Squirrelly About Nuts

THE REAL DIRT

November 15, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

In 20 years of gardening, I've left few stones unturned. There is a rock pile in the back yard to prove it. What I really mean is, I've grown every plant I ever wanted, from asters to zucchini, with one exception.

I've never had a nut tree.

That's not to say I haven't had trees with nuts in them. During tree-pruning season, I've been known to trim the same branch I was standing on. And I've climbed higher than a 200-pound man ought to go to rescue our stupid cat, Timmy, who sometimes seems intent on climbing clear to cat heaven and taking me with him.

Yes, nuts have fallen from my trees. But in doing so, I've never landed on an important part of my anatomy. Still, I think I'd rather keep my feet on the ground and harvest real nuts.

A walnut tree would be nice.

I've wanted to grow walnuts ever since watching Laura Petrie come tumbling out of her closet amid an avalanche of walnuts on the old "Dick Van Dyke Show." It was the episode in which Rob thought walnuts from outer space were stealing his imagination and his thumbs. Then he opened the closet and out slid Laura. I don't remember much else except that I had a crush on Laura. And if she liked walnuts, then so did I.

Later, I learned to appreciate the tree for its own merits. Walnuts grow quickly, make fine oval shade trees and produce a plethora of nuts that are used in everything from cookies to vinaigrettes. Best of all, when the tree gets old, people will pay you to chop it down. A good walnut can command as much as $20,000 for lumber.

The wood, which is harder than oak, has been used for centuries to make furniture, rifle stocks and even airplane propellers. A Chestertown family owns a harpsichord made entirely of walnut.

The nuts have decorative uses as well: My wife uses them to make holiday wreaths. So she was pleased when I brought home a grocery bag full of walnuts recently, a gift from a friend.

The fresh-picked nuts were still in their thick green casings, JTC resembling bright-colored tennis balls. I ripped one apart with my bare hands. A walnut popped out. Instinctively, I examined my thumbs. They were still there. But both hands were stained dark brown from a permanent dye which, I later learned, had also colored the faces of the pseudo-Indians who started the Boston Tea Party.

Next time I'll wear gloves, I thought, and placed the bag on the picnic table overnight.

I planned to peel the walnuts after work the next day, but when I got home the nuts were half gone, the bag was ripped open and there was more debris on the picnic table than you'd see at a crab feast.

"Squirrel," my wife, Meg, said. "Big as a cat."

Uh-oh.

With two dogs and two cats, we rarely see squirrels in our yard. But this guy smelled a feast. According to Meg, the thief scaled a picket fence, leaped on the table, tore open a hole in the bag and began removing and unwrapping the goodies.

"He peeled those walnuts like a kid unwraps a candy bar at the movies," she said. "Pieces of peel were flying up in the air, over his head. His paws and face were stained brown, but I've never seen a happier creature in my life."

To salvage the remaining nuts, Meg moved the bag to the back porch, alongside the dogs' water bowl. Certainly that would cut our walnut losses. The squirrel was not deterred. He sauntered up the steps, took a few more walnuts and a long drink of water, and left.

That's when I thought: Forget the nut tree. If a single bag of walnuts can turn one squirrel into a brazen bully, imagine the effect a whole tree would have on these pesky creatures. We'd have every squirrel in the neighborhood hanging around the garden, digging up bulbs and seeds, terrorizing the pets and climbing cornstalks to eat the ears right off the plants.

Who needs the aggravation?

I guess nut trees aren't always what they're cracked up to be.

Sometimes you feel like a nut. This time, I don't.

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