We Canadians share a certain pride in our ability to weather tough winters. But as hard as the snow, cold, ice and wind can be on humans, the climate can be equally harsh for plants.
Despite the challenges, many Canadian gardeners want to grow and enjoy fresh tender fruit right in their own backyards. Fortunately, a growing number of nurseries, breeders and researchers are cultivating trees, vines and bushes that can thrive in Canada.
Brothers Lawrence and Lowell Martin established Whiffletree Farm & Nursery in Elora, Ontario, to specialize in unique, hard-to-find varieties of disease-resistant trees and bushes suited to the Canadian climate.
Their stock includes hundreds of edible fruits and nuts, from heirloom apples to hybrids like plumcots (plum crossed with apricot) to “I didn’t know you could grow that in Canada!” plants like kiwi.
Finding the best varieties of trees, bushes, vines and canes and continually adding new stock are ongoing challenges for the Martins.
“These fruits don’t exist in nurseries,” explains Lawrence. “We spend a lot of time tracking down people that have these special varieties.”
How to find Canadian-friendly fruit
Growers who specialize in fruit suited to Canada’s growing conditions evaluate their stock by cold hardiness, how soon the plants come into production, how much fruit the plants produce, flavour, soil compatibility and disease resistance.
Once they determine that a plant meets their standards, they then work to propagate and graft trees and develop root stocks. The root stocks are key to a plant’s success.
Robert Bors of the University of Saskatchewan Fruit Program explains that many rootstocks have Russian heritage. One variety, the Krymsk, has become a popular choice for stone fruits like almonds, apricots, peaches, plums and nectarines. The Krymsk adapts to a broad range of environments, including heavy soil with poor drainage. Spreading roots provide superior anchorage and drought tolerance. As well, trees on a Krymsk root are extremely cold hardy, live longer, bear fruit earlier, and grow more and larger fruit.
If you’re looking for a particular fruit to add to your garden, the internet can be a good source. Many growers ship plants across the country, so the varieties now available for Canadian gardeners have expanded significantly. Browse catalogues, make your choice and place your order. One piece of advice: to ensure the particular fruit you want is available, do order well in advance rather than waiting until spring.
Diverse options available for Canadian gardeners
While hardiness is one factor that influences people’s choice of fruit to add to their gardens, most people are driven by what they like to eat. Growers like the Martins have found that their most popular varieties are often their most unusual. Early every year, gardeners snap up hybrids like chums (cherries crossed with plums), red-fleshed apples that originated from crabapples, or the aforementioned plumcots.
Kiwis, which were first introduced to North America in the early 1900s, are gaining popularity as more people become aware that the “tropical” fruit can be grown in Canada. Unlike the fuzzy brown fruits grown primarily in New Zealand and found in supermarkets everywhere, the Canadian varieties are smaller and smooth-skinned.
As well, the heirloom trend has carried over from vegetables to fruits. Whiffletree, for example, stocks many fruits that date back to the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Their oldest variety, Calville Blanc D’Hiver apples, dates even further back to 1598—and packs more vitamin C than oranges!
Secrets to successful fruit growing
No matter how carefully cultivated a particular tree or plant may be, there are a few steps that Canadian growers can take to increase the chances of success.
The first and most basic is to know your zone and choose plants that are suited to your area. Bors, whose book Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens will be published at the end of this year, explains that for people who live in the city, buildings, roads and trees create microclimates. “Often microclimates can shift you into an extra zone.” However, he cautions growers to select fruits that were bred in a comparable climate and not to stretch more than a single zone. For example, a tree conditioned for zone 5 likely won’t survive in zone 2.
With the limited growing season in Canada, planting time is an important consideration. The best time to plant is when plants are dormant, meaning they’re not actively growing. This means early in the spring or in the fall, just before the plants shut down for the winter.
Buying bareroot stock is a good way to ensure your plants are dormant. Unlike many garden centres or home improvements stores where trees and shrubs are sold in pots, bareroot plants are exactly that—bare. A tree or vine is dug out of the ground in late fall or early spring, the dirt is shaken off the roots, and then the tree is kept in cold storage with moist roots until planting time.
This technique ensures that the trees remain “asleep” until they are ready to be planted. Bareroot plants are less susceptible to transplant shock and—when planted at the right time of year—can quickly establish themselves in your garden.
Planting location is another factor to keep in mind. Bors says, “If you plant apricots and plums facing north, the cooler location will delay their blooms, helping them to not bloom too early and get damaged by frost.” However, avoid planting in low lying areas or exposed windy locations, which will diminish plants’ chances of success.
For most fruit, their biggest desire is light. “For almost all fruit, the more sun you give them, the better they’re going to be,” says Bors. “If your tree is in shade half the day, you may end up with half a crop.”
If you have a particular location or variety in mind, consult with an experienced grower. They can advise you on the best option for your property.
With new plants coming available every year, Canadians have the opportunity to experience the anticipation and the “wow” of tasting sweet homegrown fruit—including when home is Canada.
Julia Thomson, principal of 129 Communications, is a freelance communications consultant and writer who works with small businesses, blogs, websites and other media. She writes about gardening, home décor, animals and country living for a variety of publications, including her own blog Home on 129 Acres.