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9 Productive Nut Trees for Kentucky

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Written By Lyrae Willis

Environmental Scientist & Plant Ecologist

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Kentucky is the perfect place to grow a thriving home nut orchard. There are many different kinds of nuts that you can grow in KY; several are already native and well-adapted to the humid, temperate climate and rich soils.

The higher humidity does, however, mean more diseases, so choose disease-resistant cultivars to ensure success when growing in KY.

Some nut trees prefer warmer winters, and Kentucky’s hardiness zones will limit their productivity, even if they can survive.

However, carefully selecting the right cold-hardy, disease-resistant nut varieties that can thrive through KY’s winters can reward you with productive, delicious crops.

9 Types of Nut Trees You Can Grow in Kentucky

1. Pecan Trees – Carya illinoinensis

Pecan Tree Carya illinoinensis - tree and close up of leaves
Images by Lyrae Willis, Own Work, and via Fast-Growing-Trees – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

You can grow productive pecan trees in Kentucky by limiting your selection to cold-hardy varieties that mature faster. While southern varieties will survive in KY, the growing season usually isn’t long enough for them to properly fill their shells.

Pecans grow best in full sun in deep, moist, well-drained sandy-loam soil. Many prefer acidic soil, but some will perform in alkaline soil. Irrigation will be necessary during summer droughts to ensure nut production.

The pecan trees from which modern cultivars are derived are native to KY, so the trees you choose should have no problem with the soil and climate.

However, the humidity in KY means that Pecan scab can be an issue, so resistant varieties should be favored.

Pecans are not self-fertile and have a complex pollination process, so It’s important to understand how to choose the right 2 – 3 pecan cultivars in order to produce nuts.

Pecan Cultivars Recommended for Growing in Kentucky: Hardy Pecan, Northern Pecan, Colby, Fisher, Greenriver, Kanza, Major, Mohawk, Pawnee, Posey, Yates 127, Yates 66, Osage

Other Common Names: Hardy Pecan, Northern Pecan

USDA Growing Zones: 6(5)* – 9(10) *depending on variety; note just because all pecans are hardy to Zone 6, this doesn’t mean all will be productive

Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 150 ft tall*, 30 – 80 ft spread *Size depends on variety

Flowering / Fruiting Season: Inconspicuous flowers bloom from mid-March to mid-April; fruits mature from September to November, depending on the variety

Available at: Fast-Growing-Trees & Nature Hills

2. Dunstan Chestnut – Castanea dentata x mollissima

Dunstan Hybrid Chestnut Castanea dentata x mollissima
Images via Nature Hills – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Dunstan Chestnuts are a hybrid chestnut tree of a resistant American Chestnut tree discovered in an otherwise dead grove of trees devastated by the chestnut blight crossed with the more disease-resistant Chinese Chestnut, producing a tree with sweet nuts that are larger than either of its parents.

These trees should be planted in full sun in well-drained soil with medium moisture in the slightly acidic to neutral range. Be sure not to over-water or allow the roots to become soggy; mulching heavily can reduce watering frequency.

Dunstan Chestnuts are fast-growing trees, growing up to 3.5 ft per year and producing nuts in just 3 – 5 years after planting.

These gorgeous trees have lovely rounded crowns and lush green leaves that turn yellow in the fall, making them great multi-purpose shade, accent, and production trees.

For more information, check out how to identify the Dunstan Hybrid Chestnut.

Other Common Names: Hybrid Chestnut, Hybrid Dunstan Chestnut

USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8

Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 ft tall, 30 – 40 ft spread

Flowering / Fruiting Season: Flowers emerge from May to June; nuts mature from September to October

Available at: Nature Hills

3. Chinese Chestnuts – Castanea mollissima

Chinese Chestnuts are beautiful medium-sized trees that produce medium to large-sized sweet, edible, delicious nuts just four years after planting. They are also far more resistant to the Chestnut Blight than their American cousins.

Their compact size and beautiful canopy of dark green leaves make them fantastic multi-purpose shade, street, or accent trees that also produce edible crops. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow to yellowish-brown.

Chinese Chestnuts are best grown in full sun in medium to wet, well-drained, loamy soils that are acidic to slightly acidic. If you have neutral or slightly alkaline soil, you can add some sulfur and pine needles to help acidify the soil.

Once established, these are low-maintenance trees that show little invasive potential outside their natural habitat.

You can also learn how to identify the Chinese Chestnut.

