Almonds, a beloved protein-rich staple technically considered a drupe instead of a true nut, grow on fairly compact trees that reach heights of 15–30 feet. Sweet almond varieties produce the seeds we love to munch, while bitter almond varieties are grown only for their decorative white and pink flowers since their “nuts” are actually poisonous. Originating from the Middle East and South Asia, almond trees grow best in Mediterranean climates. Young green twigs mature to a purplish color, then turn grey in the second year. Leaves, which appear in spring after the flowers bloom, are 3–5″ long, green, and have a slightly serrated edge. Few sweet almond trees will self-pollinate, so make sure you plant in twos: lonely almond trees are pretty to look at but won’t produce.
The Ne Plus Ultra almond is a French varietal favored by commercial growers for its fast growing habit and large, light brown fruits that possess long, flat, and exquisitely sweet kernels. This almond is also valued for its exceptional pollination abilities when paired with other almond trees (particular the Non Pareil variety). Although those two varietals make great lovers, the Ne Plus Ultra doesn’t have an affinity for all types of almonds and won’t pollinate with Merced, Norman, Price, Rosetta, or Ripon trees. The Ne Plus Ultra is a larger varietal and tends to spread its branches like a willow tree, so be sure you have plenty of space to let your plant flourish.
Seed: Almond seeds will germinate best if soaked overnight and cracked slightly open before planting.
Seed Depth: 1–2″
Space Between Plants: 20–30′
Space Between Rows: 20–30′
Germination Soil Temperature: 60–75°F
Days for Germination: 60–90
Sow Indoors: Late summer to early fall to prep for transplantation by late winter or early spring.
Sow Outdoors: In the fall so that the nut can overwinter for sprouting in the spring.
Vegetative: Almond trees can be propagated by grafting. Sweet almond varieties are often grafted onto bitter almond roots.
Grows best in moderate climates with mild winters and hot, dry summers. Native to the Middle East and Western Asia, spring frost will damage them, and they will not tolerate continuously wet conditions. As a perennial, these trees are hardy in USDA Zones 5–11.
Natural: Full Sun.
Artificial: Due to their size, almond trees are mostly grown outside with natural lighting. If you’d like to start your plants indoors, use LED or high-pressure sodium lamps.
Soil: Prefers a well-drained sandy, loamy, or clay soil with a high amount of organic matter. A pH between 7.0 and 8.5 will keep plants healthy and nourished.
Soilless: Seeds will germinate in a soilless mix. Almond hull waste is being investigated for use as a soilless media in which to grow other plants.
Water: Requires high levels of water for their first year, followed by moderate to low levels of water once established. Two to three inches a week should be sufficient for adult trees. Avoid overwatering or stagnant water around the base of the tree.
Nutrients: Requires high levels of nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. Feed a balanced fertilizer or sidedress with compost annually in early spring.
Foliar: Benefits from foliar sprays of boron, resulting in higher yields. Foliar sprays of nitrogen in the form of urea can help protect trees from bacterial diseases and increase yield. Zinc sprays are used in orchards with deficient soils and can help prevent the spread of disease when used in the late fall.
Pruning: Should be pruned annually in the winter to remove dead or diseased branches and suckers and promote new growth.
Weeding: Young trees will benefit from regular weeding to prevent competition. Try to keep a 2–3′ space on all sides of the tree’s trunk free of weeds.
Deficiency(s): A zinc deficiency will result in small, narrow leaves which may be bent upward from the middle. A potassium deficiency will result in pale leaves that display a rolled shape. If allowed to progress, flowering will be compromised.
Companions: Grows well with a legume such as peas or beans growing in between trees. Because almonds require cross-pollination to produce, remember to plant at least two. As they say, the more the merrier! Using multiple varieties will be beneficial as well.
Harvest: After the first 3–4 years of growth, you can begin harvesting. The Ne Plus Ultra varietal will bloom early in the season but tends to be ready for harvest in mid to late September. Pick the fruits after they become dry and begin to split open, or gently shake the tree and wait for them to fall. Separate the outer hulls from the seed inside. Almond trees can produce nuts for up to 50 years but most commonly live to 25.
Storage: Seeds can be placed in the freezer for a few days or up to a week after harvest to kill any remaining insect pests. Allow fresh whole almonds to dry until you can hear the nuts rattling within their shells, then store in bags. Almonds in their shells will store for over a year. Once you have removed the shells, nuts will need to be stored in an airtight container in a dark, cool, dry area. Refrigerated or frozen hulled almonds will last for several months to a year.
Fun Fact: Did you know that almonds are actually related to peaches and apricots? It’s true! And while this may sound strange to those of us who have only seen dried almonds in the store, those who have witnessed almonds on the tree may not be so surprised. That’s because the hulls of the almond kernel are fuzzy and green for much of the year and in many ways closely resemble their tasty relatives.
Preserve: Green almonds can be picked or brined. The inner almond nut can also be dried before storage and frozen to extend shelf life.
Prepare: Sweet almonds are eaten either raw or roasted after they are removed from their hard outer shells. In the US, they are mostly consumed in dessert items, snacks, cereals, baking, and as a protein addition to salads. They also serve as a base for savory dishes, including curries. Almond-based dairy substitutes, like milk and ice cream, are gaining popularity for their health and tastiness. Almond butter is used in place of peanut butter on sandwiches and in recipes. Almond flour provides a high protein and gluten-free ingredient for baked goods. Almonds can be processed into almond oil, which can be used topically or consumed, and almond liqueur. Consumption of green almonds is common in the Middle East, where the fruit is served with salt to mediate its bitterness. To remove their brown outer skin, soak them in boiling water for a few minutes: the skin should easily slide off, but be careful not to burn your fingers!
Nutritional: Good source of protein and also contain vitamin(s) E, B, magnesium, copper, manganese, calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and healthy monounsaturated fats.
Medicinal: Incorporating sweet almonds in your diet may help to maintain cardiovascular health, support weight loss, prevent diabetes, treat symptoms of arthritis, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and lower cholesterol levels. Almonds also contain anti-cancer phytochemicals.
Warnings: Some individuals may have an allergic reaction to almonds. Take care, particularly if you are allergic to peaches or other tree nuts. Almonds may become contaminated with toxin-producing molds. The resulting alfatoxins are a dangerous carcinogen in humans. Most countries and growers test almonds for these compounds before they make it to the stores, but look out for mold growth in your homegrown crop and discard all damaged nuts. Bitter almonds, a close relative of the sweet almond, contain high levels of cyanide. Make sure the tree you’re eating from is a sweet almond variety! Symptoms of moderate cyanide poisoning include dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting, rapid breathing and heart rate, restlessness, and weakness. In higher doses, it gets even worse.
Treat yourself to something special and check out this Homemade Almond Milk Recipe. Not only is it a great alternative to dairy, it’s extremely nutritious!