger tree producing bigger nuts, beginning production at an older age (3-7 yrs). Both of these species do not compete well in forests. For wildlife and conservation plantings you should stick with seedlings and not bother with grafted trees.
C. Landscape. Chinese chestnuts make attractive shade trees that don't harbor lots of messy insects. However, the sharp spiny burs are nasty and a chore to remove from the lawn. Allegheny chinkapins are an interesting and attractive shrub that flowers in mid-summer and bears attractive clusters of nuts in the fall. The small, soft-spined burs of chinkapins are not as objectionable as those from Chinese chestnuts. For landscape trees, stick with seedlings, probably larger container stock.
D. Backyard nut production. To produce chestnuts for your own use and enjoyment the best choice is to plant a few Chinese chestnuts. You need to have at least two trees for cross-pollination, it's better to have three or more. Ideally, they should be planted 25 to 40 ft apart, but if space is tight, you can put them as close as 15 ft if they have open space around them. Chestnuts need full sun for nut production. Seedling trees would do fine, especially if you plant twice as many as you want and then cut down the worst ones when they come into production.
E. Small-scale commercial production. If you would like to produce chestnuts and sell them for supplemental (not primary) income, this qualifies as "small-scale". Because commercial chestnut production is in its infancy and still faces many uncertainties, you must be prepared to take risks and learn as you go. Consider the following strategy and planting plan. The best species is the Chinese; you might consider some hybrids. Plant alternating rows of grafted and seedling trees, spaced 20 ft apart in both directions. Plant one cultivar per row, more than three different cultivars (I'd suggest 10 to 20 if you have the space.) The tight spacing will provide some respectable yields early in the life of the orchard. As the cultivars grow and come into full production, the seedlings can be removed. If one or more cultivars perform unsatisfactorily, they can be removed and replaced with something better. In the meantime, the seedlings will serve as "back-ups" providing reliable but difficult to manage production. Eventually, all the seedlings will be removed and the orchard will be converted to a few good cultivars spaced at 20 ft by 40 ft. Throughout the life of the planting good cultural practices should be employed including weed control, fertilizing, irrigation, and control of insects, deer, and rodents.
F. Large-scale commercial production. If you would like to produce chestnuts and sell them as a primary source of income, this qualifies as "large-scale". This will probably require more than 50 acres of production. This should not be attempted until you or your neighbor has demonstrated small-scale commercial success.
G. Cultivar collection, evaluation, or research. For these purposes, growers generally want small numbers of lots of different cultivars and/or seedlings. You need to decide how you will add and subtract trees to the planting over time and how long the planting will be used. If it's a short-term evaluation (less than 10 yrs.), you can get by with tight spacings (15-20 ft.). For longer term use, spacing should be 25-40 ft. Grafted trees can be planted closer than seedlings because they grow slower and come into full production sooner. To evaluate and compare cultivars, you should have at least three individuals and preferably more of each clone. Depending on your specific goals, you might plant grafted trees, seedlings, or both. If you plant grafted trees, plan on good care preferably including irrigation.
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