Chinese Chestnut Cultivars Recommended for Growing in Kentucky: Armstrong, AU Leader, Crane, Eaton River, Ford’s Sweet, Mossbarger, Orrin, Qing, Sleeping Giant

Other Common Names: 板栗 (Chinese), bǎnlì (Pinyin)

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 8

Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 40 ft (to 60 ft) tall, 30 – 40 ft (to 60 ft) spread

Flowering / Fruiting Season: Small white flowers in catkins bloom in May or June; nuts mature mid-September to October

Available at: Fast-Growing-Trees & Nature Hills

4. Butternut – Juglans cinerea

Butternut White Walnut Juglans cinerea
Images via Nature Hills – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Butternuts are another native Kentucky tree found throughout most of the state. As an orchard tree, however, they are not often recommended in Kentucky except at higher elevations in the mountains of eastern KY. Those in the warmer parts of the state will find their trees susceptible to bacterial canker, resulting in short-lived, unproductive trees.

If you live in a cooler area of KY, choose one of the cultivars below, and you will not be disappointed by the flavor. Butternuts are a type of walnut, but they look more like pecan and have a rich, buttery walnut flavor.

Butternuts grow best in full sun in moist, rich, well-drained acidic or alkaline loams; they will tolerate well-drained clay. Although they have some drought tolerance, irrigation is necessary during summer droughts to ensure nut production.

While all walnut trees are self-fertile, yields will increase if you plant two or more trees.

Butternut Cultivars Recommended for Growing in Kentucky: Ayers, Buckley, Chamberlain, Creighton, Weschcke

Other Common Names: White Walnut, Butter Nut, Lemon Nut, Oil Nut, also previously known as Juglans cathartica, Juglans oblonga

USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 7

Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 ft tall, 40 – 60 ft spread

Flowering / Fruiting Season: Flowers emerge in catkins from April to June; fruits mature from late August throughout September

Available at: Nature Hills

5. Black Walnut – Juglans nigra

Black Walnut Juglans nigra growing in Kansas Tallgrass Prairie Nature Reserve
Image by Lyrae Willis, Own Work – for Tree Vitalize

Black Walnut is another native Kentucky tree that grows naturally throughout the state in deep, rich, well-drained soils in fertile woods and hillsides. So, you should have no problem growing them as low-maintenance orchard trees.

Their dense canopy of compound leaves also makes them popular as dual-purpose shade trees.

Black Walnuts grow best in full sun in fertile, loamy, well-drained soils that are high in organic matter. They are intolerant of shade and poorly drained soils and should be planted in a location with good airflow to stay healthy. Summer irrigation is recommended to ensure good crops.

Many plants will die if grown next to walnuts due to biochemicals that the tree secretes, a brilliant adaptation for trees that do not like other trees too close to them. Be sure anything you plant near them can tolerate them.

Although self-fertile, yields will increase if more than one tree is planted.

Black Walnut Cultivars Recommended for Growing in Kentucky: Clermont, Daniels, Krouse, Ridgeway, Sparrow, Surprise, Thomas-Myers

Other Common Names: American Walnut, American Black Walnut, Eastern Black Walnut

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 9

Average Size at Maturity: 70 – 100 ft (to 125 ft) tall, 60 – 80 ft spread

Flowering / Fruiting Season: Inconspicuous yellow-green flowers emerge in drooping catkins from May to June; fruits mature from September to October

Available at: Nature Hills

6. Hazelnut Hybrids – Corylus americana x avellana x colurna

American Hazelnut Corylus cornuta
Images via Fast-Growing-Trees – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

American Hazelnut is another native Kentucky nut tree found throughout most of the state.

However, there is a fungal disease known as the Eastern Filbert Blight that often kills these lovely shrubs in the state of KY, so newer hybrids have been created between the American, European, and Turkish species that show better resistance. Recommended cultivars are listed below.

These fast-growing shrubs make great additions to any nut orchard; they are smaller than other nut trees and will produce nuts within just a few years of planting.

Hazelnut Hybrids grow best in full sun or partial shade in moist, well-drained soils in the strongly acidic to moderately alkaline range as long as it is high in organic matter.

These hybrid shrubs will grow anywhere in KY with little maintenance other than annual mulching with organic matter and occasional irrigation during summer months to ensure a productive crop.

