How to Harvest Black Walnuts (and why my tomatoes wilted)

Behold, the black walnut tree:

Our backyard is bordered with these trees. They are magical! Here’s why:

1. Magical Plant-Ruining Toxins! This explains why my tomatoes wilted. It turns out that the tree (especially its roots, nut hulls and flower buds) contain a chemical called juglone which can cause many plants (such as asparagus, cabbage, eggplant, peppers, potatoes, rhubarb and tomatoes) to stunt, turn yellow and wilt. Plants affected by its toxicity (usually within 50-80 feet of the tree, and especially under its drip line) will struggle to live and may even die. The symptoms are very often confused with fungal or bacterial wilt. Well, that explains A LOT. Apparently, even if you chop the trees down, the toxins remain in the soil for several years. If this problem affects you, there is a list of juglone-resistant vegetables at Wisconsin Horticulture.

2. Magical, Skin-Dyeing Properties! The flesh of the hull is a powerful dye, used historically to colour products like cotton and basket materials. It’s also caustic. If you’re going to handle these nuts, wear clothes you don’t care about and a pair of protective gloves. And make sure said pair of protective gloves does not have a tiny hole in the thumb, or else your hands will look like mine, to the left, for A LONG TIME. Nothing gets it out. My friends call it my “Haunted Thumb”.

3. Magical, Edible Nuts Inside! Walnut trees produce nuts inside green, spherical hulls that you’ll likely recognize if you’re North American. With some work, they’re edible but be warned: the taste may surprise you. Amy Crowell of Edible Austin writes: “It tastes nothing like the common English walnut; it’s much more aromatic and tastes like an expensive perfume… author Samuel Thayer once likened it to really good paint”. Black walnuts are not snacking food; rather, a delicacy that you can add to treats such as home-made ice cream and cookies.

Most folks leave these things to the squirrels. But, as you can see by my thumb, I decided to harvest some of my own to make my ruined tomatoes worthwhile. Here’s how it went:

  • Collect the nuts that have fallen from the tree when they are soft enough that you can press in the skin with your thumb and leave a dent. They should be greenish-yellowy and will likely have black spots. (I am wearing the helmet because I am scared a walnut will fall on my head. I am a Registered Nurse and live in constant, unreasonable fear of life-altering brain injury).
  • Getting the nuts out of the hull was an ordeal… until I found a true Gardening for Chumps solution:  run over them with your car. (But beware of rogue nuts that fly out from under the tire!). Simply pluck the nut out once the hull is crushed. You may notice some tiny Hull Fly larvae in the flesh. They are a bit gross but don’t affect the actual nutmeat so don’t worry about them.
  • Pour the walnuts into a big bucket or a laundry sink, cover with water and stir them around with a stick so that the walnuts rub against each- this will remove more of the hull remnants. You won’t get it all off, but it will make your job less messy later.
  • Lay the nuts out to dry in a warm place for a day (in the sun, if possible), somewhere where you don’t mind a possible stain.
  • Hang the dried walnuts in an onion sack for 2 weeks to cure.
  • (And this is the hard part): crack open the nuts to get the nutmeat out. This video provides an informative review of black walnut harvesting, with a great explanation of this step starting at 5:10. I like this video, plus there is something warm and jolly about the host- he’s kind of like a Young Santa:
  • Once you’ve removed the nutmeat, do a quick visual inspection to make sure there are no remaining shell pieces hiding in there, just waiting to ruin your cavities if accidentally added to your banana loaf.

DO’s and DON’Ts:

DO: Wear protective gloves and old clothes when handling hulls.

DON’T: Work with hulls/wet walnuts over surfaces you’re precious about.

DO: Compost leftover hulls. Surprisingly, a three-year study quashed the popular belief that, because of the juglone, hulls shouldn’t be composted. It turns out that well-decomposed hulls are the “black gold” of compost, with alkaline pH. After 6 months, the harmful chemical breaks down- but I wouldn’t try this if your compost isn’t well maintained.

