Growing Fruit in Our Backyard Garden: A Personal Experience

Norkent apple blossoms

by Wendy MacLean, Master Gardener
Beausejour, Manitoba

Memories of shelves filled with jars of preserved fruit from our family’s backyard inspired me to grow and preserve some of my own fruit for summer and winter eating. When we acquired our property in Beausejour, a small town about an hour’s drive Northeast of Winnipeg, I looked at our 54m deep by 22.8m wide (180 ft x 75 ft) lot and thought: “This is my chance!” Most of our edible trees and shrubs are planted in the back half of this lot (East of the house) and there is still room for a good-sized vegetable garden and ornamental flower beds. This lot is sheltered by a hedge of native Eastern white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) pruned annually to a height of 2.1m (7 ft) on the South and North sides, a line of full grown native white spruce trees (Picea glauca) on the East edge and bordered by the street on the West. Full sun shines on the main growing areas.

Overall, the results of our fruit growing efforts have been satisfying but there have been some challenges too. In this article, I will focus on our experiences growing apples, cherries and haskaps.

Backyard preserves

Apples (Malus)
Because my husband and I were approaching retirement when we started planting our apple trees, we selected cultivars promoted as “dwarf” with the goal of preventing falls from ladders when harvesting our apples in the future. This has been a good decision. The dwarf cultivars with a mature height of 2.4 to 3m (8 to 9 ft) that we are growing are ‘Goodland’ (Malus x ‘Goodland’), ‘Norkent’(Malus x ‘Norkent’) and ‘Prairie Magic’(Malus x ‘Prairie Magic’). We have also tried to grow the ‘Honeycrisp’ (Malus x ‘Honeycrisp’) promoted as a “semi-dwarf” apple with a mature height of 5m (16 ft). The three dwarf cultivars have survived, but the ‘Honeycrisp’ succumbed after a couple of years, possibly because its cold hardiness (-34C) was exceeded in our garden.

Dwarf Goodland apple blossoms

Yields:  I am very impressed with the performance of ‘Goodland’ and ‘Norkent.’ Both have grown well and generously yield fruit by early to mid-September. Our ‘Goodland’ planted in 2018, produced 55 good-sized apples in 2022. (Yes, I counted!) For many years ‘Norkent,’ planted in 2009, has been yielding harvests too large to count. ‘Prairie Magic’ has not yielded as well for us so far. In 2022, four years after planting, it produced 5 apples. The fruit of all these trees is the same size as the larger non-dwarf cultivars; the word “dwarf” refers to the size of the trees themselves. ‘Goodland’ apples are wonderful for making applesauce, pies, crisps and for preserving. ‘Norkent’ apples are crisp, juicy and very good to eat fresh, having an “apple/pear taste similar to ‘Golden Delicious” as stated on the plant tag. If cooked a bit more, they are delicious in fruit desserts or preserved as slices in a light syrup; they also store at least 1 month longer than ‘Goodland’ if refrigerated.

Norkent apples

Challenges:   Apple Maggot Flies were a problem. A local arborist advised us to place several red sphere traps coated with Stickyfoot on each dwarf apple tree and we have found this significantly reduces the number of apples affected. Instructions for placement of these traps can be found online.

Dwarf Sour Cherries (Prunus)
In 2008, after a few years of growing the larger tree form ‘Evans’ cherry (Prunus eminens ‘Evans’) at 3 to 4 m (10 to 12 ft) tall, we were excited to learn that we could grow cherries on smaller plants varying in height from 1.2 to 2.5 m (4 to 9 ft). We purchased all five cultivars of the University of Saskatchewan Romance Series of these cherries: four of the ‘Kerr’s Easy Pick’ cultivars (Prunus x kerrasis): ‘Crimson Passion’, ‘Juliet’, ‘Romeo’ and ‘Valentine’, and one ‘Egbert Centre’ cultivar called ‘Cupid’ (Prunus ‘Egbert Centre’ x ‘Kelleris 14’)1. We planted them in a row exposed to full sun and winds. The early season white blossoms dazzled us and we waited for the shrubs to become mature enough to produce fruit.