American Hazelnut Hybrids Recommended for Growing in Kentucky: Grand Traverse, 89-Lisa, G-22, 88-BS, G-14, Lansing, Rush and Winkler, Carlola, Delores, Magdalene, Laroka, Eastoka, Faroka

Other Common Names: American Filbert, American Hazel, Hazelnut, European Hazelnut, European Filbert, Turkish Hazelnut, Turkish Tree Hazel

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 9

Average Size at Maturity: 8 – 16 ft tall, 8 – 13 ft spread

Flowering / Fruiting Season: Flowers bloom in catkins in March or April; nuts mature from September to October

7. Shagbark Hickory – Carya ovata

Shagbark Hickory Carya ovata - tree and nuts
Images by Peter Dziuk, CC BY-SA 4.0, and via Nature Hills – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Shagbark Hickory is another Kentucky native nut tree, also found throughout most of the state, where it grows in moist upland woodlands and dry floodplains.

These beautiful hickory trees have unique, attractive, shaggy bark and big crowns of compound leaves. They are frequently grown ornamentally for their bark, rich shade, and occasional crops of big, delicious, thick-shelled nuts.

Shagbark Hickory is an adaptable tree that grows best in full sun or partial shade in humid climates in moist, rich, well-drained soils, perfect for anywhere in KY.

While Shagbark Hickory produces too unreliably from year to year to be used by most commercial growers, they are more than suitable for the home orchard. The cultivars recommended below will produce the best crops in Kentucky.

These trees are not self-fertile, so more than one tree is needed for production.

For more information, check out how to identify Shagbark Hickory.

Shagbark Hickory Cultivars Recommended for Growing in Kentucky: Bridgewater, Cook Shag, Grainger, Raudabaugh, Silvis 303, Wilcox, Wilmoth, Wurth

Other Common Names: Carolina Hickory, Scalybark Hickory, Upland Hickory, Shellbark Hickory

USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 8

Average Size at Maturity: 70 – 90 ft (to 150 ft) tall, 50 – 70 ft spread

Flowering / Fruiting Season: Inconspicuous flowers emerge in catkins in mid-spring; nuts mature in September and October

Available at: Nature Hills

8. Shellbark Hickory – Carya laciniosa

Shellbark Hickory Carya_laciniosa_fruit
Image by William (Ned) Friedman, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Finally, Shellbark Hickory is yet another native Kentucky nut tree, found throughout most of the state, often growing in bottomlands and riparian areas subjected to brief seasonal flooding.

Like Shagbark, Shellbark Hickory is also grown ornamentally for its interesting shaggy bark (similar to Shagbark) and its abundant shade.

As a nut tree, Shellbark Hickory has the largest nuts of all the hickories, and they are sweet and edible, but the shells are very thick and hard to crack, so they’re rarely grown commercially. But if you have the patience, the size and flavor of the nuts inside will make the effort worth it.

Shellbark Hickory is best grown in full sun to partial shade in deep, fertile, moist soils. They will grow poorly in heavy clay.

Like most hickories, they are not self-fertile, so more than one tree is needed.

You can also learn how to identify Shellbark Hickory.

Shellbark Hickory Cultivars Recommended for Growing in Kentucky: Daulton, Fayette, Henning, Keystone, Lebanon Junction, Lindauer, Selbher, Simpson No. 1

Other Common Names: Kingnut, Bigleaf Shagbark Hickory, Big Shellbark, Bottom Shellbark, Thick Shellbark, Western Shellbark

USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 9

Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 80 ft (to 121 ft) tall, 30 – 40 ft spread

Flowering / Fruiting Season: Inconspicuous flowers emerge after the leaves from April to June; fruits mature in September or October

Available at: Nature Hills

9. Almonds – Prunus dulcis

All In One Almond
Images via Fast Growing Trees and Nature Hills – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

While you can grow almond trees in Kentucky, most almond varieties are unsuitable because they are not cold-hardy enough. Even those that can survive in southwestern KY usually won’t be productive.

However, choosing cold-hardy, later-blooming varieties that will handle the cold winters better and avoid the risk of late spring frosts should allow you to produce crops of these tasty nuts anywhere in KY. The cultivars listed below have all been recommended for growing in Kentucky.

Almonds grow best in full sun in well-drained, deep, loamy soils but will tolerate poor soils as long as they are well-drained. Irrigation is required to ensure production, being careful not to over-water as they do not tolerate wet soil.