DON’T: Pour the leftover water from nut-washing onto your lawn. It kills the worms below.

DO: Wear protective gloves. It bears repeating. 

DON’T: Leave your walnuts out where squirrels can get at them. Little devils.

DO: Store in the freezer: walnuts, both in and out of shells, can be kept this way for up to 2 years. (This is particularly handy, as most walnut trees only produce nuts in abundance every other year).

DON’T: Expect your black walnuts to taste like your usual snacking-walnut. Remember: expensive paint.

Happy harvesting!


Hey I Found Out What This Is: Tomato Catfacing

Remember this picture?

When I first saw these, I thought that my tomatoes had some kind of rabies. The good news is: they don’t. The lumpy, malformed black scars on the underside of the tomato are called Catfacing. There is a great article about catfacing at Veggie Gardener.

NOT A BIG DEAL: Catfacing is harmless. Affected tomatoes are gnarly, but totally edible unless it’s severe enough that it’s gone all the way through the tomato. And, at least you can safely compost what’s not salvageable.

WHY IT HAPPENS: Catfacing is the result of environmental stress during blooming, which causes developing fruit to produce too many cells. Other fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, can be affected, too. Stresses that cause catfacing are common in lower Hardiness Zones (4-6 in North America; I’m in Zone 6): drought, high winds, and especially temperatures below 13 degrees C (55F) or above 29C (85F). This makes sense, seeing as we’ve had a Stage 2 Drought here. Heavy use of fertilizers can cause catfacing, too.

MANAGEMENT: According to Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver (1988), the best way to avoid catfacing is to plant resistant varieties. You can also take climate/ exposure control measures for your tomato plants (floating row covers, cold frames, planting indoors, etc) but my thought is: I don’t mind so much if my tomatoes look like they lost a bar fight, as long as they are still delicious!

LESSON LEARNED: I shouldn’t have prematurely picked and wasted those poor, unsightly tomatoes. I’m going to let my straggle tomatoes keep growing, and only pick them if they’re looking severely catfaced. Those ones will just get frozen for future tomato sauces. (Still) Delicious!

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

My kind friend Maxie watered my garden for a week while I was away. Thanks to her help, my garden survived that Stage 2 drought. But even Maxie’s sweet sweet Garden Whispering couldn’t save it from a barrage of pest ridiculousness. As I surveyed the damage, I wanted to hammer out a little Ball of Rage post about how stupid Nature is being. But then I realized that no one’s going to read this thing if I always sound like some kind of sullen pre-teen. After all, if I had a penny for every time I de-friended someone on Facebook for posting status updates that make me want to call the Waa Waa Waambulance, I’d have enough money to buy a box of Pop Tarts.

So here it is: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly…



My Sweet Peas look like a bunch of hippies

After weeks of exposure and extreme gross negligence, my 10 asparagus roots got planted. I had assumed they were way past dead. SURPRISE SURVIVAL! These beauties keep popping up like little presents. I’m trying not to step on them, but I am bad at sports (i.e. most forms of coordination), so no promises.

No new cases of wilting tomatoes! Plus, the wilted one that I left is miraculously still making a delicious tomato. Thanks, Wilty.


We had abandoned all hope of enjoying our summer squash after the invasion of the vine borers, but we came home to 3 chewable-sized treats.

Would you believe it?! The zucchini survived the squash vine borer and subsequent borer-removal surgery (on the left). What resilient and forgiving plants.


RETURN OF THE VINE BORERS. While one of my zucchini plants is thriving post-surgery, its buddies were looking a little bit sucky (see the previous picture, right). Closer inspection showed that the little buggers were back… or were missed the first time. Since they were already damaged, this second shot at cutting open the stem to pluck out the grubs severed the plants from their main root systems. I buried the stumps in compost and crossed my fingers. LESSON LEARNED: If you’re cutting open to get at squash vine borer, you might as well be thorough the first time even if it means risking unnecessary damage to the plant. Likely, more borers than you think are hiding in the stem and you will only have to cut it open again later.

