I know this is going to sound a bit Mark Twain but the first almond tree I seen was in book. And an art book at that – first year of secondary school, on detention in the library (I know, bad boy of gardening), bored senseless I took a book off the shelf and opened it on the depiction of an almond tree in full bloom by Vincent Van Gogh – it set my brain on fire.
(if you want to see/explore more for your self – visit http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0176V1962
& http://www.vggallery.com/painting/p_0671.htm )
There are seminal moments in your life, those that sort of elevate your perception or ramp up your fervour for life. For me hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time after a childhood of radio pop, and my parent’s country and motown. The first time I read ’The Song of Wandering Aengus’ by Yeats and of course the first tangible glimmering girl with apple blossom shampoo in her hair. But yes those almond blossoms may be the reason I really garden. I defer to the musing of Albert Camus “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”.
As a gardener I appreciate the aesthetic of a real almond tree (Prunus dulcis) and almonds are worth their place in any ornamental garden but I would argue that they are worth serious consideration to any productive gardener or those gardeners with a mind to sustainable health. They are not as tricky as you may think.
Almond trees may have originated first in western Asia but they were introduced to the Mediterranean region and southern Europe in ancient times as a food crop and suitably acclimatized. Both Spain and Italy still grow to export. Up until recently the advice was that almond trees needed a warm, dry climate to prosper – that damp climates leave them prone to fungal and bacterial diseases and harsh winters complicate flowering and fruiting success. In other words a fool’s errand if you attempt.
But Irish gardeners are well used to success with ‘Mediterranean plants’ against a sheltered south-facing wall and are not daunted by a spot of judicious fleecing. In recent years varieties grafted on to plum rootstock – chiefly on to the dwarfing St Julien A – have shown remarkable tolerance for the weather patterns of northern Europe.
One particular variety – Ingrid – earning her Scandinavian name, is hardy to that region. And as history tells us, the Norse were never shy in Ireland so don’t be deterred any longer – you may not get a bumper crop every year but you can enjoy the activity and rewards of growing your own .
The benefits beyond adding another fruiting plant to the garden are that its nut is not just edible but also medicinal. Currently almonds are under study as an alternative to statins. Its curative and preventative properties are down to its high concentrations of sources of vitamin E which is potently antioxidant – mopping up all those free radicals that damage your organs, deplete your vitality and make you look your age, or worse – aged. Almonds regularly crop up in the glossy magazines in anti-wrinkle diets and all that vit E combined with their protein content will help your body produce more collagen and elastin and so plump up fine lines and give good structure to your skin not to mention a healthy glow.
In my book the holistic gardener beauty treatments from the garden I do explore the use of almonds for health and beauty – so shameless plugs aside do buy, borrow or take a sneaky in store flick-though of the indexed references to see more benefits of growing your own or why it’s a good idea to just pick some nuts up as part of your weekly shop.
What I like about almonds in the diet is their ‘good fats’ – they are packed with monounsaturated fats – those health-promoting fats that have made olive oil so ubiquitous. Including them in your diet has a positive health effect on
atherosclerosis, cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, brain cognition and even fertility; as it turns out sperm swim faster if a man has good levels of Vitamin e and it benefits ovulation in women too.
So if you want to grow your own – here’s the how to;
Location and ground prep – Almonds will need a sunny site, preferably near a south-facing wall for extra protection and warmth. It will do much better if you add grit and humus to the location – well drained soil is essential. Mediterranean or warm region plants fail in Ireland more often to underlying waterlogging than to the winter temperatures. Don’t just address the bottom of the planting hole, think of its future root run and amend a decent portion of the soil. It’s worth it. There are other edible crops, super foods and aromatic herbs that will companion and thrive in the extent of your efforts. Almonds can be fan trained against walls too.
Planting advice – I was thought to plant fruiting trees in autumn or in February – the conventional wisdom is that the days in either zone are cool enough to prevent the tree budding out and the soil warm enough to not impede the action of any preliminary root establishment.
Make a hole to the same depth as the root ball but a bit wider so you manoeuvre your tree to the best face out or if you like so that its uppermost bud is facing the prevailing wind. Backfill and remove air pockets around the roots with a gentle tamping before firming in.
If you are not opting for a self-fertile variety than a second almond can be planted within the vicinity. The ideal grove spacing is 3-4m apart. Even self-fertile varieties can benefit – yield wise – from a companion tree of the same or different variety.
Pruning – Like its cousins (peaches and nectarines) almonds flower and fruit on two-year-old wood. So we need to leave stems to mature up to production levels. Pruning is generally only a light cosmetic tidy or just enough to support the structural strength of the trunk and the main scaffold branches.
One can prune every 2-3 years to promote renewal and strong growth. Any cutting back is best left until after the tree has set its fruits– mostly around July. Remove away crossing branches and trim back any shoots growing into the wall. If fan training you can prune to develop direction and tie new shoots into to horizontal wire supports.
Pest and disease control – Peach leaf curl is perhaps the biggest potential problem and the trick with that is to protect with a spring covering of fleece to shield against air-borne spores – those spores often contaminating during spring showers. Otherwise garlic spray will supply foliar sulphur to boost immunity and act as an insecticide/deterrent too.
‘Ingrid’ – self fertile, good hardiness. Light cropper but often boosted by the presence of other almond trees (of the same or different varieties).
‘Robin’/ ‘Robijn’ – self-fertile and a strong cropper. Good resistance to peach leaf curl.
‘Garden prince’ – A dwarf almond tree ideal for the patio! Benefits from a companion or hand pollination.
Harvest – Under ideal conditions, maturing almond fruits will over summer harden their fuzzy greyish-green outer casings – eventually each will split exposing the almond shell and allowing the kernel to dry and be plucked ready to go from the tree.
We however, may more likely be picking in July and August a still green crop – unless the weather has been fantastic – but that’s ok, all we simply do is harvest and cut the casing to get to the edible kernel that is the almond nut.
a note on storage – Almonds kept in their shells have the longest shelf life. Because of their high fat content and a tendency to become rancid if not stored correctly – I recommend a tightly sealed container, kept in a cool dry place away from sunlight. In my student days I worked in kitchens and witnessed how some chefs refrigerated their almonds – cold will prolong freshness. You can store for more than a year in the freezer.