Most almonds are not self-fertile and must be grown with another cultivar. Even self-fertile varieties will benefit from growing with another tree. This almond pollinator companion chart will help you choose compatible cultivars.

Almond Cultivars Recommended for Growing in Kentucky: Hal’s Hardy, All-in-One, Garden Prince Dwarf, Penta Almond, Javid’s Iranian Almond, Regal Russian almond

USDA Growing Zones: 7* – 9 *some cultivars are hardy in 6 – 9, and a few are in 5 – 9

Average Size at Maturity: 10 – 20 ft tall*, 5 – 20 ft spread *size depends on cultivar

Flowering / Fruiting Season: Showy flowers bloom from mid-February to mid-March; fruits mature from August through October, depending on the variety

Available at: Fast-Growing-Trees & Nature Hills

Available at: Fast-Growing-Trees & Nature Hills

Table Comparing Nut Trees in Kentucky

Here is a detailed table comparing nut trees in Kentucky, including average size, recommended cultivars and USDA growing zones.

Nut Tree VarietyDescriptionUSDA Growing ZonesAverage Size at MaturityCultivars Recommended for Kentucky
Pecan Trees (Carya illinoinensis)Cold-hardy varieties suitable for KY; requires understanding of pollination process.6(5)* – 9(10)40 – 150 ft tall, 30 – 80 ft spreadHardy Pecan, Northern Pecan, Colby, Fisher, Greenriver, Kanza, Major, Mohawk, Pawnee, Posey, Yates 127, Yates 66, Osage
Dunstan Chestnut (Castanea dentata x mollissima)Hybrid with sweet nuts, larger than parents; prefers slightly acidic to neutral soil.5 – 840 – 60 ft tall, 30 – 40 ft spread
Chinese Chestnuts (Castanea mollissima)Medium-sized trees with sweet nuts; adaptable to various soils.4 – 830 – 40 ft (to 60 ft) tall, 30 – 40 ft (to 60 ft) spreadArmstrong, AU Leader, Crane, Eaton River, Ford’s Sweet, Mossbarger, Orrin, Qing, Sleeping Giant
Butternut (Juglans cinerea)Native to KY, suitable at higher elevations; produces rich, buttery nuts.3 – 740 – 60 ft tall, 40 – 60 ft spreadAyers, Buckley, Chamberlain, Creighton, Weschcke
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)Native to KY, prefers deep, rich, well-drained soils; provides shade.4 – 970 – 100 ft (to 125 ft) tall, 60 – 80 ft spreadClermont, Daniels, Krouse, Ridgeway, Sparrow, Surprise, Thomas-Myers
Hazelnut Hybrids (Corylus americana x avellana x colurna)Fast-growing shrubs producing nuts in a few years; resistant to Eastern Filbert Blight.4 – 98 – 16 ft tall, 8 – 13 ft spreadGrand Traverse, 89-Lisa, G-22, 88-BS, G-14, Lansing, Rush and Winkler, Carlola, Delores, Magdalene, Laroka, Eastoka, Faroka
Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)Native to KY with unique bark; produces big, delicious nuts.4 – 870 – 90 ft (to 150 ft) tall, 50 – 70 ft spreadBridgewater, Cook Shag, Grainger, Raudabaugh, Silvis 303, Wilcox, Wilmoth, Wurth
Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa)Native to KY, grows in bottomlands; produces large, sweet nuts.5 – 960 – 80 ft (to 121 ft) tall, 30 – 40 ft spreadDaulton, Fayette, Henning, Keystone, Lindauer, Selbher, Simpson No. 1
Almonds (Prunus dulcis)Cold-hardy varieties for KY; prefers well-drained soil.7* – 910 – 20 ft tall*, 5 – 20 ft spreadHal’s Hardy, All-in-One, Garden Prince Dwarf, Penta Almond, Javid’s Iranian Almond, Regal Russian almond

Productive Nut Trees for Kentucky

I hope you enjoyed learning about the wide range of delicious nuts that you can grow in Kentucky’s temperate climate and rich soil that are perfect for so many nuts.

The humid climate, however, does mean more diseases to worry about, but choosing disease-resistant cultivars should help ensure success.

Other crops like pecans and almonds usually require warmer climates for good production, but you should have highly productive crops when choosing their cold-hardy varieties.

Now, have fun planning your home nut orchard!

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Lyrae Willis

Environmental Scientist & Plant Ecologist

Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences. Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees. She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing. When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.

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