The dreaded cucumber beetle is all up in my grill. Don’t be fooled by the fancy stripes, this guy is NOT cool or fun. More on this later.

(THIS JUST IN: I now reign victorious over the cucumber beetles! Click here for the update)

Now, I’m no food critic, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to eat these tomatoes. They look like they got into a laser fight while I was gone. Since I left, they’ve developed open, black-rimmed scars on their undersides. More on this later, too.

(THIS JUST IN: the laser-tomato problem is called Catfacing! Click here for the update)



The Tomato Wilt Apocalypse

I lost 3 of my tomato plants recently to what I think may have been fusarium wilt. As per the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Guide to Gardening in Canada: “as first fruit begins to ripen… one shoot often dies first. Fungus enters from soil into roots, goes up into stems, and plugs them so they wilt”. That’s pretty much what happened, and very suddenly.

I pulled out the first plant that showed symptoms for fear that it would infect its neighbours. Two of them got it, anyways, and it looks like a third might be en route to Wiltsville as well.

Uncle Google has told me a few things about this, although I am not sure what’s true in all of it:

  1. Remove affected plants as soon as possible and dispose of them far from the garden (ie. in the garbage, or burn them).
  2. Do not plant tomatoes in that spot again, as the soil remains infected. Some sites recommend chemical sprays, but I’m not into that.
  3. Do not reuse stakes.
  4. Disinfect your hands and gardening equipment between tomato plants.
  5. Try to avoid getting the leaves wet when watering (i.e. water them right at the base) and try to prevent them from touching the soil.
  6. Mulch at the base of the plant to avoid soil “splash-back” onto leaves when watering.

I am still not sure what happened, especially since there was no “dropping off” of lower leaves first, or leaf discolouration. Some sites also state that over-watering can cause wilting- but the plants around were happy and thriving so I doubt that this was the case.

HAPPY ENDING: The lady at Ecology Park (the best spot in Peterborough) took pity on me when I asked her about this and gave me 4 (free!) plants of a breed of tomato called Defiant, which is supposed to be resistant to the micro-organisms that cause this silliness. I planted 2 in containers and 2 in the spots where the old tomatoes were, just as a test.

I lay them to rest at the side of the house










Ah, Garden Drama. 

R.I.Peas: So it turns out that overheating is a thing

I accidentally toasted my dill, pea, and pepper seedlings. It was clear and sunny with a high of 19 degrees Celsius. I brought my sprouts outside with their clear plastic lid on tight to really give them some juice. I thought, “plants like warmth and sun. Therefore, if I near-incinerate them in this plastic box of death, they will surely be happy and grow for it”.

Dead Dill Pubes

At the end of the day, I brought them back in to see that my robust seedlings had wilted into sad little dead green pubes. Oops. I feel awful. I feel like that jerk who leaves his dog in the car with  not so much as a window cracked while he shops for 6 hours at Linens-N-Things.

I asked Uncle Google about this and he told me that greenhouses for tropical and fruit plants should range between 60-80 F (16-27 C), while houseplants, plants for leaves or roots, shrubs and overwintering plants tend to prefer 45-75 F (7-24 C).

I should never be allowed to supervise children

The folks at Gro Domes greenhouse systems say that “it takes but one hot hour to destroy all your work. It is better to leave your greenhouse open, and have it be a little cool, than to kill your plants with heat”.

I’m going to leave some of the poor little guys to see if they bounce back. While replanting the rest, I brainstormed some puns to honour the memory of my fallen friends. I thought of “R.I.Peas” and “Rest in Peas” and then I realized that’s basically the same thing. Seedling Fail and Pun Fail, all in less that 24 hours.

LESSON: In greenhouse conditions, prop the lid a bit or leave it off entirely for ventilation, and make sure there is some shade if the sun is blazing.