Words & Photos: Hannah Zwartz
I don’t know which I like best about our garden’s almond tree – the beautiful pale-pink blossoms in late winter, or the tasty nuts in autumn. Both bring a lot of joy, from a tree that gets minimal care or maintenance.
Almonds (Prunus dulcis or P. amygdalus) belong to the family that includes peaches, plums and flowering cherries. Like peaches, they need well-drained soil, but, not having to produce juicy fruit, they are better at handling drought – ours gets no extra irrigation in a sandy, beach location. And, unlike our peaches, they don’t seem prone to leaf curl or other diseases.
The fruits that form over summer look like fuzzy peaches, but in autumn they brown off and split, revealing the almond shell, which looks like a peach stone within the leathery/furry husk. Inside these hard, pitted shells are the kernels themselves, the almond ‘nut’ as we know it.
Our almond tree has a leggy habit, stretching up to find sunlight among other trees. But, in a more open location, almond trees can be pruned to stay quite small. Ideally they are pruned into a vase shape with an open centre allowing sun to reach all the branches, as for other stone fruit.
The first few years of pruning are important to establish this shape. If the tree is not already in a vase shape, cut the trunk to 1m when planted. Several branches will sprout from this initial cut; next winter, thin these to three well-spaced primary branches. From these will branch the secondary branches, which just need thinning as necessary, removing inward-facing, dead or criss-crossing branches.
If your garden is small, there are also dwarf varieties such as ‘Garden Prince’, which can apparently even be grown in a large tub (trees in tubs will always need more watering and feeding than those in the open ground). Almonds can also be fan-trained or espaliered against a sunny wall to save space.
There are no other almonds growing in our neighbourhood so our tree, like many varieties, must be self-fertile. I am not sure of the exact variety, but it is a hard-shelled type, extremely hard to crack without a specialised nutcracker. In fact, once you start growing nuts, you realise that a lot of their high retail cost is in the processing and shelling. It can take some time, but is worth the effort. Softer-shelled types are also available, but for these you may be competing for your harvest with rats, so it will pay not to leave nuts lying around on the ground (almonds fall, or can be shaken, to the ground when ripe).
Commercial almond orchards in New Zealand are mainly in Marlborough, which gives you an idea of their ideal climate of hot, dry summers with some winter chill. Apparently, trees have a minimum requirement of 300 hours below 7°C, which would make them harder to grow in the winterless north.
I love the fact that almonds flower so early – often in August – when not much else is in bloom. But it does make the crops vulnerable to bad weather at this time. That’s probably the main reason why shelter from wintry storms is important. Frosts at this time could also damage the tiny developing fruits.
The domestication of almonds is a bit of a mystery. They are one of the oldest tree crops, having been grown as long ago as 3000BC in the Middle East. Wild almonds are mainly bitter, and in fact poisonous, containing cyanide in the kernels. So, how the sweet almond variety developed (and was tested and found to be edible) is a matter of speculation.
Almonds are mentioned in the Bible, and were also found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, probably imported. They are commonly grown across southern Europe and through Iran as far as Pakistan, but the bulk of the world’s crop is now grown in California and Australia.