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Johnny Appleseed Of The North

Johnny Appleseed Of The North

One wacky cultivar at a time, John Lenart is spreading ultra-hardy trees grown for subarctic climates.
By Katharine Sandiford
Oct 02
2019
From the SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2019 Issue

A pilgrimage of sorts for Yukon’s food-growing enthusiasts begins on a gravel bank of the Klondike River, 20 minutes from Dawson City. Here’s where they’ll hop in a canoe to ferry across the river, hike over a small island, and paddle up a backwater channel. The scraggly white spruce forest hugs either side of the bank, trees falling over drunk on melting permafrost. It’s hard to imagine a food-plant paradise is just around the corner.

Tucked deep off-grid, off-road, and across a fast-moving body of water is the fantastical Klondike Valley Nursery. Canada’s northernmost orchard teems with fruits previously thought incapable of growing in a permafrost-underlain boreal forest so close to the Arctic Circle. It’s here, on this 44-acre property, that for over three decades legendary fruit wizard John Lenart has been pioneering unique varieties of apple that thrive in the subarctic. But since his keener biologist girlfriend Kim Melton moved onto the property three years ago—introducing the scientific method and a zest for efficiency—production is expanding, sales are booming, and new experimental varieties are coming on-line.

“I bought it in 1986 with no plan other than just wanting a piece of land,” he says. “I just wanted to get myself onto a piece of ground.”

But Lenart had a hankering for more than the usual Klon- dike staples of potatoes and cabbages. His fondest childhood memories are of following grandpa around on his fruit and vegetable farm in Ohio, picking grapes and apples and growing his own crops. “That stayed with me,” he says. “When I found a place of my own, I could express this desire to grow things.”

From Adam and Eve’s fateful bite into the forbidden fruit, and Johnny Appleseed’s legendary mass-cultivation across the lower 48, to its placement at the start of our alphabet, the apple is front and centre in Western culture. Lenart just had to try growing them in the Klondike.

“They are so culturally a part of us,” he says. “Anybody from further south has got this attachment to apples, and for good reason.”

Conventional apple trees won’t grow this far north. Most can’t even survive in the ground, with permafrost chilling the soils. Lenart started by keeping his trees in large pots. By using varieties and techniques he procured from his neighbour Dell Buerge at Partridge Creek Farm and from his early mentor, the now-deceased orchardist Clair Lammers from North Pole, Alaska, he started seeing some success. Bit by bit, grafting hundreds of different varieties to dozens of rootstocks, he began to enjoy increasing yields of his favourite food.

“In 2000, I said to myself it is time to proverbially shit or get off the pot,” he says. “It was time to pursue it as a goal, to find apple trees that work here and trial a bunch of them to see what kind of quality I could pick up.”

Twenty years later, the nursery now maintains 75 apple and 10 pear varieties in three ranges of resilience: “ultra-hardy” can be planted outside in a protected spot; “hardy” need winter wrapping; and “shelter” trees require a year-round cold-frame. Varieties sport northern names like Norland, Fort Mac Mac, and Siberian Pear. Their catalogue descriptions entice with “beautiful shades of pink, red and white,” or “delightful floral-scented apple with excellent keeping qualities.”

Certainly, these are not the apple trees you’d pick up at the Canadian Tire Garden Centre. Conventional, industry-standard apple trees from the south grow with a straight, bare trunk, which isn’t suited for the North’s harsh climates. But the apple tree’s natural form is bushy, branching low to the ground.

“That form works really well up here,” says Lenart. “If you get winter damage or a moose comes by and smacks up a portion of the tree you have a lot more tree to recover from. Not to mention it makes them easier to shelter.”

CATHIE ARCHBOULD

Through a gate, in a fenced area surrounding the vegetable gardens, is Klondike Valley’s steel-framed greenhouse. Inside are rows of potted apple trees, big and small, their bony limbs dusted in exquisite white flowers. Outside stands dozens of young “whips” or “feathered whips”—small one- or two-year-old trees for sale this season. Roughly 100 of these are sold each summer, with an upward trend in recent years.

