The orchard is a special pet of mine, and probably one of the big reasons why we bought this farm in the first place.
I started gardening only at about 30 years of age, having lived in the city all my life prior to that, and only being successful at killing houseplants.
My first plot of land was a heavily treed suburban quarter acre backyard in Aylmer, with about 4 inches of soil over a limestone bedrock. I quickly realized that it was not going to grow as many apple and cherry trees as I would like, and the search for the farm began.
On our farm we have a wonderful south-facing slope, perfectly suited for an orchard. On it, I have made pretty much every possible mistake a beginner farmer can make. I won’t belabor it here, but if you would like to read about my mistakes, you can scroll to the bottom of the page. It might help you to avoid at least some of them if you are every trying to grow your own, which by the way you should.
When I was a kid growing up in Russia, we spent our summers at the cottage outside St. Petersburg. We didn’t grow anything, but there was a market garden nearby where we could always buy lots of small fruit and berries to eat fresh and make jams. We used to make a bucket of fresh blackcurrant preserves per person for the winter, and keep it in our city balcony over the winter. My other favourite preserve was lingonberries, apples and walnut – yum!
I have fond memories of coming home from school, not changing my uniform, making an open sandwich out of a nice slice of white bread with butter and a thick layer of blackcurrant preserves, and curling up with a book on our living room couch while slowly devouring it. I got in trouble for it every time, but it was reliably the best part of my day.
As a teenager, I remember vacationing at the Black Sea. We rented a cottage at the village where ladies were selling their peached from in front of their cottage gates. These were 5 inch sun-drenched golden globes with skin cracked and peeling.
They were not transportable, they were basically juice. You would eat it right there, biting into sweetness and aroma that I remember to this day, your whole face orange and juice dripping from your elbows. This is an experience never to be replicated. This is called fresh fruit in season from your friendly farmer.
When I came to Canada, I was sorely disappointed by the complete absence of black currants (there is only so much Cassis you can have as a substitute). And redcurrants. And gooseberries. And sour cherries. And apples that have a thin skin, crunchy interior, and juice that runs right out when you bite.
Apples that have flavours other than sweet. Actually, any fruit that has flavor other than sweet. The only exception I would make is Ontario peaches in season. They don’t approach the Black Sea experience, but there is that magical time in August when you can spend two weeks doing nothing but eating peaches.
Only later I realized that the fruit these days are bred only two categories – pest and disease resistance (thick skin), and transportability (picked green, transported over miles, and still looks good enough on the supermarket shelf).
Texture and flavour are not the selection characteristics anybody is interested in, since you need to bite into the fruit in order to find that out. Incidentally, the old ladies at the market of my childhood, always had a taste first policy – there was always a sample available before you committed to buy.
Back to my orchard. The things that do well here are rhubarb (yes boring, but it’s a tremendous base for all kinds of jams, chock full of vitamin sea, and presents a great foil for all the basic sweetness of other fruit), raspberries (red ones, black ones, purple ones, golden ones, ever bearing ones), black currants, red pink and white currants, and table grapes of different varieties. And blueberries. And that’s about it for now, after 6 years of fussing over an acre and a half of fruit trees and berries. Oh yes, I forgot about sea buckthorn, this bush that has all the antioxidants you could ask for.
We have quite a few sleeping beauties that haven’t awakened yet. The ones that I hope and pray will wake up this year would be Saskatoon bush cherries – they have been girdled to the ground by hungry voles for the last two years. First year we looked in surprise. Second year we’ve spread cayenne on the ground and got a couple of cats.
This year we’ve planted daffodils around the bushes (apparently completely repulsive to voles’ noses), and painstakingly wrapped the bottom foot each stem in foil. My enterprising son tried packing one bush with steel wool pads. If this doesn’t work, next year we’ll come up with some kind of a wire cage at the base of the bush. I am determined to eat them there cherries.
Beside those, we have different kinds of apples, some pears, some sweet cherries, plums and plumcots, haskaps and gojis. We have lingonberries, high and low bush cranberries and elderberries. I am not sure when they are planning to wake up. And my peaches, apricots and mulberries are resting in peace. So I guess the silkworm production is out for now.
And here we are at the bottom of the page, time to reveal my mistakes and lessons learned:
- Look carefully what zone you are in. We’ve moved 35 minutes west of Aylmer (zone 5), and found ourselves in zone 3-4. It has never even occurred to me to look, I assumed that we stayed in the same zone. We’ve lost the protection of the river right next to our house, and all the heat retaining capacity of surrounding tons of asphalt, with its tremendous climate regulation.
- Trees do not adapt to colder climates, despite all the assurances of the person selling you the trees. At least they don’t adapt to my colder climate.
- Wind protection is extremely important. It shouldn’t matter for you in the city, but if the wind takes the barn roof clean off, it is not very good for the trees. They don’t perform to their full potential. You really need a windbreak.
- If you hire a local guy to plow the place for your orchard and spread the seed the green manure, don’t assume they know what they are doing. For example, my guy used the corn planter for buckwheat, so it got planted in rows.
- Plan paths for equipment. There is only so much compost you can carry in your hands up a glorious south-facing slope.
- Quack grass is worse than it looks. Make sure it is completely gone before you start planting.
- Blister beetles are a serious pest despite what the internet tells you. They are related to locusts, read piranhas, and are capable of devouring all your orchard blossoms while you nap.
- Voles are not cute.