Why Plant Hardy Trees, Shrubs and Vines?

April 04, 2020

Why Plant Hardy Trees, Shrubs and Vines?

While there are now many more outlets for hardy fruit trees than in past years, some of them are selling what I call ‘high zone’ trees and shrubs that are entirely unsuited to northern zones (climate change expectations notwithstanding). In fact, between these outlets and online ordering, it is pretty much possible to obtain live specimens of just about any plant one wishes to grow or experiment with.

My favourite example of a high zone plant that most of us should not want to try in a northern garden is the Bing cherry. It is still sold in significant numbers in parts of Greater Sudbury and elsewhere, but is only hardy to climate zone 5, according to more optimistic estimates, or to climate zone 8 by others. In the north, where it is mostly climate zone 3 or 2, with a bit of zone 4 in some pockets such as the city of Sudbury and on all of Manitoulin Island, I am quite sure (please excuse my arrogance) that there is no way to grow Bing cherries successfully. 

Instead, there are beautiful, low-zone cherry trees, haskaps, hardy apples, hardy grapes, hardy cherry-plums, and other hardy edibles, that not only survive the harshness of the northern winter and the capriciousness of our other three seasons, but produce bountiful crops of excellent quality fruit.

Who decides what’s hardy?
The word ‘hardy’ that I so often use is generally a relative term; relative to location. For one example, in Ottawa and Montreal, both located in Agriculture Canada climate zone 5, it would be reasonable to think of a plant rated for climate zone 4, as being hardy. For another, in Toronto and some other parts of southern Ontario, Barrie is considered to be ‘north’, but Barrie is in climate zone 5.

My use of the term ‘hardy’ is always in relation to plants that have Agriculture Canada climate zone ratings of 3 or 2, and have undergone very extensive testing and selection on the Canadian prairies, a vast area that has harsh growing conditions comparable to what we encounter in northern Ontario. The testing and selection process for fruit trees on the prairies has taken place over decades, or for even more than a century in some cases. 

During that process, results were objectively recorded by such organizations as the Prairie Fruit Breeding Coop and Agriculture Canada. Here are some links that shed light on that:
– http://www.theprairiegarden.ca/2016.html
(informative commentary on the subject, by Bob Bors, a very respected plant breeder at the University of Saskatchewan)- http://www.fruit.usask.ca/articles/apple_history.pdf
(“History of Commercial Apple Production on the Prairie”). For just one example out of very many, about eighty years ago, Agriculture Canada conducted a cross breeding program on the prairies producing 130 000 apple trees. It was done such that one parent of each tree produced was a hardy crabapple or a known hardy local apple variety, and the other parent was a less hardy variety of apple that had excellent fruit quality and size. 

The resulting varieties, just numbers then, not names, were sent to interested participants all over the prairies, and reports of these trees’ performances were systematically compiled over decades. At the rate of 1 in 10 000 successful apple seedlings, the expected number of very positive outcomes would only be 13! To make it onto this very exclusive short-list, apple trees would have to prove themselves to be very winter-hardy, reliably productive, and give fruit of good quality and size. That is a very tall order, but today we residents of cold zones reap the benefits of that prairie vision and determination.

Anyone selling Bing cherry trees on the prairies would, I’m guessing, be run out of town. In contrast, several of today’s prairie nurseries are second, third, or fourth generation family businesses, successful because they only deal in the best of the best. And it is such reliability and quality that I try to connect my customers with. 

Many of my customers know that I will not be persuaded to sell any plants that I do not have complete confidence in. That does not mean that the only hardy trees sold are at my nursery, but it does mean that I deal only in the best.

On the contrary
Perhaps, as I have occasionally witnessed, you too will run into sellers who promote their plants by citing that they sell many of them to customers in colder zones. This seems to be based on a belief that the most popular brand is the best, or the safest, or something like that. Once I was told that if the varieties I steer clear of were not hardy for our area they would not be sold here. To these two beliefs I say………’false’. 

Which is why I am in business. I want to supply people with the choice of planting the best, based on scientific evidence, and as time goes by, on local success. 

If I want to eat a few handfuls of Bing cherry fruits in season, I will buy them at a local supermarket that imports them from Niagara or from BC. But if you want highly nutritious, and superbly flavourful cherries, that not only taste good picked fresh off the tree, but can also be cooked or preserved as pies, jams, juice, wine…you name it…then try growing an SK cherry tree (‘SK’ is for Saskatchewan), in your own yard, and eat as ‘local’ as is possible, applying a ‘100-foot rule’…. The SK cherries include Carmine Jewel, and then the five ‘Romance series’ cherries: Juliet, Cupid, Romeo, Crimson Passion, and Valentine, amazing cherries that are hardy to climate zone 2! In zone 3 you also might try the Evans cherry. 

Ron Lewis (From Hardy Fruit Tree Newsletter 2017 #01)

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