Our old farm includes a stand of tall, mature black walnut trees. I don’t know when in the 150 year history of our farm they were planted, or what the people who planted them hoped they’d become…but I love the trees and am so grateful to the previous owners who had the foresight and patience to give us this gift.
When we first moved to our farm, the acre of grass around the trees had been mowed regularly, and the stand was very park-like. We’d get frequent visits from local logging companies asking if we wanted to sell the trees. Mature black walnut trees can be turned into big bucks and our little forest was very inviting. When we looked up the value of the trees online, we were tempted to allow some selective harvesting – after all, our old farmhouse needed (and, ten years later, still needs) a lot of expensive attention. Instead, we decided to wait and think of our little walnut grove as a long-term savings account.
We didn’t mow the grass around the trees. Neither Bill nor I have any affinity for grass or the disruptive noise and energy of lawnmowers, so our walnut forest started producing acres of black raspberry bushes, and we’d spend sticky summer afternoons among thorny vines acquiring scratches and gallons of tart berries. Walnut trees have a chemical called juglone in their branches, leaves, and roots. Juglone is quite mean to many plants which can’t grow under or near walnut trees as a result. Black raspberries don’t care about juglone, however, and the walnut trees provided a safe space for the raspberries to flourish.
After a few years of growth, we put up a ring of electric fence around our walnuts, and let our sheep, goats, and lambs in to graze. They demolished all the vegetation they could find and the once impenetrable tangle of raspberry vines has become a cropped carpet of grass and weeds again. Goats love raspberry leaves but have little understanding of sustainable harvests.
Our walnut trees produce a large number…like, an insanely large number…of green-husked walnuts the size of an overlarge golf ball. Inside the husk is an impossibly hard shell which protects the walnut morsels inside, and never – ever – decomposes.
Red squirrels love walnuts like goats love raspberry leaves. Every autumn the small chipmunk-like rodents collect the nuts for their winter stores, creating huge piles of hard shells in my garage, woodshed, and, I assume, attic. When we pulled out the 1970s era plastic shower form in our bathroom a few years ago, there was a mass of holey walnut shells between it and the wall. The squirrels presumably gained access to the dark corners of our bathroom through the small gap around the shower drain leading into the basement.
If it sounds like these walnut trees are a burden (did I mention the ankle-twisting mine field of nuts I cross 8 times a day to get to the barn, or the thunderous clanks of nuts hitting the metal woodshed roof, or how scary it is to walk under a tree during strong autumn winds, or how the red squirrels have learned to use the nuts as projectile weapons?), I assure you they are not.
Black walnuts produce glorious wash-fast, light-fast natural dyes. You can dye wool, cotton, and your fingers without a mordant and even without applying heat. Walnut dye is one of the simplest, foolproof natural dyes available and can produce a range of delicious tans and browns. You can just throw a bunch of walnuts in a pot of water and add your wool. Wait a few hours or a few days, and pull the fiber out. Rinse (and rinse), and you’re done!
Adding a little more sophistication to the process will give you more repeatable or dynamic results – and I’ll write more about that next time!