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How to grow cobnuts

Val Bourne / 24 October 2012

If you have the space it makes perfect sense to have a nuttery and these can be very decorative affairs as they can provide an ideal canopy for all manner of woodlanders including hellebores, snowdrops and spring bulbs.

Filberts on wooden background
Cobnuts and filberts come from different species of hazel

Cobnuts or filberts?

Cobnuts and filberts come from different species of hazel.

Cobnuts (Corylus avellana) are bred from our native hazel and produce round nuts with a short husk. The name ‘hazel’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word haesel meaning a head-dress or bonnet, referring to the shape of the outer husk. 

Filberts come from a south-eastern European species called Corylus maxima and the nuts are longer with a pointed top and long husks. They take their common name from St Philbert, whose feast day is August 20, when picking starts. We generally grow cobnuts in Britain.

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Where to plant

Cobnuts dislike heavy, waterlogged clay. They do well in poor, well-drained sandy loams, such as parts of Kent, where ‘plats’ (cobnut orchards) have always been commercially successful. However, soil that is too fertile will tend to produce vigorous trees that don’t crop well.

When to prune

Prune between January and March, aiming to create a bowl shape with an open centre containing eight or so branches radiating from a central stem. The ideal nut tree should be a multi-stemmed bush, roughly 1.5–2m (5–6ft) in height for easy pruning and picking. 

Late February, when the hazel catkins will be sending up clouds of yellow pollen, is the traditional time to prune them, so that the magic yellow dust (the male pollen) falls on to the small red female flowers, which resemble tiny sea anemones.

How to prune

Pruning cobnuts is simple: you saw some of the older, thicker branches out at the base. Done now, while they are devoid of leaf, these strong pieces of wood can be used as bean poles or pea sticks, depending on their size. This is a sustainable system, providing both nuts and staking material.

It’s possible to coppice one plant a year if you have over 15 individuals, without your crop suffering.  

Training cobnuts

Young branches should be trained to near horizontal (a hoop can be used) and the lateral spread is encouraged by always pruning to just above an outward-facing bud.

In late summer the newer shoots will look like narrow whips. Bend the upper half over (leaving it attached) to slow the sap. This will encourage more flower buds. 

When to pick

By autumn, the warm-brown nuts will nestle in a lighter green ruff. The time to harvest is when those ruffs turn yellow. Unfortunately, the squirrels often beat the gardener to the crop. A good tree can produce 18kg (40lb) of nuts.

Try to pick them on a dry day when the husks are just turning yellow. Don’t harvest if the husks are still green because the nuts will tend to shrivel in the shell when stored. 

Lay your harvested nuts out and, once the husks are dry, store them away somewhere cool where rats and squirrels can’t get them, such as a garden shed. A hessian or netting sack is ideal.

They will keep throughout the winter.

Propagating cobnuts

Propagate cobnuts by bending established suckers over and pegging them down.

Wildlife and cobnuts

The leaf litter is highly popular with hibernating insects and small mammals because it’s light and dry and, left in situ under the trees, it will rot down to produce friable leaf litter. 

This is the perfect medium for snowdrops and hellebores.  

Cobnut varieties

‘Webb’s Prize Cobb’

A new, reliable variety that produces bigger clusters of large, long nuts, than ‘Kentish Cobb’ (see below). A good choice for northern gardens.

‘Hall’s Giant Cobnut’

This French variety is commercially grown in its native land. It is hardy and vigorous and produces a heavy crop of very large cobnuts. Must have cross-pollination to produce the best crops.

‘Kentish Cobb’

A classic, heavy-cropping variety grown in Kent – probably the most commonly grown. Despite its name, it is a filbert.

‘Pearson’s Prolific’ (syn. ‘Nottingham Prolific’)

Its superb, compact habit makes this cobnut very suitable for the smaller garden. Good crops of medium-sized round nuts. Good pollinator of other varieties.

Did you know…? 

It’s said that it was the evenly-spaced hazelnuts in the nuttery that encouraged Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson to buy Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. 

She first came to see it with her son Nigel in April 1930 when looking for an old house where she could make a new garden. Vita fell in love with Sissinghurst and bought it along with 400 acres of farmland. The garden is now owned by the National Trust. 

Parts of Kent are perfect for nut growing because the soil is light and the winters are cold. Spring comes late quite often, but once it arrives all fruiting trees love it.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.