Growing apples, cherries and grapes in the Klondike

Near Dawson City, on the north bank of the Klondike River, John Lenart grows raspberries, bush cherries, pears, strawberries, and three varieties of grapes, both wine and table.

by Patricia Robertson

Near Dawson City, on the north bank of the Klondike River, John Lenart grows raspberries, bush cherries, pears, strawberries, and three varieties of grapes, both wine and table.

He also grows haskap berries, still a novel crop in North America but long-known in Russia and Japan, and 70 different varieties of apples gathered from growers in Alaska, Yukon, and Alberta. “People marvel when they see the size and quality of the fruit that comes out of here,” Lenart says.

Lenart has been a co-operator with the fruit-breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan since 2000, growing their plants in his own orchard to see how they perform this far north. The fruit researchers at the university have been carefully breeding and selecting cold-hardy plants for superior fruit quality and yield for over 80 years. James Dawson, a PhD student in the Saskatchewan program, is more than impressed with Lenart’s results.

“The thing about the cultivated apple (Malus domestica) is that you have two different genetic pieces spliced together to create one tree,” says Dawson. “The above-ground part – the scion – determines fruit quality and taste, and the below-ground part – the root stock – contributes to nutrient uptake and winter dormancy. In the Yukon, you need the hardiest root stock with a fairly hardy scion.”

One of the cultivated apples produced by the university is the Prairie Sensation, which Lenart is also growing successfully in Dawson.

“In Saskatoon we have what we consider a northern climate – one of the most northern fruit-producing areas on the continent,” says Dawson. “In fact most of our fruit producers are a couple of hours north of Saskatoon, which is starting to encroach on our own boreal forest.”

Saskatchewan and the Yukon face the same problems in fruit growth and production cycles. “The climates are actually fairly similar, except that you guys are a little bit colder and a little bit dryer,” Dawson notes. The main problem, not surprisingly, is the intense wintertime temperatures. “Minus forty or below is very cold for plant species to endure through the winter, and fruit species are often more tender than a lot of other plants because they have to produce that amount of fruit.”

Another problem is summer drought. Improved varieties of plants often give up drought resistance for yield. “We don’t tend to get as much rain as more southerly regions, and water during the growing season is really important for plant growth and development, especially for the production of fruit,” Dawson explains. “Fruit is about 90 per cent water, so the amount of water the plants get can be key to the yield. If you have water-deficit problems, especially when the fruit is starting to develop, you can have reduced yields, or the plant might not go into dormancy properly at the end of the season, which can lead to other problems.”

The research program in Saskatoon has had great success with its haskap berries (Lonicera caerulea), also known as honeyberries and blue honeysuckles (“haskap” is the Japanese name for the berry). Haskaps, in fact, are particularly well-adapted to cold climates, and the researchers in Saskatoon are working to improve the productivity and quality as a North American-climatized species. Looking like long oval blueberries, haskaps ripen weeks before strawberries and have a flavour described as a combination of blueberries and raspberries. The plants begin to bear fruit after only three years. Since they seem to have few insect pests and diseases, they’re a worthwhile crop for organic production.

Then there’s sea-buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), a bizarre-looking plant that produces an orange berry with a fairly citrus-y taste that can be made into pies and jams. “It’s so cold-hardy and tough,” says Dawson, “that it works as a shelter-belt plant here in Saskatchewan.” The Saskatoon program is also working on a cold-hardy grape for winemaking by hybridizing wild grapes with wine-producing ones.

Planning an orchard and knowing your soil is essential before any planting actually takes place, says Dawson. Although it seems counterintuitive, “any plant species that flowers early and can get frost damage – saskatoon berries, for example – needs to be planted on a north-facing slope away from the sun.” Why? “Because you want to keep the plant dormant long enough that the frost injury potential has passed, and once the North Slope starts to heat up, most of the frost problems have passed by.” Adds Lenart: “Finding the hardiest selections of any given fruit is essential for success when growing at this latitude or climate.”

Thanks to climate change, the arable region of the continent is starting to move north. “In 10 or 20 years, species that might be marginal today might be quite profitable,” Dawson points out. “We may have more exotic species, or more production yields. Small changes like a couple of extra growing-degree days can mean the difference between finishing a crop like apricots and not being able to produce them.”

Apricots? The Saskatoon fruit program already has a couple of apricot trees, though they’re not producing commercially. “They’re actually fairly cold-hardy,” says Dawson, “but they flower fairly early in the year and they can have problems with frost.”

But in another 20 years, the Yukon just might be producing them, too.

For more information about John Lenart’s work, see www.klondikevalley.com. For the University of Saskatchewan’s fruit-breeding program, see http://www.fruit.usask.ca/.

This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at www.taiga.net/yourYukon.

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