A day of Fruitful Learning at Pacific Horticulture College

Student Blog, by Pacific Horticulture College’s Lauren Fairweather and Claudette Campbell

On August 2nd 2018, this year’s crop of Landscape Horticulture students focused their attention on a very juicy topic: growing fruit trees on Southern Vancouver Island. We are fortunate here in the Victoria area to be able to grow a wide variety of food, but many people may not realize the whole extent of what is possible, from the precision surgery of joining one fruit tree to another, to the minimal extra energy required to grow a bountiful crop of lemons.

We started off the morning with the multi-talented Gordon McKay, owner of Alba Plants and especially skilled in the realms of apiculture, arboriculture and fruit tree care. The main topic at hand was a primer on grafting, one of the many aspects of horticulture which is at once an art and a science. Grafting is a tool used to perpetuate a certain cultivar or variety; control tree size; promote earlier and/or more bountiful fruiting; and for adaptation to difficult soils or climate. In a nutshell, a cutting (called a “scion”) is taken from the desired tree, and its tissue is fused (“grafted”) to a different plant (called the “rootstock”), usually of the same genus or species. It’s truly a form of surgery: working with living tissue, working quickly with precision, and requiring sharp sanitized tools as well as hygienic handling to prevent wound infection. There are various grafting techniques, from “Chip Budding” to “Whip and Tongue”. Most fruit trees available for purchase- particularly apple, pear, and stone fruit- are propagated using grafting rather than seed, since it ensures the fruit comes true-to-type. Beyond fruit trees, other deciduous trees as well as roses and conifers are also grafted on a commercial scale.

Contrary to what many people assume, Victoria and the Saanich peninsula are not part of a rainforest climate but rather a modified Mediterranean climate. Thanks to our hot dry summers, it is possible to grow an incredible array of exotic fruit trees, many which you have to see to believe. As a class we were lucky to see them with our own eyes at Fruit Trees and More, a nursery and demonstration orchard in North Saanich where the grafting and growing systems taught to us by Gordon came to life.

Bob Duncan along with his wife Verna have passionately been growing fruit trees and more for 35 years. At least 500 varieties have been grown and tested on their 3/4 acre homestead. Once on the property you witness an emergence of temperate fruit trees, young nursery starts of figs and mulberry basking in the front yard sun. Bob led us on an educational tour of the orchards, starting with a specimen fig tree, the “Desert King” described as a good producer for our climate. Bob explained pruning to control height and spread of the tree, make fruit easier to pick and stimulate production of the “breba” crop of figs (the crop that develops in the spring on the previous year’s shoot growth), the only crop that will reliably ripen here.

We didn’t go far before displays of lemon and lime trees grew espaliered along south and west facing walls, tucked under a clear Polycarbonate overhang. Bob referred to them as “acidic citrus” which can be grown here outside since the fruit are hardy to -3°C. A bit of intervention he uses is a string of older (7w) Christmas lights draped on the branches along with a blanket of Remay row cover, which is all that is needed on the 5-10 days we can experience down to -10°C in our winters. There were also navel oranges (termed “Sweet Citrus”) grown in an unheated Poly house because they required more daytime heat to bring out the sweetness.

Further on, a grove of Kiwi grew out of mature stocks to an overhead wire pergola system supporting the branches with lots of fruit in the process of maturing. Grafted into a few stocks using the “whip and tongue” technique taught to us earlier by Gordon were new starts of yellow kiwi variety, which Bob says to be a lot sweeter. We had the opportunity to see a Cherry tree growing with a UFO (Upright Fruiting Offshoots) system, also a technique taught earlier by Gordon.

There were temperate fruit such as apples, nectarines, plums, pawpaws, pears, quince and almonds. Mediterranean fruit too, like pineapple guava, loquats, persimmons, pomegranates and olive trees. There was such an incredible array of exotic fruit trees you have to see to believe; there’s a good chance the term “Zone denial” originated here. Kudos to Bob and Verna for providing us with a great learning experience and a way to see true horticultural passion in full fruition!