Winnipeg Free Press Review - Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens

Reviewed by: Colleen Zacharias

Growing fruit in your own backyard

Authors offer tips on choosing plants that can withstand extreme climates

A newly released book, Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens (Coteau Books, 2017), will have you growing more varieties of fruit than you ever thought possible. The authors, Sara Williams and Bob Bors, have crafted an eminently readable book about growing fruit that is equal parts essential growing information, methods in fruit breeding and an enticement to grow some of the more than 20 species and almost 200 varieties described within its pages.

Together, the authors bring a wealth of experience in both horticultural research and practical, hands-on experience in how to successfully grow a diverse variety of fruit in our extreme weather climate.

Both Bors and Williams have ties to the University of Saskatchewan — Williams is a retired horticultural specialist for the university's extension division, and Bors is head of the fruit breeding program as well as an assistant professor in the department of plant sciences. Williams is the author or co-author of numerous books for Prairie gardeners. Bors has released more than 20 fruit varieties, including the Romance series of dwarf cherries, Indigo and Boreal series of haskap, as well as several apple varieties.

His program at the University of Saskatchewan has 40 acres of fruit and is the coldest location in all of North America for a major fruit-breeding program. Bors says that, for him, the fruit selection at the grocery story is like a monoculture compared to the diversity of fruit that grows in his breeding fields.

Breeding for reliable cold hardiness is imperative, Bors says, but once that is achieved, then the objective is to breed for advances in fruit quality and flavour. The haskap represents one of the most exciting breeding developments in his fruit program.

"We are getting breakthroughs regularly," he says. "First of all, the fruit size is getting bigger. Our biggest variety is more than three times what we started with when we had our first 20 named varieties."

One exciting development is that there are now early, mid-season and late ripening haskap varieties. Boreal Blizzard, thought to be the world's largest haskap berry, ripens around the second week in July. A low-maintenance shrub, haskap won't sucker and is relatively compact (1.5 metres to two metres).

Planning to add more superfruits to your diet this year? Haskap has two to three times the amount of antioxidants of blueberries.

Not all small fruit varieties that offer some of the highest antioxidant value also deliver instant gratification. Lesser known but hardy superfruit varieties such as aronia and goji taste better dried, juiced, processed into jellies and jams, or used in wine.

The book describes the flavour of aronia as tart and very astringent with a strong tannin flavour. Nevertheless, the taste of aronia jam and wine, both of which I have sampled, is absolutely delicious.

Bors and Williams say that aronia is believed to have as much as five times the content of antioxidants (anthocyanins and flavonoids) as that of cranberry and blueberry, including anti-cancer compounds. Aronia melanocarpa Viking is highly productive, ornamental, and easy to grow. First developed in Eastern Europe, Viking's large fruit is less astringent than that of other aronia varieties. Viking aronia is available locally at T&T Seeds.

Goji berry, also known as Chinese wolfberry, has both edible leaves and tiny, bright red berries. Used in traditional Chinese medicine, the book cites the nutritional value of goji berries, which research has shown are high in antioxidants and healthy compounds such as lycopene.

When dried, the sugar content of goji increases for a sweeter flavour. While goji can be labour-intensive when it comes to picking and using the fruit, the authors say that it is relatively disease- and insect-free in colder regions. Availability of this medium- to large- size shrub, which can grow to 2.5 metres tall, is limited. However, T&T Seeds is a local source.

There is a distinct advantage to growing fruit in a cold climate, the authors say. Not only are there fewer disease and insect problems, but plants grown in northern areas produce higher levels of antioxidants in response to our colder temperatures.

Mouth-watering photographs are included on every page and sprinkled throughout the book are humorous elements, as well as tales of intrigue. In the chapter titled "Sour Cherry," fascinating facts are revealed about Les Kerr, a horticultural pioneer whose clandestine cherry and hazelnut breeding in the 1940s was to have an indelible influence on the work of future plant breeders, including Bors.

At the time, Bors says, Kerr was tasked by the federal government in his work as superintendent of the Sutherland Tree Nursery near Saskatoon to develop trees and shrubs for Prairie shelterbelts. In an effort to conceal his extracurricular breeding work, Kerr gave his cherry and hazelnut seedlings to farmer friends to grow, only revealing their existence and location one week prior to his death during a hospital visit by Dr. Cecil Stushnoff, who was then head of the horticulture department of the University of Saskatchewan.

The cherry releases from the University of Saskatchewan have high sugar content. Bush varieties include Carmine Jewel, Crimson Passion, Cupid, Juliet, Romeo and Valentine.

Interested in trying your hand at growing hazelnuts? The book provides detailed growing information. Although Bors has not yet released new varieties from his breeding program, he is planting as many hazelnuts as haskap and hopes to have 10,000 bushes fruiting before deciding which varieties to release.

This excellent resource also lists fruit tree varieties that have been selected for disease and insect resistance and are good choices for the smaller urban yard. For example, Pembina plum, Williams says, is extremely drought-tolerant and produces juicy, sweet fruit that matures late August to early September. She also recommends Patterson Pride, which is excellent for freezing.

The Manitoba Horticultural Association (MHA), one of the oldest horticultural societies in our province, is hosting its 120th annual general meeting and convention in Neepawa from Jan. 25 to Jan. 27. Bob Bors is the keynote presenter and will deliver two presentations, the first on small fruit scheduled for Jan. 26 and the second on coleus on Jan. 27.

If you are surprised at the latter choice of topic, don't be — Bors is a prolific breeder of coleus. His successful introductions have been picked up by Hort Couture, which markets the collection as Under the Sea coleus, available at many local garden centres. Royalties from Bors's coleus breeding have gone towards his fruit breeding work. These brightly coloured and wildly patterned coleus varieties create stunning container designs.

This year's MHA convention promises to be a rare opportunity for local gardeners to meet and listen to a foremost modern-day horticultural pioneer in our midst. Following his presentation in Neepawa on the 27th, Bors and Williams will travel to Winnipeg for a speaking and signing engagement that same evening at 7:30 pm at McNally Robinson Booksellers' Grant Park location.

Expect the eager audience for both events to be an eclectic mix of fruit lovers and coleus enthusiasts, too.


This article originally appeared in The Winnipeg Free Press

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