Renovation & Design

Peaches on the Prairies?

With proper overwintering, you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labours

Peach trees on dwarf rooting stock can survive a cold Prairie winter in an insulated teepee shelter. Don’t forget to turn on the light.

Grow peaches on the Prairies? The Siberian method makes it possible.

Easy picking: Bernie Nikolai’s apple trees are on dwarf root stock but are loaded withfull-size apples.

Stop traffic with this handsome pear variety: the Successful Falkenberg pear, named after a Russian breeder.

photos by Bernie Nikolai

Bernie Nikolai at his test orchard west of Edmonton where he grows 300 fruit trees.

Don’t tell Bernie Nikolai it isn’t possible to grow peaches or figs outdoors on the Canadian Prairies. He has been doing it successfully for several years in his backyard in Edmonton. Take, for example, what Nikolai refers to as his Siberian method to grow peaches.

“Peach trees die at -28 C and it always gets colder than that on the prairies every winter,” says Nikolai. That is an obstacle, but there is a way around it, he says. “In Siberia, for example, peaches are grown successfully in (areas that experience) temperatures as bitterly cold as -50 C.”

Start by cutting your peach tree off just above the graft, says Nikolai. “Your tree will send up several shoots. Peach trees are extremely pliable, and the branches will bend easily. In late October, you simply stake the shoots down right to the ground. Cover them with snow which is an astonishingly good insulator. The temperature outside may be -40 C but under the snow, it is only going to be -15 C or -20 C and the peach tree survives. In spring, when the snow melts, remove the little pegs and the peach tree springs right back up and will bloom and give you fruit.”

Peaches, sweet cherries and figs can also be safely overwintered in a large pot in an unheated, attached garage, says Nikolai, as long as the temperature does not go below -10 C which would then cause their roots to freeze. This method works well for figs which can withstand -10 C and for sweet cherry cultivars that normally will not survive when outdoor temperatures are below -30 C. “In spring, bring the trees outdoors and place them on your patio,” says Nikolai.

The third method is what Nikolai refers to as tenting. Nikolai creates an insulated teepee-shaped shelter using three or four two-inch diameter poles or posts that are eight feet in length. “Wrap the teepee structure with a couple of layers of insulated tarp or you can even use old bed sheets. Shovel snow into the structure as soon as it snows and dangle a 100-watt lightbulb down the middle from the top to just above the snow line.”

If the forecast calls for a low of -40C or colder, Nikolai plugs in an extension cord that runs to his deck and the lightbulb turns on automatically, which keeps the temperature inside the teepee at -25 C. “The lights are on for maybe only a dozen nights a year,” says Nikolai. This method helps to protect borderline hardy fruit trees such as peaches and sweet cherries as well as non-hardy apple trees or pears grown on dwarf rootstock.

Another method Nikolai uses to overwinter fig trees involves digging a small trench, about one-foot deep, along the south side of his house. He places the fig tree into a plastic bag (unsealed), then tilts the tree into the trench and covers it with soil. “Next, I place three or four bags of leaves on top and shovel some snow over the bags when the snow comes.” In spring, he lifts out the fig tree and replants it.

If you are wondering whether Nikolai is a horticulturist or nurseryman, or has a fruit-growing business of some sort, he will tell you he is strictly a hobbyist. Newly retired, Nikolai worked as a stockbroker for over 30 years with two of Canada’s major investment firms. He was born and raised in Winnipeg, where he attended Churchill High School. After graduating from university in Southern California, Nikolai lived in Toronto before moving to Edmonton in 1981.

“I do a lot of experimenting in my backyard here in Edmonton,” says Nikolai who grows more than 30 different pear varieties and dozens of varieties of apples and plums. He is a co-operator with the University of Saskatchewan and over the years has tested several apple varieties from their fruit program. Nikolai also grows 300 fruit trees which are on dwarf rootstock at his test orchard west of Edmonton. “The trees are no taller than six feet but are loaded with full-size apples. Dwarf rootstock makes for easy picking. You don’t have to use ladders and the trees bear fruit earlier than trees that are 20-feet tall on standard rootstock.” For a wide variety of fruiting trees and plants, Nikolai highly recommends Whiffletree Farm and Nursery in Elora, Ont.

Nikolai shares his techniques for growing peaches on the Prairies and overwintering figs through a series of brief but informative YouTube videos, each just three- to five-minutes long. He also demonstrates four quick and easy grafting methods: bark grafting, whip or tongue grafting, cleft grafting and chip budding. To view his videos, visit YouTube and search for “Veritas 555 777.”

Grafting is an amazing technique, says Nikolai. “People think grafting is some sort of a mystical art but nothing is further from the truth. If you can brush your teeth, you can graft.”

Nikolai says if you want to determine what is the best tasting apple, you could plant a dozen different apple trees in your backyard (if you have the space), or you could plant just one tree and graft a dozen different varieties onto it. “Then, when they produce, regraft the branches with the varieties you prefer. It’s really fun.”

Grafting is a horticultural technique used to join parts from two or more plants so they grow as a single plant. A portion of one plant (the scion) is placed into or on a stem or branch of another plant. In his videos, Nikolai explains how to graft, when to graft, what tools you will need, when to collect dormant scions and how to store them until you are ready to graft.

“By grafting, you can get apples to survive from the Okanagan in Winnipeg that would normally never survive,” says Nikolai. All apple varieties will only successfully graft to other apple varieties or crab-apple trees. In addition, plums will only graft to other plum trees, he says, but pear varieties will graft not only to other pear trees but also saskatoon bushes and cotoneaster and aronia berry bushes.

Nikolai has successfully grafted pears to cotoneaster bushes in his Edmonton backyard. During spring, the bushes are covered with showy white pear blossoms. Cotoneaster bushes make a nice dwarf pear tree, he says. Pears can also be successfully grafted to Saskatoon bushes as well as aronia (chokeberry) shrubs. “I have fully producing pears grafted to my Smokey Saskatoon hedge in my backyard,” says Nikolai. Eventually the supporting stalk of the Saskatoon shrub dies, however, pears continue to fruit for several years, he says.

One particularly handsome variety is the Successful Falkenberg pear, named after the breeder in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Nikolai says it is very large and hardy and somewhat bland for eating fresh but beautiful enough to stop traffic.

For more inspiration, follow Nikolai on Facebook at Hardy Fruits and Nuts of Alberta.


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