I can still remember the first time I heard about sour cherry trees. I was sitting in a class called Prairie Fruit Production at Olds College and a speaker had come in to talk to us about growing these newly developed trees. It wasn't quite love at first sight, but I definitely developed a crush. For the next few weeks I couldn't stop thinking about the possibilities offered by these wonderful trees. Who would have ever thought that here, on the cold prairies, it would be possible to grow a tree with the word cherry in front of it?
As soon as the school year was finished, I went on a short road trip with my Grandma in our old farm truck, to Parkland Nurseries in Red Deer, Alberta. I came home with my future tied up in the back of that old supercab, in the form of six two year old cherry shrubs. Half of them were Valentine and the others Cupid. The names spoke to the romantic in me, and I was having visions of a promised 50lbs of fruit per tree...when they hit full production in four years. I've always been a farmer, so the prospect of waiting for a harvest wasn't anything new. In the meantime, I vowed to take care of them and be patient.
The first year went swimmingly and the trees put on a good deal of growth and went into the winter well, even after suffering a bit of leaf damage due to pear slugs. The second year went well too and I bought more cherries to bring my numbers up to 30. The new trees were one year old and in beautiful shape, from PrairieTech Propagation in Bonnyville. I knew they were a long way from production, but once again, I was prepared to be patient. Since things had gone so well with the big trees in the first two years, I did some mental math. The trees were two years old when I bought them, I'd been growing them for two years, that made four years, so that should mean that next year I should get a few pounds of fruit! Not full production of course, but a few pounds per tree to satisfy my craving for fresh, off the vine, home grown, scrumptious fruit. (Can you tell I'm an Albertan and this prospect is rather foreign? I've talked to people who can go out into their yard and pick off a fresh orange for breakfast. That idea is so far from my reality as to almost be laughable.) It was with great anticipation that I watched my cherries emerge from the snowbank on their third year. They were a bit slow to get started, but I attributed that to the cooler than normal spring. This was also, incidentally, the first year I started my CSA, so I was hoping that I'd have enough fruit to put into my share boxes in August.
First of all, the potatoes came through the ground. And it froze. They came through a bit more. And it froze. I was travelling back and forth between the CSA garden and my fruit garden with growing concern. The buds on the cherries were getting closer to opening and it was still freezing, but the forecast was good. Finally, it stopped freezing every night, and the potatoes were able to grow through their blackened tips. Just in case, I made an emergency trip to town and bought some frost blanket. Sure enough, a few nights later, it was forecast to get down to -1 again. The evening before the projected frost, I was out in the wind, struggling to cover my trees and their precious blossoms. My Dad and Brother stopped by and helped out and soon the six trees were covered. It was at this moment that I was, for the first time, reconsidering the wisdom of purchasing another 15, one year old cherries from PrairieTech, along with gooseberries, currents, and honeyberries.
The next morning saw the thermometer reading a low of -1, and it had been that temperature for quite some time. My heart was in my throat as I uncovered my cherries, but they looked fine. I studied the smaller trees and they looked alright as well. I should mention here, that I'd moved what remained of the 30 trees into the fruit garden from the CSA garden because the moles had been having a heyday, as had the deer. And the coyotes. The moles would eat the roots, the deer the leaves, and the coyotes would dig out the remains. So, the bedraggled remains of the 30, which were now the staunch, solid and surviving 17, were now located in a slightly more prosperous area, next to the Big Six, and the new 15. Can you tell that I was optimistic about the future of cherry trees on 9 Mile Coulee Farms?
It turns out that with cherry blossoms the very threat of frost, or just a cold night, or a wind and a cold night, or a windy night, with cool air and rain, has the tendency to make the majority of the blooms abort. So that year I had three cherries. One the birds got, one I ate, and the other I gave to my Dad. Still, it was a feeling of accomplishment! I'd Finally Grown Fruit! A few weeks later and just before fall, I noticed that on two trees, the leaves had started to wilt. There was no mechanical damage, no sign of bacterial infection or insect damage. I didn't want to risk pruning them at that time because of the time of year. I waited until next spring, and did the pruning then. Whatever the infection was, it didn't spread, and I was able to save the trees, albeit slightly stunted and water sprouted.
