harvesting black walnuts

How to harvest Black Walnuts

Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) are native to the eastern United States. They can be found from Southern Ontario to Northern Florida, from Texas to South Dakota and in between. 

Nutritionally similar to the milder-tasting English walnut, the black walnut kernel is high in unsaturated fat and protein. Though it can be much more difficult to process. The husk contains juglone that will stain everything it touches and the shell is thick and very hard.

Before I demonstrate this method for removing the husks I would also like to mention quickly a few other methods that are commonly used. Keep in mind whenever the husk is broken juglone will cover anything within a close proximity.

Rolling and stomping with a hard boot is a common way. This can be done on concrete or even some gravel driveways as long as you do not mind the stains. Another way is to drill a hole about 1.5 inches in diameter in a thick board and use a hammer to drive the nut through. This way works well but splatters a bit.

I have also seen people jack up the drive wheels of an old farm truck with a board or grate located about an inch and a half below the tire and as the truck is running with the tire spinning chuck the nuts under the wheel.

This will shoot the nut into a tarp waiting to catch the nut. The truck way as dangerous but is a very good way to do a lot of nuts at once. Unfortunately my trees do not give a lot at once. They give me a lot over a few months which must be processed when they are ready.

One last way that i am not opposed to if you have the equipment is a corn husker. The antique huskers are amazing unfortunately I have been unable to spot a good deal on one yet.

Begin harvesting your nuts by picking up the nuts that have fallen naturally from the tree. Great job for kid power again. Do not pull the nuts from the tree. Unlike Apple trees if you pull off the fruit you may damage the branches.

My trees are in my backyard which is a lawn so I pick up all nuts regardless of age or condition. If you are collecting from a forest you may want to leave the less desirable rotting nuts where they lay. I have pictured a couple different examples of what you will find. The walnuts on the right have fallen recently and are still very tough.

When processing you may want to set these aside for another day. The walnuts on the left are getting more towards the other extreme. They are turning black and as they dry become more difficult to husk. Just as well the taste may become less desirable if they age in the husk for to long. You want to look for the nuts in between these stages.

They will be fairly smooth but the tell tail sign they are ready is that they will be softer to the touch. You should be able to squish them slightly with your thumb. You will get more accustomed to how they should feel as you go so don’t sweat it. Dispose of any small underdeveloped walnuts.

Before I go any further I would like to mention this method can be dangerous. If you are not responsible or you have ill behaved children around you should not be using this method.

Although not required I use four buckets to keep things organized. One holding the “to be processed,” one to catch the husks, one bucket half full of water to catch the “skinned” walnuts, and one bucket to catch the “process later” nuts.

Before you begin find yourself some gloves. Don’t skimp on the gloves or you will be paying for it for weeks. The juglone is literally impossible to remove from your skin. It is black and it is nasty. Typical latex or rubber gloves will rip.

I layer with latex gloves underneath strong work gloves though the work gloves will get stained. Dish washing gloves work well but will eventually rip.

Now for the “dangerous” part. I prefer to be alone when I do this. I don’t want to take chances. I use an old but sharp knife. Clamp it in the bench vise with about 1/4 to 1/2 an inch of blade exposed. This creates a nice little platform with a blade in the center.

You will want to cut the nut to create as close to two identical sides as possible. If you locate the stem end of the walnut it should be on one side with the dimple or “bottom” of the nut on the other. Then roll the nut length wise across the blade as pictured. You are NOT trying to cut the shell. You are only trying to cut the green husk. It will cut very easily. Anther reason to use strong gloves.

Now holding both sides you will be able to twist the husk freeing up one side as shown here. Some are a little more difficult than others. This is where you will get a feel for how ripe the nuts need to be. Walnuts that are all but impossible to twist or even peal are either to fresh and should be set aside for later or are to old in which case should be disposed of.

After the husk is removed drop the walnut into the bucket of water. It will have a chance to soak as you process the others.

When you have husked all the walnuts you could handle for the day grab an old broom handle or what I use is an old ash shovel and agitate the walnuts.  You are trying to break loose as much remaining husk as possible.

So give a good rough mixing. You can’t hurt the nuts. After a minute or so pour off the water. Caution do this as far away from plant life as possible. Juglone is very toxic for plants and earthworms, and will kill them dead! This is also true for the husks.

Throw them out. DO NOT put them in your compost. Ok back to the nuts. You will need to agitate them a few times. Don’t worry if they are not as clean as you pictured as long as the husk is gone you will be alright.

Lastly for the day the walnuts need to be dried. There are a few ways to do this. One is to use an oven. Gas ovens work best with nothing more than the pilot light. Do not let the oven exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Another way is an herb dryer though I have never tried this method so I honestly can’t say how well it works.

They way I use which requires no external inputs is to sun dry them. Use your imagination. Any grate or screen will work. Just be sure to keep them away from any seeds you might have drying. I just wrap them up in some chicken wire.

You could just lay them out on the wire but if you have any squirrels around they will be absolutely ecstatic that you left such an appetizing meal conveniently placed in there reach, and that is just way to much work just to feed the tree rats.

After the walnuts have dried for a day place them in an onion or potato sack and hang to cure for about 4 to 6 weeks. After 4 to 6 weeks they will be ready for further processing. They should not be left for longer than 4 to 6 weeks. I will be posting more on processing walnuts including ways to crack and store them when my walnuts are ready for the next step.