These British Columbians are growing lemons, oranges and other subtropical fruit in the province

Over 35 varieties of citrus and four varieties of avocados grow in Jane Squier's greenhouse on Salt Spring Island. (CBC News  - image credit)
Over 35 varieties of citrus and four varieties of avocados grow in Jane Squier's greenhouse on Salt Spring Island. (CBC News - image credit)

An oasis of fruit surrounds Jane Squier as she snips a home-grown lemon and puts it in her basket.

The oranges are plump, the avocados ripening; pomegranates and limes dangle from their trees.

"These trees are like heroes ... they're producing beautiful fruit," said the horticulturist, who has been growing over 34 varieties of citrus in her Salt Spring Island greenhouse for the past eight years.

She's one of several on B.C.'s South Coast experimenting with growing subtropical and Mediterranean fruit in a province typically deemed too cold for them.

Despite unorthodox techniques, growers say they hope to inspire more conversations around food security and climate resilience.

"I'm just super curious about every aspect of making this work," said Squier.

CBC News
CBC News

"I'm spending time with a microscope and monitoring the progression of the biology in the soil ... that's my passion."

Some of the trees in her 6,000-square-feet greenhouse produce nearly 20 kilograms of fruit every year, she says.

Rainwater, thermal walls to help grow fruit

Squier says she uses as little energy as possible to grow the fruits.

She stores heat in the greenhouse by holding rainwater in two large tanks. In the winter, the water is heated with a high-efficiency wood gasifier furnace.

Two fans pick up this heat, circulating it through the greenhouse to keep the fruit trees from freezing. The system is designed to maintain a temperature of 2 C during the coldest weather.

Among a variety of techniques, she's also built thermal walls to help insulate and stabilize heat and moisture within the greenhouse.

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CBC News

While these methods may not be feasible for all, Squier says it's important to research ways to increase local food security and make fruit tree growth more resilient to extreme temperatures.

"We can learn to grow these edgy crops with minimal inputs … especially on the West Coast where we have a milder climate," she said.

During the deadly heat dome in 2021, for example, Squier used a shade cloth to block about 40 per cent of the sun, to help cool the greenhouse and protect her fruit trees.

She also imitates drought-like conditions with Salt Spring Island's limited water supply and recurrent droughts, by relying solely on rainwater harvesting, with 318,000 litres of storage to meet the fruit trees's needs.

Protecting fruits with Christmas lights

Bob Duncan also grows specialty fruit near Sidney on Vancouver Island, on the northern end of the Saanich Peninsula.

His bounty of over 400 fruit-tree varieties includes navel oranges, lemons, limes, olives, and more than 150 types of figs. Some of his output includes up to 400 kilograms of kiwis, 200 kilograms of figs, and 100 kilograms of navel oranges annually.

"Most of these Mediterranean things nobody dreamed of before so we are successfully growing citrus of all kinds," said Duncan.

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CBC News

Some of the fruit are grown in unheated greenhouses while others are grown outside, against south or west-facing walls for sun exposure.

If fruits like lemons are under threat by cold temperatures, Duncan uses incandescent Christmas lights and remay, a type of fabric used to cover crops to protect them from the elements. The incandescent bulbs provide the heat required for the fruit to grow.

Duncan says his fruits prove they can be grown locally, and with much lower economic and environmental costs than importing them.

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CBC News

"You get 200 lemons for about $2 worth of energy," he said.

"The main reason is to reduce climate change and also for food security. If something happens where food is principally produced in California and Florida we have a backup plan."

B.C. imports an estimated $8.8 billion worth of food products, including over $2 billion of fruits and vegetables from California every year.

'A niche activity that takes a lot of effort'

With warming temperatures, there's a growing range of fruits that can be grown in the Southern part of Vancouver Island, says Lenore Newman, director of the food and agriculture institute at the University of the Fraser Valley.

"I will say climate change has shifted the bar a little bit," Newman said, adding it is easier now to try growing an olive, avocado or passion fruit tree.

But this type of farming can be challenging as the crops can be fragile to cooler weather.

"This is a niche activity that takes a lot of effort and is probably not financially viable at scale yet," she said.

Nonetheless, experimentation helps explore the possibilities for B.C.'s food supply.

"This sort of experimentation is what we're going to need," Newman said, "to discover ways to produce enough food locally year-round in a climate that is not entirely friendly, even with climate change."