I also chose varieties on the basis of flavor and nut size. My favorite variety is aptly named Colossal. The nuts are humongous, so I get more to eat for less shelling. This tree, like my others, began to bear a mere four or five years after planting.
Now the hard part in growing chestnuts: The nuts themselves are prone to a few problems. Oddly enough, squirrels are not one of those problems. The prickly burrs that house the nuts are an effective squirrel deterrent. The burrs open and drop the nuts when they are ripe, at which point I pick them up - daily.
Chestnut weevils, which bore into the nuts, are not so easily kept at bay. Rather than just take my chances on harvesting enough weevilless nuts, I heat-treat the nuts to kill any potential weevils before they do damage. Immersing the nuts in 120-degree-Fahrenheit water for 20 minutes kills the weevils.
For best flavor and to keep well in storage, chestnuts also need to be cured - a process that requires a bit of science and a bit of art. Basically, the nuts have to be allowed to dry enough so they don't rot (the fate of most chestnuts I've bought), but not so much that they crack teeth. Chestnuts also need to be kept cool enough to prevent rot, but warm enough so that full flavor develops as some of the starches change to sugars. I've mastered the growing of chestnuts, but am still working out the best system here for getting the best in flavor and storage from my chestnuts.
My friend Bob, who lives in New Jersey, could be called "Maxi-Man" for the way he's always trying to maximize his experiences: skating to the farthest reaches of a frozen lake, for instance. He similarly likes to experience our beautiful autumn colors at their very best. I help him out each year by keeping him apprised of when the color peaks here, so he can plan a visit. For many years, that peak occurred on or about October 15. Then, beginning a few years ago, warmth that began creeping in earlier in spring and lingering later in autumn pushed that peak color date later by about a week.
So I was most interested to read Bob Berman's column in this paper a couple of weeks ago in which he mentioned that fall color had peaked a couple of weeks earlier than usual up in his neck of the woods: in the Catskills near Woodstock. I spoke with some friends up there, as well as with Bob and with Paul Huth (of the Smiley Research Center), and they all confirmed that this early coloration was indeed the case. The only reason I could come up with was that the effect of increased leaf diseases resulting from this season's increased rains counteracted the more usual cues of crisper weather and shorter days.
Down here in and around the Shawangunks, though, color peak is right on schedule - at least on the schedule of years past. I am writing this on October 15, and autumn is in its full glory here. My friend Bob is coming up this weekend.
I was in our nation's capital earlier this week and kept picking up a sweet scent in the air. I used to live in the DC area, and its urban reach has expanded dramatically in the decades since I left. Nonetheless, something fundamental about the town fosters good growing conditions. And it wasn't all greenery; reds and yellows, blues (from asters) and other shades made everything quite beautiful. I never did find out the source of that scent, but it was most welcome and often caught me by surprise.
Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at email@example.com and I'll try answering them directly or in this Alm@nac column.