Everyday Gardeners

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Hickory, dickory, dock

Reliving my childhood through an old nursery rhyme? Hardly. I’m just summing up last weekend’s hike through the beautiful Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids, Iowa, which has its share of hickory trees and burdock.

I’m a big fan of the former, and unlike burdock, it seems to be in short supply around these parts. Not surprising, as hickories are never sold at nurseries. Fortunately, the 5,000-acre Conservancy has its fair share of these outstanding hardwood giants. Here’s one I snapped while on my hike.

A beautiful shagbark hickory tree in Coon Rapids, Iowa.

A beautiful Shagbark hickory tree in Coon Rapids, Iowa.

Hickory trees have a reputation of being slow growers. Yes and no. The first few years, the seedlings put all their strength into growing roots as a natural defense against foraging critters. If tops are snipped, strong roots have the stamina to send up new shoots repeatedly. Seedlings only grow a few inches annually until they’re about 5 years old, at which time they start growing at a fairly normal rate for hardwoods—12 to 15 inches a year.

Shagbark and Shellbark hickory are favored by most because of their attractive shedding bark and tasty nuts. But Bitternut hickory grows the fastest, so if you don’t care about edible nuts, try that one instead. All hickory trees have nice yellow fall color.

Hickories are easy to start from seed. Throw the nuts in a bucket of water for 24 hours. Discard floaters and let the others air dry before placing in a sealed plastic bag of slightly moist peat moss. Store the bag in the refrigerator crisper for 4 to 5 months. Check on the nuts occasionally. If you find mold, wipe it off and dip the nuts in a 10-percent bleach solution; let them air dry, then put them in a clean bag filled with new peat moss.

Come spring, wrap each nut loosely with chicken wire before planting to discourage squirrels and chipmunks. Fence seedlings to protect against rabbits and deer. Mulch with shredded leaves and keep watered. Soon enough you’ll have an outstanding landscape tree that virtually no one else in your neighborhood has.

One caveat: because adult trees drop nuts, keep hickory trees away from the house and driveway. They’re better suited for a back corner, where you can enjoy the fall color while watching squirrels play catch with the crop.

Another view of the majestic Shagbark hickory.

Another view of the majestic Shagbark hickory.

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