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Alberta is for apples

Hundreds of varieties grow in Alberta, say arborists

I love apples.

I love the weight of them in my hands, the sunset red of their skin, the crunch as you bite into them, and the sweet juice that dribbles down your chin.

I get mine from the store now, but growing up I could get them from the trees in my backyard. Each year I’d watch with wonder as the barren branches brought forth shimmering emerald leaves, clouds of white blossoms, and swarms of buzzing bees. Petals would rain down like snow, and the branches would droop low, heavy with green and red fruit. The family and I spent many a weekend up on ladders picking the trees clean, peeling box-loads of apples, and baking them into delicious pies.

Jim Hole of the Enjoy Centre had a similar love affair with apples growing up. His family had maybe a dozen trees, and his mother Lois would dedicate the whole garage to processing apples and other fruits they harvested each autumn.

“We had crab-apple jelly like you couldn’t imagine,” Hole said.

Alberta’s not known for apples – you won’t see Alberta-grown apples in most stores, and Statistics Canada says we effectively don’t produce any on a commercial scale. But ask around, and you’ll find that there are hundreds of apple varieties that thrive in this province, and many do their best in your backyard.

The wide world of apples

Beaumont’s Konrad Ilg is one gardener who’s twigged to this fact. A product of Switzerland, the retired machinist said he grew up on a farm with an apple orchard and started growing apples in his backyard in 1992. Now, he grows about 50 varieties, about 20 of which he keeps on a lumpy grove of about 200 fruit trees in Leduc County.

“My main interest is in seeing what can we grow here,” Ilg said, so he’s always experimenting with new types.

Another is Bon Accord’s Amanda Chedzoy. An arborist, Chedzoy said she decided to start the Sprout Farms Apple Orchard as a tree nursery around 1980 when she moved to Sturgeon County and noticed that none of the local stores were carrying Alberta-grown fruit trees. She now maintains about 700 fruit trees supporting 150 kinds of apple and sells plenty of apples and apple juice each season.

“There’s something very satisfying about knowing you’re growing part of your own food crop and that you can share it with other people,” she said, when asked why she’s kept at it so long.

“And there’s a little bit of a feeling of ‘I defeated the weather’ in some years.”

Historians trace the domestic apple back to the mountains of Kazakhstan, where its ancestor, Malus sieversii, still grows. There are now thousands of varieties grown worldwide, with some 425,000 tons marketed in Canada in 2018 alone.

Alberta is generally too cold to grow apples on a commercial scale, especially with B.C. and Washington flooding the market with them, said Ieuan Evans, a Spruce Grove plant pathologist and prolific fruit grower. Most growers here raise apples on a hobby or u-pick scale.

Still, Evans said there were about 100 varieties that do thrive here, including (within city limits) commercial strains such as Honeycrisp and McIntosh.

It’s actually much easier to grow apples in the city than it is in the country, Ilg, Evans, and Chedzoy noted. All those hot buildings create a warmer microclimate (the urban heat island effect) and also shelter trees from the wind and hungry ungulates.

Ilg and Chedzoy’s orchards consist of grassy fields dotted with dwarf trees studded with little red or green apples, many of which are scattered on the grass beneath them. Some of the trees are festooned with metal or masking-tape labels indicating variety names. Many have multiple labels.

“This is my best apple,” Ilg said, indicating a barrel-shaped, Gala-esque Norkent – a variety available in many Alberta nurseries.

“It has a nice flavour, a nutty flavour, it’s nice and crisp, and it keeps the longest of all the apples here we grow.”

Nearby is a tree with clusters of golf-ball-sized September Rubies, which Ilg said were exceptionally juicy. The crab-apple sized Trailman a few metres away is mouth-puckering sour, while the bizarre Red Wonder is beet-red inside and out. Other varieties he’s grown here or at home have names like Astrachan, M538, and Venjaminoskoje. Many of these obscure varieties might have great taste but short shelf lives or soft skins, which makes them unsuitable for commercial production.

While there are some labs that develop new varieties (such as the University of Saskatchewan), Evans said most apples are discovered by chance. The Red Delicious came from a hedgerow, for example, while a B.C. farmer found the Ambrosia when he noticed his workers were all eating apples from a specific tree by his barn.

