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Planting on the growth frontier
For the gardener in the know, the word this year is black mulberry, says Denman Island propagator and self-styled plant explorer Dave Hicks.
They're hardy, they're small and they give you something you would otherwise never be able to get – fresh mulberries.
"It's a tree that produces a fruit that's very much like a blackberry," Hicks said. "It would be a very successful commercial crop, but the problem is, the berries perish the day they're ripe. It never became a commercial fruit because of that, so if you want to enjoy mulberries, you have to grow your own. You will never see them in a store."
Hicks runs the Arbournaught Farm and Nursery on Denman Island, but he was in Qualicum Beach on the weekend, along with his partner in propagation, Peter Janes from Tree Eater Nursery. The two Denman Island farmers were on hand for the Seedy Saturday event at the Civic Centre, displaying their wide variety of rare and interesting species.
They had a lot to show.
"We are constantly trying to introduce hardy and interesting food trees and plants from around the world, either by seed or by grafting," Hicks said. "Then Peter and I trial them on Denman Island to see how they perform in this climate. If they work, we release them for sale at Seedy Saturdays, sales from the island itself or through our website or mail order."
Besides the several different types of mulberries, Hicks pointed to a Yellowhorn, also known as a Chinese chestnut or Northern macadamia.
"It's an interesting shrub or tree that provides edible fruits the texture of macadamia nuts," he said. "It's a northern Chinese plant, so it's good to at least zone five and is proving quite promising for us."
As well, he pointed out a northern mahogany, which is a tree cultivated in northern China for its edible leaves.
"It has a taste of onion garlic and it's rich in all kinds of vitamins," he said. "The best way I can describe it is, you eat the leaf of this and then you say 'that's the flavour in northern Chinese cuisine that I could never quite put my fingers on.' It's commonly dried up and used as a spice that way."
Hicks said he also grows 17 different varieties of bamboo as well as traditional tea plants.
He laughs when asked what kind of tea.
"Green tea, black tea and Orange pekoe," he said. "It's all one plant, just processed differently. When we started we thought it was three different kinds of plants, but it's not."
That was just one of many things he has learned in the years since he began his arbourial exploration.
"We came into it 11 years ago as idealists who had a whole lot of theoretical knowledge," he said. "We spent 10 years unlearning all the theory and are now able to make a few conclusions now about what works."
Over at Tree Eater, Janes also pushes the envelope of exotic edibles, but lately has begun to supplement that with a selection of hand-forged tools.
"Right now I'm making pointed hoes with Brazilian heads and Hori-Horis, which is a farmer's trowel that can be used as a knife. It's really super heavy-duty out of old farm implements."
The reason he began forging his own tools, he said, is the same as why he started his own nursery.
"I wanted to get better things than I was able to buy," he said. "That's why I started the forge and that's why I started the nursery - because I couldn't get the fruit trees and the nut trees that I wanted. I was interested in more than just apples, plums and pears, which seems to be mostly what you can get in most places. I was looking for greater diversity and quality. So I started a nursery. I make the tools that I like the most because I'm a manual labourer. I'm self-taught with forge and it's the same with the plants. I learned to propagate by propagating."
Tree Eater, he said, is currently growing several different varieties of walnuts, as well as northern pecans brought in from Ontario.
"We have such a good growing climate here that we can really diversify what we can grow," he said.
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