Dwarf cherry spring blossoms

Yields:   After four years, in mid to late July, ‘Cupid’ consistently gave us a generous harvest and ‘Valentine’ also yielded well in years without a later spring frost. (Because ‘Cupid’ bloomed later than the others, it wasn’t affected by late spring frosts that can diminish the production on the others.) Baked desserts, sauce and jam were my favourite uses for these cherries.

‘Cupid’, ‘Evans’ and ‘Valentine’ cherries

Challenges: By 2013, we had lost ‘Crimson Passion’, ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’ before benefiting from significant fruit yields. The oozing substance we discovered on the main branch of these shrubs is caused by a bacterial infection commonly called “gummosis.”2 This may have been aided by winter injury from exposure to the sun reflecting off snow and if we grow these cherries again, we will give winter protection to the bark. The arrival of the Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD) fruit fly has also been discouraging. A few years ago, when pitting our beautiful cherries, we found many of them with a white maggot inside and this discovery was so distasteful, we discarded the whole harvest. After learning that this was a widespread problem for cherries, we removed ‘Cupid’ and ‘Valentine’ and planted other edibles in that space. At an online lecture sponsored by North Dakota State University, the speaker suggested growing ‘Juliet’ as a possible strategy to meet the SWD challenge because this cultivar’s fruit ripens two weeks earlier than the others and the pressure from fruit flies is lower earlier in the season.3 Maybe we will invite ‘Juliet’ back to our garden in the future. Another challenge is the suckering habit. Common advice is to grow these shrubs some distance away from your annual and perennial beds and avoid disturbing the roots.4

Haskaps/Honeyberries
(Lonicera caerulea)
Enticed by the description of their “raspberry-blueberry” flavour, the fruit’s dark indigo colour indicating healthy antioxidants, and their hardiness in the event of late spring frosts, we purchased our first haskap plants in 2010 and have added to our collection over the years. We now have a total of 14 bushes: the shorter 1 to 1.5m (3 to 4 ft) ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Indigo Treat’ and the taller 2m (5 to 6 ft) ‘Borealis’ and ‘Berry Blue.’

We have followed advice to plant compatible cultivars for cross-pollination.5  Although the pale yellow flowers aren’t as visible to us as the beautiful displays put on by the apples and cherries, I’ve observed large numbers of bees visiting them. They are very cold-hardy, bloom earlier than other fruits, and provide their yields of berries in mid-June — an advantage in avoiding the Spotted Wing Drosophila fruit fly.

Because they are attractive shrubs, in 2021 we planted 7 ‘Indigo Treat’ haskaps along our front walkway as an ornamental hedge, with the compatible ‘Cinderella’ for pollination, and we plan to leave any fruit they produce for the birds to enjoy.

Haskap blossoms

Yields:   After 3-4 years, all our haskaps have produced fruit annually. We prune the older, interior branches out to provide better airflow and light. We’ve enjoyed their tangy taste on top of cereal and pancakes, mixed with apples in baked desserts and made into jam.

Haskap berries. Photo used with the generous permission of Honey Berry Fruit Farm, Fort Frances, Ontario

Challenges:   Because we are late in netting them most years, the cedar waxwings and robins feast on them as soon as they are edible. If you net them early enough, you can enjoy good quantities of these berries every year. Rabbits have made winter meals of the branches and we now protect them with chicken wire. These plants have not suckered and have kept their form well over the years.

Conclusion
If you can offer well-drained soil, a compatible pollinator for apples and haskaps, enough moisture when the fruit is setting and protection from insect pests, birds and/or rabbits, shelves of jars sparkling with fruit in beautiful colours can be in your life too!
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All photos by Wendy MacLean except where otherwise noted.

1 Williams, Sara and Bors, Bob, 2017. Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens, Regina, SK: Coteau Books, pp. 239-241.
2 Ibid, pp. 99-100 for a full description of this condition.
3 You can find this lecture on YouTube if you search for “NDSU Spring Forum 2022, Cheery Cherries: Hardy Varieties in North Dakota by Kathy Wiederholt.”
4 The challenges we’ve experienced with the Romance Series sour cherries have also been challenges with ‘Evans.’

5 A helpful chart listing several haskaps in the University of Saskatchewan breeding program and explanation of compatibility for cross-pollination can be found here: https://gardening.usask.ca/documents/Haskap-bloom-ripe-charts.pdf

Published:  March 2023