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Growers match seedlings with prairie environment

Saskatoon-area operation offers 30 varieties of apple trees from its nursery

  • Fully winter hardy on the Prairies (Zone 2).
  • Cultural requirements are easy: a sunny location with well drained soil.
  • Grow to a maximum height of seven feet.
  • Fruit size of three inches is easily attainable with fruit thinning.
  • Support required for young trees because they bear early and heavily.
  • Selected 19 times out of 20 over standard size apple trees by commercial orchard and U-Pick operators.
  • Greatly under-used in private yards and gardens.

MARTENSVILLE, Sask. — Little Tree Nursery believes in working with nature instead of against it.

Darryl and Dea Fehr propagate and grow tree seedlings themselves, raising them in pots and selling them small from their acreage at Martensville.

“When plants are not grown locally, they’re not as hardy,” said Dea.

Added Darryl: “You can’t fight nature.… Only God can make a plant grow, and all you can do is provide the right conditions.”

The Fehrs, who retired from jobs and businesses in horticulture and teaching, hire 19 part-time workers from April to October, mainly local students.

Their three children live out of the province but have helped manage the nursery’s 60,000 trees when needed.

Dea said their nursery’s plant development is largely in step with the seasons. Commercial greenhouses often force plant growth with fertilizer, she added.

“In the long run, it’s of no benefit. When it gets to a yard, it will go back to a natural growth habit,” she said.

“It’s leading people toward false expectations. It makes me uneasy.… Maybe that’s why we’re not as rich as we should be.”

Trees grown in the fields are dug up, leaving much of the roots and root hairs behind. The Fehrs prefer to sell their plants small and in pots to prevent disturbance of the roots.

“When you put that in the ground, it can start to grow immediately,” said Darryl.

The Fehrs said most nursery stock comes from warmer climates such as British Columbia. As a result, they are not hardy for prairie conditions and often see little growth in the first year that they are planted in gardens.

These plants often thrive for a few years before succumbing, sometimes to the diseases and pests that come with them to the stores and are grafted onto rootstock that’s not prairie hardy.

“The rule of thumb is it has to thrive for seven years before it is hardy in our climate,” Darryl said.

“In many cases, they bought a plant that never had a chance of being hardy in our climate.”

He said most of their rural customers understand the company’s natural growth philosophy and are used to planting smaller trees over a bigger area.

The Fehrs harvest seeds and cuttings locally from mature thriving trees within a 40 kilometre radius of their nursery and graft 4,000 apple trees a year.

The Fehrs offer almost 30 varieties of apple trees on both standard and dwarfing rootstock. Dwarf varieties grow only to two metres tall.

Darryl said Norland and Norkent varieties will grow into standard size trees if they are grafted onto seedling rootstocks such as Siberian Crab.

However, they become dwarf apple trees when grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock such as Ottawa No. 3. The fruit characteristics are the same but the dwarf tree will bear more heavily and earlier.

He compared their operation to the 100 mile diet concept: trees are grown locally and suited to the local needs and climate.

The Fehrs were surrounded by bush when they moved to the nursery site in 2001.

Today, an adjacent subdivision allows no room for expansion but plenty of sales opportunities because of the easy access and high visibility off a major north-south highway.

Dea handles the nursery sales while Darryl manages the crew and orchard work, which includes weeding, transplanting and pruning.

Propagating is Dea’s labour of love.

“It’s the creating of something,” she said.

It’s an investment of two to three years: selecting seeds and growing and grafting to create trees ready for local markets.

The Fehrs are currently grooming an apprentice who could one day take on the management reins and allow them to step back a bit from the demands of the labour intensive business.

The business has seen steady increases of about 15 percent a year, except for years of bad flooding. It posted sales of $160,000 last year.

The business inventory, which they value at about $1 million, needs to triple in size to be a going concern, but that’s unlikely because it would mean hiring three full-time employees. A greater presence in social media circles is coveted but would also likely require full time oversight.

They open on the May long weekend, usually long after the bigger greenhouses have done so. They move plants into their two greenhouses in seed flats in late April and transplant in May or June.

The Fehrs keep abreast of industry through extensive reading and involvement with groups such as the Saskatchewan Fruit Growers Association.

Their marketing rests largely on word of mouth from a loyal following of customers, but they also use radio, signage, flyers and ads in radio and local newspapers.

They maintain a website that provides detailed information on the plants they sell.

“We pride ourselves in providing information,” said Darryl.

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