Zone Denial

Being a transplant to Vancouver Island from the prairies, I’m used to doing a double-take at some of the visibly exotic trees that the mild climate here supports: the hard-to-miss monkey puzzles and giant sequoias that tower in yards and parks here in Victoria, most especially. But as a permaculture practitioner one can feel a bit conflicted – these trees are largely ornamentals, many introduced by European settlers in the latter half of the 1800s, and so can carry with them a whiff of Orientalism.

Yet these non-native trees also bring a grace and beauty – and diversity – to the landscape that provides value and fulfillment in aesthetic and human terms. It isn’t something to be discounted. And while our Perennial Plants class has largely privileged the role of native perennials to date, a trip this week stretched my idea of what a mindfully curated local permaculture food forest could look like.

(L-R): A Piet Oudolf-inspired backyard garden design by Hatchet & Seed Edible Landscapes at a home in North Saanich; a fruiting Meyer lemon tree at Fruit Trees and More nursery; Bob Duncan holding an espaliered olive branch at the side of his house.

Our class came together in North Saanich on an unassuming residential street, the only real hint at the halfway rural setting a watery ditch where the city sidewalk would be. We were facing a squarish house with what looked like a tall sunroom attached to the front. A sign on the garage read “Fruit Trees and More”, with an arrow pointed around the side.

I was fiddling with my camera at the end of the driveway, and by the time I ambled down towards the garage everyone had gathered in a semicircle beside a fig tree, facing the house. I navigated my way into the group, easing between two pairs of shoulders, and performed another Vancouver Island double-take: a rubber-booted man was straight ahead, gesticulating, and behind him, against the wall of the house, was a tree dripping with lemons.

“…best to grow against a south- or west-facing wall with an overhang,” he was concluding. Bob Duncan, as he would come to explain, has lived on the property for thirty years, and together with his wife Verna has operated their nursery business (the “Fruit Trees and More” sign) on the site for twenty of them. Still standing in front of the house, he elaborated on their approach to growing. “My focus is on the feasibility of growing all the tree fruit that the local climate can sustain.”

My classmate leaned over. “He’s a fruit wizard,” she whispered.

In front of Bob Duncan’s unheated backyard greenhouse at Fruit Trees and More nursery.

Bob continued, “The climate here is often described as a ‘modified Mediterranean’ – a true Mediterranean climate doesn’t receive any rain in the summer.” He explained that contrary to what one might expect, lemon trees themselves are comfortably hardy to the winter temperatures common to this region – it’s the risk of the fruit freezing that poses a problem. Citrus trees fruit in the winter, and lemons freeze at around –3°C, a cold that occurs about five to ten times per year on average in the Victoria area.

He gestured at the lemon tree behind him and we leaned in for a closer look. There was a string of classic 7-watt Christmas lights wound around the trunk and branches. The lights, he explained, were hooked up to a thermostat that switched on whenever temperatures got into the –3°C danger zone; together with Reemay fabric wrapped loosely around the tree in the winter months this provided enough warmth for the tree to fruit – and evidently to thrive.

(L-R): An orange tree growing in the solar greenhouse at Fruit Trees and More; identifying spring greens in our Perennial Plants class at Tiny Tree Herb Farm; Bob Duncan with an espaliered apricot tree at his home in Saanich.

The Meyer lemon tree behind Bob was about ten years old. “Lemons will store on the tree for months without decaying, so you can pick these year-round,” he said. Electricity costs to keep the tree warm (and looking festive) averaged around $1-2 per year. “I’m in zone denial”, he joked.

We took a peek inside the front sunroom, which I saw now was a sort of solar greenhouse. It was filled with leafy and heavily laden fruit trees, mostly grapefruit and orange. Moving to the side of the house, Bob paused and lifted a tall banner of Reemay that was clipped to the wall. He pulled out a long branch, dotted with olives. “Olives, pomegranates, and figs can all handle minus ten degrees in the winter,” he said: the issue here on Vancouver Island, as much as anything, was a lack of heat in the summer. Hence the shrouded olive tree here, espaliered flat against the west-facing side of the house and covered in Reemay to create a warm micro-climate. The olive tree here, about ten years old, has thousands of olives on it ready for harvest.

Further around the front was a large fenced-in enclosure that contained rows of fig trees. Bob told us that although there are hundreds of varieties, there exist only four fig types in the world: common, San Pedro, Smyrna, and Caprifigs. Smyrna figs aren’t viable on Vancouver Island because the pollinating wasps can’t survive here; instead, the “Desert King” has long been the local fig of choice because of its large breva (first annual) crop.

A self-fertile cherry tree at Bob Duncan’s nursery, grown using the ‘upright fruiting offshoots’ (UFO) method. The tree’s main trunk is grown parallel to the ground, from which renewable fruiting shoots are trellised to grow vertically every 8-10”. The method produces an easy-to-harvest ‘fruiting wall’, and makes for straightforward pruning to renew the fruiting wood.

Bob and Verna travel regularly to the Mediterranean, where Bob obtains fruit tree germplasm material at horticultural research stations and brings it back to Canada for trialing. He tells us that his front-yard enclosure currently has 150 fig varieties recently obtained in Europe which he is testing for zone hardiness and the best breva crops. “My M.O. is diversity,” he said. “I try lots of varieties and see what works best.” From this trial, he hoped to get a dozen or so fig varieties that warrant local growing.

The backyard was likewise a sort of fruit wonderland. There were rows of dwarf navel orange trees wrapped in Christmas lights in an unheated greenhouse, alongside Fuyu persimmons and various avocado trees (the latter “still a work in progress”, said Bob). In an open-air structure nearby were sudachi and yuzu trees, both hardy citruses being trialed to determine their viability for local yard growing. Bob pointed out a loquat, which is an evergreen, grafted onto a deciduous quince rootstock. Nearby was a “Carolina gold” pawpaw tree (Asimina trilobal), commonly grown in Appalachia but not much known in Canada.

Further back in the yard were rows of strange-looking cherry, plum, and pear trees, with trunks bent parallel to the ground and fruiting branches trellised upward in a wall of foliage. Bob explained that he was experimenting with the system to work out which sorts of trees responded well to this “upright fruiting offshoot” (UFO) system.

It’s a compelling – if very different – sort of growing that is taking place here. As compared with previous classes where we’ve examined the benefits of edible native perennials, the methods Bob and Verna employ seemed to require substantially more intervention. But from a permaculture perspective, I can see the draw: given that we as Canadians tend to consume plenty of fruit and citrus, much of it coming from large-scale commercial monoculture operations and requiring long-distance transport, Bob’s $1-2 worth of annual electricity to grow a bountiful lemon tree seems like a minimal and very worthwhile input. Here in the unique climate of southern Vancouver Island, at least, I might be a convert to cheeky permaculture “zone denial”.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.