That’s because apple trees reproduce through cross-pollination. Just like it is with mammals, apple seeds contain a random mix of the traits from their parents, so there’s no telling what you’ll get out of them – you might plant a thousand seeds and get only one tree with decent fruit, Evans said.

When growers find an apple tree they like, they clone the heck out of it by grafting its buds onto other trees. Ilg and Evans said virtually all apple trees on orchards are grafts, typically paired with a hardy variety such as Siberian crab-apple to serve as the base. Hobbyists like Ilg will often graft five or more other varieties onto an existing tree to save space.

What to grow and how

The first step to growing apples is deciding what you want out of them, Chedzoy said. Some are good for eating, others for jams, juice, pies, or cider. Do a taste-test first; you can find a wide variety at u-picks and farmers’ markets.

“Sometimes your neighbours’ yards are the best place to go shopping for apples,” Chedzoy added.

While you can get some of the more common varieties from nurseries, Evans recommended visiting the DBG Fruit Growers Group’s annual scion wood exchange if you want to grow the more obscure ones.

You’ll want at least two trees so they can pollinate each other, or at least one that’s different from your neighbour’s if they have one, Chedzoy said. Expect to wait two to eight years for fruit if your sapling hasn’t started fruiting when you buy it.

The trees themselves require minimal maintenance, Chedzoy and Ilg said – a bit of water in the early years, maybe fertilizer if a soil test says you need it, and the occasional pruning. Most can live for over a century.

Weather is a common problem for apple growers. Ilg said most of his apples were pock-marked by hail this year, while Chedzoy said her orchard looks worse than it has in 40 years due to all the wind and wet.

“I’m blaming climate change,” she said.

“In the last 10 years, our weather has been so much more unpredictable.”

Pests are another. Ilg said he’s placed vole traps around his orchard to keep the rodents from nibbling at tree bark, and he’s building an eight-foot tall fence to keep out hungry deer and moose.

One major pest in Alberta is the apple maggot, which turns your apples into maggot-infested brown messes. Evans said many growers cover their trees with mosquito nets or put Zip-lock bags on developing apples to guard against the parasite.

While you can use iodine, refractometers, gas chromatographs and other gadgets to determine when to pick your apples, Chedzoy said most farmers simply use a schedule, as each variety tends to ripen at a consistent time. You can also cut the apple open and check the seeds; if they’re brown, they’re probably ripe.

“When you think it’s ready, taste it,” was her advice.

“If you like the taste, it’s time to pick them.”

Chedzoy said apples are almost always hand-picked unless they’re for juice or cider, in which case you can get away with shaking them off the tree mechanically.

Ilg said the proper way to pick an apple is to rotate them perpendicular to the branch without twisting or pulling so you break it off the tree while leaving the stem intact – it’ll rot quickly without it.

“You have to handle them almost like an egg,” he said, as every bruise will lessen their shelf life.

Evans said most apple trees will yield 100 to 500 pounds of fruit a year, although he knew of one tree in Edmonton this year that had about 3,000. Hole said there are also fruit-rescue and cider-making groups in and around Edmonton that will gladly take your excess apples.

Evans said an Alberta apple will rot in about a week on the shelf but can keep for six months in a fridge. Commercial growers will store them at or below 0 C in 10 per cent CO2 environments for even longer. You can also freeze them, juice them, dry them, or turn them into cider.

The fruits of your labour

Growing apples lets you practice sustainable agriculture by growing your own food and providing food for birds in the winter, Evans said. You’ll also get some great pies, as most Alberta apples are sour and ideal for baking.

Ilg said there are always new varieties of apples coming onto the market, and he encouraged apple fans to come out to the DBG Fruit Festival this weekend to try them – you just might find a new favourite.

Apple trees bring gorgeous leaves, blossoms and bees to your yard, as well as fruit with that home-grown taste you can’t get in stores, Hole said.

“There’s something real special about being able to pull an apple off the tree and pop it in your mouth and taste the sweetness of it.”

Fruit expo

The DBG Fruit Growers Group is holding its annual Fruit Festival on Sunday at L.Y. Cairns School in Edmonton, 10510 45 Ave., from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The free event lets guests talk to growers and sample a vast array of apples and other fruits grown in the Edmonton region so they can decide which ones to grow on their own.

Visit dbgfruitgrowers.weebly.com/fruit-festival.html for details.


Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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