Conifer Central

About 20 kilometres southeast of Dawson City, two canoe rides from the Klondike Highway into the bush, there is a farm where thousands of strange trees and plants grow.

Many are alien to this part of the Yukon, and many are native mutant varieties, but all are part of John Lenart’s cutting board of cultivation.

“There are very few flowering trees up here,” Lenart says, adding, “Dawson will have mountain ashes in the next couple of years.”

Lenart’s property, the Klondike Valley Nursery and Market Garden, looks like a fairy tale kingdom.

A rainbow of flowers sits in pots on tree stumps; a coopful of free range chickens squawks behind a wooden, peaked-roof house; and all around there are plants.

Thousands and thousands of plants. They grow in orderly rows, in planters running helter-skelter around the rows or as snug clumps in greenhouses.

Lenart brings an experimental technique to farming. With grafting, he develops unique strains of conifers and flowering trees that can withstand the minus 50 temperatures that come with a Dawson winter.

The dream started with apples. In 1988, Lenart began manipulating different species of apple trees to see if he could sustain Canada’s most northern orchard.

In 2000, and again in 2002, he got a Canadian Agriculture Adaptation Program (CAAP) grant to clear a chunk of his property and plant between 350 and 400 seedlings – a project he worked on with the University of Saskatchewan.

But when a severe frost wiped those out — there are only about 10 trees left — he decided the Yukon was too hostile for apples. (He still grows a handful of the survivors in a greenhouse for eating and bringing by the bucketful to the farmers’ market.)

He headed in a new direction: ornamental trees.

“After a visit to a nursery in Oregon in 2004, I saw what a huge industry in the States it is for producing ornamental trees,” says Lenart.

“It was like, okay, if this is such a huge industry, and I live in the boreal forest, maybe I can find something here that would transfer into the landscape industry in the rest of North America.”

Hiking, canoeing and driving through the Klondike Valley, Lenart keeps an eye peeled for mutant species of conifer.

Through Lenart’s eyes, every tree is an object of shape and form.

He points out the top of a nearby tree in the forest surrounding his farm, where a broom, or an odd clump of growth, has formed — a mutation. “They can be fairly obvious if you are looking for them.”

The first step in working with a mutant tree is to take the a cutting from the parent plant and graft it to a root stalk, or a tree of the same or similar species, that will serve as the reproductive structure.

Next, Lenart waits, to see how it grows. Like an inventor, he goes through hundreds and hundreds of attempts to find one that works.

“When you bring them out of the wild state and into cultivation, they change their appearance somewhat. Some change wildly; where they looked really cool in the bush, suddenly they don’t look like anything,” he says.

One row of his experimental conifers started out growing tight and uniform, but last year sprouted apart and lost their shape.

“It takes me years of just growing them to watch that,” he says.

The flowering trees, including the mountain ashes, have made a presence this summer at Lenart’s stall at the Dawson City Farmers’ Market.

Some of the unique conifers are also for sale, but Lenart is keeping the best under wraps.

In Boring, Oregon, the heart of the North American conifer industry, Lenart has about five species of clippings growing on a test run at Iseli Nursery.

His hopes are resting on the “Arctic Crown”, a mutant of white spruce. He sent down the clippings last year, and says within the next couple years he will find out if the Crowns’ gene is a winning ticket.

“Those Crowns are kinda funky,” Lenart says, a smile spreading across his seriously-set face, “No other conifer collection I [have seen] had anything that looked like those particular trees.”

If Iseli Nursery wants to market the trees, this could turn the project into profit.

In the meantime, the Klondike Valley Nursery stays busy meeting the demands of gardeners in Dawson City, West Dawson, Rock Creek, Callison and beyond.

Hardy ornamental Siberian crabapples and mountain ashes, cultivated from clippings of Russian varieties, are a few of the top favourites.

Like the conifers, the experimenting and grafting of flowering trees has taken years. He started experimenting with the mountain ashes 10 years ago.

Lenart compares his work to that of an artist.

“It’s a different way of looking at art, because it is a living product,” he says.

“But very much; I create them, I shape them, and they are objects of beauty.”

That is, an artist yet to be discovered. At this point, Lenart considers his craft a “gift to the community.” He’ll sell a mountain ash at the farmers’ market for a mere $30.

“I can’t sell them for what they are really worth, because people won’t buy them,” he says, pointing out the cost of years of work behind each seedling.

“You might be putting out Van Goghs, but you’ve got to sell a certain number just to keep going.”

He laughs at the question of just how many he needs to sell in order keep going. “More than I am,” he replies with a shake of his head. Glancing at the conifers he adds, “We are working on that.”

Alyssa Friesen is our co-editor in Dawson City.

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