In spite of the extreme climate, the Prairies can support a multitude of unique fruit crops such as dwarf sour cherry, seabuckthorn and northern hardy grapes that are not only hardy here but produce an abundance of delicious, fresh fruit, each with a unique combination of flavours and tastes throughout the summer and fall.
Successful plantings hinge on proper site selection, favouring areas with full sun, high ground, and well-worked fertile soil. Avoid areas that can experience standing water, selecting areas with well-drained soil whenever possible. In regions such as the Red River Valley, with its poor-draining heavy clay soil, the area may need to be modified to improve drainage capabilities. Plants may survive in less than ideal sites, but may not produce abundant fruit crops as a result. Regular watering of newly planted and established fruit crops in hot, dry weather will also ensure any fruit produced will attain its desired size and flavour.
Dwarf sour cherry is one of the most exciting fruit crops introduced to the Prairies, producing the largest hardy cherry on the Prairies. The cherries can grow to the size of a quarter, have a tart-sweet flavour typical of sour cherries, and are good for fresh eating and processing. The round pit allows for easy pitting, using a low-volume hand-crank pitter available to homeowners from various suppliers. The deep red colour makes the cherries ideal for pies and jellies. Harvest of these cherries is typically from late July to early August.
Dwarf sour cherry was developed by crossing the European sour cherry with Mongolian cherry. This breeding effort was 50 years in the making, beginning first at the Agriculture Canada Morden research station and then continuing at the University of Saskatchewan's fruit-breeding program. The first cultivars were released in the early 2000s.
Only one cultivar is needed to produce fruit as they can self-pollinate via bee pollination. The Romance series of cultivars include: Carmine Jewel, Valentine, Romeo, Juliet, Crimson Passion and Cupid. Carmine Jewel has a fruit size of 3.5 grams, is dark red- black when ripe, earlier maturing and low-suckering and has a smaller pit with more fruit per cherry. Valentine, with slight suckering, has a fruit size of about 4.5 grams, and fruit with a bright red colour. Crimson Passion is a smaller shrub that typically has the highest fruit-sugar content. It is very low suckering, has larger cherries that are typically 5.8 grams, and tends to be slower rooting. The Juliet cultivar is also low suckering and has very sweet, large fruit at 4.5 grams. Romeo is a later-maturing and dark red-black cherry similar to Carmine Jewel in appearance. Cupid is later maturing and is the largest of all the cherries at 6-7 grams.
No major diseases or pests have been observed to date; however, birds will eat the cherries. Other potential problems include mice eating the bark off the main branches under the cover of snow, and deer chewing this shrub to the ground! For most of these cultivars, harvest when cherries are dark red to red-black in colour, the stage of maximum sweetness.
Seabuckthorn was used for centuries in Eurasia for food and medicinal purposes. For example, Seabuckthorn products (such as skin cream and juice) were utilized by Soviet cosmonauts during the 1960's space race to reduce the stress of extended space missions. Seabuckthorn juice is claimed to be the first fruit juice in space. This fruit was introduced to Canada as an ornamental and shelterbelt shrub and has only recently been planted in orchards for commercial production across the Prairies and in Quebec. The bright orange berries have an extremely tart, unique taste and are typically too tart for fresh eating. Knowing that half a cup of berries provides 350 per cent of the recommended daily vitamin C intake, may make it more palatable! Some find it enjoyable as a jelly or juice puree tempered with apple juice. The leaves can be used fresh or dried for tea, which has a slight brown colour and smooth flavour that I enjoy during the winter.
Seabuckthorn has separate male and female plants so one of each is required to produce fruit. The most common cultivar available is Indian Summer, which is a moderately thorny type. Some more recently released cultivars such as Orange September, Harvest Moon, Prairie Sunset and Autumn Glow are less thorny, but have limited availability in the nursery trade. Extensive suckering can be an issue with most cultivars, which is a consideration for planting in smaller yards. Depending on the cultivar, berry harvesting is mid-August to early September. Harvesting of leaves for tea is best in July or early August, typically from younger shoots or suckers. The shrubs need regular pruning to keep from becoming ragged and unsightly. There are few disease and pest concerns; however the plants do not survive well in wet soils.
It is possible to grow grapes in Manitoba using varieties bred for northern climates that are quite suitable for fresh eating and wine making. Many of the hardy varieties were developed at the University of Minnesota wine grape research program, primarily by creating hybrids using hardy native grape stock and high quality European grape stock.
It is often necessary to provide additional protection to grapes during the winter months. Various materials can be used to protect the grape crown and roots: soil and mulch, straw, cedar chips, or dry leaves could be used. Another consideration is the number of frost free days available to produce grapes as many cultivars require long development periods to ripen. Even if a variety is winter hardy, damaging frosts in the spring or fall can end any fruit production. In spring if frost risk still exists after growth has started, cover the plants with black plastic or blankets to hold in warmth. Grapes are typically harvested early to mid-September. Some of the grape cultivars require a different cultivar for pollination, so be sure to ask about this at your local nursery when purchasing grape plants.
For ornamental use and fresh eating, the cultivar Valiant is quite hardy with vigourous growth. Bluebell, Minnesota 78 and Beta cultivars are sweet tasting grapes that are suitable for jams and fresh eating. Grape cultivars suitable for wine production include: Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Kay Gray, Marechael Foch, Marquette and La Crescent. For wine grape production, extensive pruning and training to the trellis is needed for good light, air flow and ripening conditions. Training helps keep the vines productive with consistent crop load every year. The major grape diseases are Powdery and Downy Mildew, so it is important to have good air flow via pruning and training, and to select cultivars that are disease-resistant.