Originally published April 2016 by Steve Leroux on The Canadian Organic Grower
Almost five years ago with a baby on the way, and work-related stress issues that were threatening my health, my wife Robyn and I decided to move back to the family farm. That summer, as I walked around the farm eating plums, chums, blueberries, kiwis and black raspberries, I wondered why almost no one in Canada grew organic fruit. It made no sense to me.
Although uncertain, we just knew a change was needed. Could we make a living selling fresh produce, opening a “pick your own” or maybe sell fruit trees? It didn’t take long to decide on selling fruit trees, and that’s how “Green Barn Nursery” was born. My wife Robyn and I had an edge, since my mother Lorraine and stepfather Ken had been developing fruit trees and selling fruits and vegetables for three decades at Windmill Point Farm.
I had been around the farm on and off after leaving home at the age of eighteen. I even helped Ken plant his first apple orchard in the mid-1980’s. In the early days of the nursery at Windmill Point Farm, I remember helping carry boxes of trees down to our basement that served as the original cold room. I thought Ken was crazy and I wasn’t the only one! My parents continued to develop and test unusual plants and trees, as well as operate a Saturday produce market, and I set off to live my life.
That summer, as I walked around the farm eating plums, chums, blueberries, kiwis and black raspberries, I wondered why almost no one in Canada grew organic fruit. It made no sense to me. I’ll tell you to this day, I still can’t answer that question. The only word that comes to mind is fear. Are people afraid to try something because the “experts” say you “can’t” grow fruit here? Well, I’ll let you in on what I have learned over the last few years, and explain what you can grow, and maybe shed a little light on a few myths and misconceptions.
As nursery owners, we get asked thousands of questions each year. Some of the more frequent ones are about soil, water, fertilization, pollination and hardiness. Let’s start with soil. Obviously, all plants prefer specific soil types, and sandy loam is best for most trees and shrubs, but if you avoid standing water, any soil type can be used or amended. Here are a few tips.
If the soil is very wet, build a mound (1-2 feet high) in the fall and plant in it the next spring. This will allow the plant’s roots to stay dry, but will also allow it to find water relatively easily should there be a dry spell. All of a sudden, your unusable area could be your best place to plant. If you want to make a larger area, build a berm; this is a mound that creates a level space, shelf, or raised barrier separating two areas.
Another major problem is heavy clay. It actually can be great soil, as it holds nutrients and water well. With heavy clay, you should amend the soil in the hole before planting. To do so, make the hold a little bigger and throw in some sand and earth. If you want to add fertilizer or compost, I prefer putting on top of the soil once the tree is planted, rather than directly in the hole. The small fibrous roots are the most important, and they are also the most easily damaged, so don’t take a change and let the earth act as a filter.
Next is watering. This is obviously a complex question, but I’ll try to simplify it for you. When a tree or shrub is first planted, it should be watered at least once per week for 8-12 weeks, unless of course there are heavy rains during that period, and in those instances, each heavy rain counts as a watering.
Once a tree or shrub is established, it’s very low maintenance. Trees and shrubs are not like annual vegetables or flowers because their root systems are much more developed and reach deeper in the soil, so it takes longer for them to dry out. We have only irrigated twice at our farm in the last eight years. However, it never hurts during a dry spell to irrigate, and if you do, you might as well use that time to mix some liquid fertilizer into your water tank, irrigation system or even your watering can. We like Earth Safe liquid fertilizer. It’s safe, easy to use and effective. All around it’s a very good product. The granular form is also good for slow release over the course of the summer.
Another complex question that I can try to simplify is pollination. Pollination is the process by which pollen is transferred in plants, thereby enabling fertilization and sexual reproduction (which makes fruit). Apples always need a pollinator (and crab apples can be used as a pollinator); European pears almost always need a pollinator; Asian ears don’t always need one, but you can use an Asian to pollinate a European. There are mainly two types of plums: American/Japanese and European. You can’t have one of each type; you need two American/Japanese or two European to pollinate. In the big picture, even if something is said to be self-pollinating, it will produce more if with a pollinator. So why not plant two?
By far, the most frequently asked question we hear at the Green Barn is, “will these plants survive in my climate zone?” If I were to use the traditional hardiness scale, it would lead me to believe that four winters ago, when we recorded -37°C (without wind chill) in Ile-Perrot, Quebec, we would have been in zone 2 or 3. but the zoning maps indicate that we live in zone 4B or 5A. We have 15 year-old pecan and mulberry trees at our farm, as well as peaches, apricots, nectarines, and so do thousands of our customers from over the last 25 years. Some of the aforementioned plants are (were) supposedly rated as only able to survive in warmer climate zones 5, 6, and even 7.
I have a customer in Kingston who planted 60 trees in a protected area, surrounded by rock walls and forest. In this micro-climate, the trees grew like weeds. His apricot, peach and mulberry trees doubled in size in just two years and started producing after one year. With those results, he decided to plant an orchard in his open field, not far from the protected area. Why? Because of wind and water. The open field and heavy, wet clay soil, is a completely different growing zone.
There are too many variables to pigeonhole a tree or plant into a zone. A zone map should be used as a general gauge, just so you don’t try growing oranges in Yellowknife.
Trees are resourceful, and can acclimatize quite a bit more than we think. If you help them by doing just a few things, you can really improve their chance of success. Here are a few tricks that I find useful:
The key is to protect your fruit tree from wind, which I believe is one of the greatest threats. If the snow melts and then a cold snap hits with high winds, your trees could be in trouble. So we suggest that you cover the graft (with mulch or earth) during the first few winters. Tou can remove the protection during spring, summer, and fall and cover the graft again before winter hits (November) or place the tree near a south-facing wall. The wall can act as a windbreak and be used as a heat sink, which can improve plant growth and fruit size.
A fruit tree has two weak spots: the graft and the new growth. If the new growth freezes, it can come back; but if the graft freezes, your tree will die above the graft, eliminating the variety it was intended to be. It might survive, but will shoot growth from below the graft, therefore making it a seedling with unknown fruit quality. I suggest you keep the tree if this happens- maybe your seedling will produce the next great fruit- you never know!
Heavy snow cover gives you an advantage. The blanket of snow acts as an insulator, which protects the graft and some of the tree. In fact, in areas with heavy snowfall, you might want to try a peach tree, cut it down to just above the graft, and- voilà- you have a peach shrub which will be protected by the snow. The shrub will produce fewer peaches than a tree, but the longer it stays snow covered, the better it is for the shrub. If you plant it near your driveway or walkway you can blow your snow on top of it.
Finally, I’m going to pass on to you one of our “secrets.” After the tree has gone completely dormant and hardened off (usually after a week of below zero temperatures), go to you local hardware store and buy plumbing pipe insulation. Cut it into pieces of between 24-30 inches length, and place it at the base of the tree (wrap the tree). This will not only protect it from wind, but from mice as well. Make sure you take it off in the spring, as you don’t want heat and moisture in there causing bark rot.
So go ahead, try a few trees that aren’t supposed to survive in your zone. Use your outbuildings as wind barriers and brick walls as heat sinks. Or, you can use surrounding forests as windbreaks. You’ll be surprised at how these few tips may get you immediate success.
What we rarely get asked about is genetics — probably the most important factor for someone to consider. If you buy a tree that is not resistant to various diseases or cold-hardy, you’ll find out in a few years that you’ve made a mistake. So, do your homework before buying trees and shrubs. There are many nurseries with good varieties, you just have to weed through the weaker ones to find them.