The Apple of His Eye
A lifelong devotion to the apple began many years ago in Northern Ontario for Harry Burton when he was a mere sapling. "We always liked apples as kids, but the ones we had in Ontario were always small crabs, not very good tasting, and we even treasured those," he says. "Apples have always been a part of my life, and once I saw Salt Spring and the incredible growing potential here, it was just the start of everything." An idea blossomed. Burton took early retirement in the 1998 from his teaching position and moved from Ontario. Having a great climate for growing apples, Salt Spring Island was the first apple producing area in BC and has been producing the fruit since being ettled in 1860. It remained on top of the game until the 1920s, when the Okanagan valley started to surpass it in fruit production. While almost all of the large orchards on Salt Spring have disappeared, many of the varieties have been preserved by local apple connoisseurs. "One of the other growers here, Bob Weeden, well his apples have to be historical, so they are all from trees that are older than 1920," says Burton. "He’s got a true heritage orchard, so that’s his little niche."
While Burton’s "Apple Luscious" orchard is home to many heritage varieties, his specialty is taste. His goal is to create an orchard filled with the best tasting apples in the world, focusing on redfleshed apples, such as Almata and Winter Red Flesh.
Taking a bit out of life... Harry and Debbie enjoy a King apple
Burton started his small orchard from scratch, planting his first tree in 1986. Now, almost 20 years later, his orchard has filled up, and his apple obsession is in full swing. "We have a term that we call ‘appleholic’, and that’s what’s happened over the years. Now my orchard is completely full, and I’ve got room for [maybe] one more tree," says Burton. "Well, I might squeeze in three more this year, but then it will be completely full... that’s the first sign of an appleholic."
The second sign of an appleholic might be trying to grow 200 different kinds of apples on a small patch of land. Burton’s orchard only occupies half of his five-acre property on Salt Spring, so it’s a tight squeeze. "I have maybe 350 apple trees and 200 varieties, so a lot of them are ‘one offs’," says Burton. "The really good varieties I’ll squeeze in two or three or maybe even five of them, but that’s enough work actually. So in one sense, I’m glad I only have that much property.
It’s Burton’s passion for apples, not his passion for profits that has motivated him to create such a unique and diverse orchard. "Well, nobody in their right mind would ever do this, which is probably another sign of an appleholic," laughs Burton. "The commercial growers wouldn’t think of this because it would drive them crazy. It’d be too hard to manage." So, how does he manage? With so many different apple varieties to care for, it takes a lot of tracking and planning to find out exactly when which type is ready for picking. With the weather becoming more and more unpredictable and extreme, especially this year, Burton has run into some snags. "We’ve had extra dryness now, and that’s causing a lot of varieties to drop or ripen early. You have to keep walking by and saying, ‘Are you ready? Are you ready?’ and looking for apples that have dropped," says Burton. "The weather’s been a little bit of extra work in that sense, but farmers are used to reacting to the weather."
Indeed, Burton is accustomed to learning to cooperate with Mother Nature. He grows all of his apples organically, using no pesticides and only natural fertilizers on his land, including using harvested seaweed he collects from a nearby beach. It’s a good source of potassium and trace minerals, and, as he says on his website, "there is nothing more peaceful than collecting seaweed on a beach in early morning while watching the dogs play in the sand or chase seagulls." Burton has developed a ‘wild orchard’ style of farming on his land; a far cry from the overly manicured grassy orchards that we’re more familiar with.
"There [are] just little paths through the orchard, so it’s quite wild, and we have chickens around everywhere, and they are in under the vegetation, hiding if they have to and scratching away. There [are] lots of blackberries, and all sorts of other things growing. It’s a real nice compliment to the apple trees."
Being the appleholic that he is, Burton has worked extra hard in order to connect people with the unique apple culture on Salt Spring Island. He’s the father of the Salt Spring Island Apple Festival, which celebrated its seventh anniversary this year.
"Even though we have 11,000 people here, we have to connect with the population off the island, so this is one way to get people from off the island to see what we do here and to connect with these people," says Burton. "We’ve actually created a festival that I’m quite proud of. The locals love it, and the off-islanders love it. To me, that’s a magic formula." For Burton, watching people taste a new apple for the first time is just as, if not more, satisfying than selling someone his apples. "When I sell, I always give tastes, so people can come and taste eight or ten varieties. Even if they don’t buy, they still have fun tasting," he says.
by Doug Ozeroff
One of the celebrities making an appearance at this year’s apple festival on Saltspring Island was Captain Apple, a fairly new super hero created by Harry Burton.
Origin: "It really happened one day when I was with my grandson. My grandson was playing a bad guy, and I had to create a good guy character very quickly.
Purpose: "To get children eating more organic apples, and more organic food period, because that’s the best thing that we can do for their health. Apples are good for your heart, they’re good for digestion, they’re nature’s toothbrush... you just can’t beat them!"
Superpower: "The bees do most of the work, but Captain Apple is the magic there that helps Mother Nature make all those apples come on the tree."
Weakness: "He is fueled by apples. He has to eat six or eight apples a day just to keep him going. His kryptonite now is to keep apples away from him, that’s what saps his strength."
Favourite Apple: "His favourite apple is the one he’s got in his hand at any moment. They’re all good, they all have their characteristics and he knows the strengths and weaknesses of each."