Peaches, plums and figs — in Edmonton? Growers celebrate the many fruits of their labours

·3 min read
Members of the public turned out to sample some Alberta produce at L.Y. Cairns School during the fruit festival on Sunday. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC - image credit)
Members of the public turned out to sample some Alberta produce at L.Y. Cairns School during the fruit festival on Sunday. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC - image credit)

Mark Edey began his fruit-growing journey with the purchase of a $140 apple tree.

When it promptly died, he knew he needed help.

He decided to join a long-standing group for fellow Edmonton fruit growers to meet up and trade tips and tricks.

He has been an active member of the DBG Fruit Growers Group for about 10 years now.

The group is named after its old meeting place at the Devon Botanical Garden, now known as the University of Alberta Botanic Garden. Members have been tending orchards in the region for decades.

Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC
Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC

On Sunday, the group met at L.Y. Cairns School at 105th Street and 45th Avenue for its annual fruit festival. Members shared their harvests of apples, pears and more with visitors to the event.

Michelle Milenkovic has been growing fruit in Edmonton for 17 years. She went to the festival to speak with some of the other backyard growers.

Knowledge and learning are key when it comes to successful planting, grafting and growing, Milenkovic said.

In the years since she started, she has learned to grow grapes, plums, pears, and cherries, all while cultivating some "prolific" Saskatoon berry plants, Milenkovic said.

It's not just about tasty fruits, though. Growing things in a place with long and cold winters brings "a little bit of magic" to life in the city, she said.

Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC
Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC

On Sunday, a crowd gathered around Milenkovic as she wrestled with the hand-operated juice press on offer; eventually, she walked away with several litres of locally grown, fresh-pressed apple juice.

There's something special about eating or drinking a thing that's been grown by your own hand, Edey said.

In his own yard, he grows his favourite fruit: plums.

"We have black ice plums that just melt in your mouth and taste like candy," he said.

"The juice runs down your chin and you just can't buy something as delicate and fragile as those."

People who came out to the festival got the chance to sample some local plums, grapes, peaches and dozens of varieties of apples.

Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC
Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC

Some attendees brought in their own local produce hoping for help identifying the varieties already growing in their yards. Others queued up to ask questions of specific growers.

One man in particular, Bernie Nikolai, has a following in the local fruit scene.

Nikolai grew up in Winnipeg and developed his green thumb as a kid. Now living in Edmonton, he's known for his ability to grow figs in the city — and keep the trees alive through winter.

The trick, he said, is to bury the fig tree horizontally in a trench next to the foundation of your house since the temperature there hovers just above freezing. That keeps the tree warm enough throughout the winter that it will survive until spring when you can dig it out, he said.

Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC
Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC

Like other ambitious growers, Nikolai said he hears from a lot of people who are surprised to discover the wide variety of fruits that can thrive in Alberta.

"A lot of people believe you cannot grow really good, excellent tasting apples and pears and cherries and plums," he said.

"They're wrong."

For Milenkovic, the surprise came when she learned she could cultivate fruits like peaches and apricots in her own yard.

"It's kind of intoxicating to think that we can grow soft fruits in Edmonton."

The innovation and creativity, as well as the camaraderie, is part of the allure for Edey and the reason he's kept going for nearly a decade.

"I like to grow because it's just such a basic part of being a person. When I grow food, when I eat it, I feel good."