A massive open field acts as the nursery’s main working zone; overflowing with unusual plant life and dotted with solar panels. First, there’s the series of dwarf apple tree hybrid shelters, Lenart’s invention, which allows trees to poke a few branches out the top— something he learned helps the fruit of sheltered trees crisp up— and wall panels that allow fresh airflow and access. There are also hundreds of haskap berry bushes. This year they expect a bumper crop that will sell to restaurants in Dawson City. Lenart points to rows upon rows of unique ornamental dwarf conifers, his own creations, bred from wild brooms collected in surrounding forests. His “flagship” he calls Arctic Crown, of which he speaks with the fervour of a passionate artist.

“It comes out wine red and it looks like its got grapes on it, then it slowly fades to pink and then green. They are just unbelievably beautiful.”

Klondike Valley’s growth has been helped by a close relationship forged with researchers at the University of Saskatchewan’s fruit program. The partnership was inaugurated 20 years ago with the delivery of 450 trees planted in this wide-open field.

“They were soldiers for the slaughter,” says Lenart, of those first trees. Through his unique relationship with the university, Lenart is constantly experimenting with new varieties. Although he is not allowed to sell any of the trees provided by the university, he can trial them in countless ways around his property and sell their fruit. Between a combination of his own varieties (which can be sold) and those coming from the university, he was able to grow over 270 kilograms of fresh apples last season—compared to 100 the year before—selling the majority at local farmer markets and keeping the rest in cold storage.

One day soon, he’d like to buy a licence for one of the university’s varieties, allowing the farm to propagate and sell that tree’s offspring to the public, paying a royalty with each purchase. He and Melton have got their eyes on one juicy number known as 18-28-19—an early, large, sweet apple. But you don’t want to rush an apple license purchase.

“They don’t hand these out like donuts,” he says. “We want to make sure we’ve got the right one.”

That’s where Melton, Lenart’s life and growing partner, comes in. A biologist by trade, she quit her government job to grow food and live off the land, arriving at Klondike Valley in the spring of 2016 for a skills trade with the intention of bringing fruit-tree growing knowledge back to her community of Mount Lorne. “But I basically never left,” she says grinning. “I really liked this lovely little, isolated cocoon.”

The daughter of scientists, raised in a cabin outside of Yellowknife, Melton introduced a whole new level of procedure to the nursery.

“I just have an understanding and experience with data collection and basic things like spreadsheets and the scientific method,” she says. “Where John may have, for years, been doing a lot of really interesting work but collecting information rather anecdotally, in order for it to mean something to somebody else you need to be collecting the same info on the same trees, at the same time of year.”

Now, they’re getting clear information on why some varieties work grafted to particular rootstocks and grow in particular conditions. In only three years, Melton has revolutionized the place; automating its irrigation system, increasing annual sales of fruit and trees, plus sit- ting down with John to write the nursery’s first five-year plan.

“We had to do it, even if it will change. We just have too much going on in too many different directions,” she says, citing everything from apple propagation and ornamental conifers to research and internships. “It’s not obvious to us right now which things are going to metaphorically bear fruit.”

Five-year plans aside, the most important value to Lenart and Melton is fostering a community of fruit-growers across the North. They conduct lengthy consultations with every customer, making sure they’re picking the right tree for their site—and then regularly stay in touch with the hundreds of growers who have purchased their trees.

“For people to get in their car or truck and drive here from Whitehorse, or Faro, or Beaver Creek, and drive this far and do the canoe trip, buy the trees, stay a night or two in Dawson and then go back, that shows a real keen interest,” says Lenart. “It’s why we do what we do.”

It’s about passion, not profit.

“I’ve never made a lot of money. I happily live outside the basic commercial paradigm,” he says. “This is my gift. To be a good grower and to share these skills with the people in my community is what’s really important to me.”