The next year the Big Six were loaded with blossoms. The trees were quite literally white with them and my mouth was watering at the thought of all of that fruit and cherry pie. The staunch, solid and surviving 17 were even blooming a little bit after surviving another winter, and the brand new 15 were blooming too. I thought that this, this was going to be The Year. I was out in my CSA garden when I heard it. The significant whine of a hydrostatic transmission that, at that time of year, can only mean one thing. A sprayer. Sure enough, as I was booting it back into the yard, my brother called and said that there was a sprayer across the road, and he was heading towards the yard, and the wind was blowing right our way. By the time I got to the yard, my brother had already closed the vents on the greenhouse, because the only thing more sensitive to environmental catastrophe than a cherry blossom is a pepper blossom. But, there was nothing we could do for the cherries. It's the height of stupidity and folly to run out into a field that’s being sprayed and get them to stop. Don't do it. Ever. It’s far safer to take a few pictures, from a distance, and then call the neighbor afterwards to let them know what happened. Which is exactly what I did. He was very apologetic and concerned, and we made arrangements that next year at spraying time, he would give me some warning so I could cover my crops and shut the greenhouses. When I called him, it was hard to tell the extent of the damage, but within a week the blossoms and fruit started to abort. I was pretty much heartbroken. Finally, after all this time, I'd had a crop within my grasp, it had escaped the deer and the frost... and I'd lost it. All but enough cherries to make a scant dozen cherry muffins. That's a pretty sad yield off of six trees.
The summer drove onwards though, and I had enough on my mind with my CSA that I wasn't overly worried about the trees. The trees themselves were healthy and growing, even the ones that had had the mystery infection from the previous year. I was closing up the greenhouses late one summer evening when I noticed that the infamous deer from some of my previous posts were having a bit of salad, munching away quite contentedly on the trees. For the chase that ensued, you can scroll to my other posts, but for the sake of keeping this short, let’s just say I pole-vaulted fences without a pole, leapt giant lakes in a single bound and otherwise defended the honor of my cherry trees to the greatest of my abilities. That may, or may not, be slightly, but not overly, exaggerated.
At the beginning of last winter, October 27th, the cherries looked to be in good shape. By December, all that I could see of the trees were the top two feet of the six foot trees. The little ones had been completely buried by an early blizzard. When I finally ventured over there this spring after the snow had started to melt a bit, I was wading through knee deep snow, until I reached the snow bank that had entombed the trees for the last five months. I stood on the snowbank, looking down on the trees and figured that, since they were mainly still buried in snow, it would be impossible to prune them. If I timed it right, to when the snow melted away from the base, but before they started to grow, I should still be safe to prune them. Then it snowed another foot.
This takes us up to the present. The snow had finally melted away from the base, and I was wading through calf deep snow to reach them, instead of knee deep. I had my Felco pruners with me, and I was looking forward to a nice relaxing afternoon of pruning. My first thought when I saw the eastern most tree was, why is there a pile of wood shavings at the base? I dropped to my knees and was greeted with a sight I'd hoped never to see. At the base of the tree, all the way around and extending up about 6" the bark had been stripped down by mice. Up to the height of the snowbank, about 3' off the ground, the mice had sporadically chewed off all of the bark, on all of the branches. My heart sunk, but, trying to be optimistic, I thought that, well it's only one tree, the others should be okay.
With each tree I saw, the damage only got worse, because the further west I went, the deeper the snowbank was. All of the Big Six were chewed. I sank to my knees and frantically dug down to the staunch, solid and surviving 17, clawing through the ice, only to find that their smaller trunks had been thoroughly gnawed as well. The new 15 will have to wait though, because the snow was too hard to dig through and they are still covered. From what I've seen of all of the others though, I unfortunately don't hold out much hope for their ability to elude the mice. So here we are, six years after I planted the Big Six. Instead of hoping for a bigger harvest this year, I'm just hoping that my trees will pull through and start again from the base. I'm not giving up on them, and I hope they don't give up on me! It might take a few more years, and a whole new slew of challenges, but one day, I will make a cherry pie with my own homegrown cherries!