Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From lemons to loquats: A surprisingly fruitful B.C. orchard

Bob Duncan checks out his lemon harvest in the orchard beside his North Saanich home. Deddeda Stemler photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 12, 2010


The winds howled and the thermometer dipped last week, as Victorians shivered through a late-season cold snap.

At a home a short drive north of Victoria, the chill weather helped Bob Duncan enjoy all the more his daily repasts.

He slurps mandarins and savors tangelos. Grapefruit appears regularly on the menu. “Kumquats? I just eat ‘em whole,” he said. Pretty soon, the navel oranges will be sweet.

He’s looking forward to the harvest.

He maintains an extensive outdoor fruit orchard on the property, growing subtropical fruits usually seen only in supermarkets in these parts.

The fruits of his labour are fruits.

“The foliage is beautiful, the fruits are colourful, and the blossoms are fragrant,” he said.

Sometimes, the intoxicating, fruity aroma envelops your senses before orange polka dots can be spotted among the greenery.

He has turned a small parcel of North Saanich into South Florida.

When winter refuses to make way for spring, shivering visitors make a pilgrimage to an unlikely grove.

The orchardist is accustomed to the shock expressed by guests.

“Most people are in disbelief. They’re not expecting to see anything like this. It’s not on their radar screen.”

Mr. Duncan’s crop includes more than 80 varieties of fruit trees — figs, grapes, cherries, and apricots, as well as such pleasing produce as pears, plums, peaches. Not to mention persimmons and pomegranates.

He’s got kiwi, quince and medlar.

He’s got hardy subtropicals that look like clever Scrabble plays — feijoa, jujubes, and loquats.

He’s got olives.

He’s got more than 200 varieties of apples.

He even has a lemon tree growing against a back fence.

When life hands you lemons, make lemon pie.

You can say this.

There’s no threat of scurvy in the Duncan household.

It is no great distinction to be a lemon grower in, say, California, where they have joined with their Arizona brethren to create an association with a logo and a marketing strategy. The fraternity of outdoor lemon growers in Canada is a small one.

Like Johnny Appleseed before him, Mr. Duncan is a fruit evangelist. He encourages other Canadians to try growing lemons outdoors, appearing in YouTube videos with simple instructions. Eat Magazine described him earlier this year as a local hero. After all, he tempted his chronicler with a tasty apricot, ripe from the tree.

“I’m pleased to help Canadians grow their own lemons. That’s a fruit all of us need and use. It’s a universal fruit.”

Once, he fished for coho in the Saanich Inlet from nearby Deep Cove. The salmon are harder to find these days, but the lemons with which he served them — so simple a recipe, so magnificent a flavour — are plentiful.

He squeezes a lot of fruit from his .313-hectare (.77-acre) lot.

An unheated greenhouse has been built at the front of his home. In winter, he drapes a row cover of polyester fabric over his fruit to protect it from frost. He has also rigged strings of Christmas lights around his plants. These are connected to a thermostat. Whenever the thermometer dips to minus-2 C., the lights turn on, generating enough heat beneath the wrap to prevent the fruit from freezing. It’s a simple, ingenious system using little power. A single string of lights protects an eight-foot-tall lemon tree with a 14-foot spread.

Mr. Duncan is a good farmer for an entomologist. Recently retired, he spent his working life handling insect diagnostics for the Canadian Forest Service. He’s your man if you’re wanting to put a genus and species to bug bits.

The botany degree earned from the University of Victoria is coming into service later in life than anticipated, as he turns mossy messes into Mediterranean marvels.

His challenge is not so much cold winters as temperate summers. This southern slice of Vancouver Island does not boast the scorching heat of summer adored by subtropical fruits.

Not yet, anyway.

“When you’re growing crops that are marginal in the area in which you live and which have no history, you definitely become a climate watcher.”

He has noted increasingly warmer temperatures every year, save one, in the past decade.

Not everything he’s planted has borne fruit.

Mr. Duncan remains thwarted in attempts to grow the cherimoya (pronounced cheer-a-MOY-uh), whose white flesh was described by Mark Twain as “deliciousness itself.” Alas, the so-called jewel of the Incas has a terrible sensitivity to frost (and who amongst us doesn’t?), making the equatorial plant resistant to moving north to the 49th Parallel.

He also has yet to sustain a mango, a plant at home in subtropical India and, closer to home, Mexico. Tis a pity. Not only is the mango delicious, but a tree can flourish for 300 years. That would be a suitably long-lasting and sustainable tribute to a lemon man.

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