A conversation with François Gour reminds one of the French story The Man Who Planted Trees/L’homme qui plantait des arbres. Gour explores forests, parklands, and arboretums all over Eastern Ontario and nearby Quebec looking for seeds to keep tree species thriving and diverse, and it all starts in two greenhouses he built on his peaceful, wooded property near Plantagenet.
A construction contractor by trade, Gour wants to focus more of his time on growing tree seedlings and keeping wooded areas diverse. He began planting seedlings 25 years ago on his 47-acre property and today he is growing a variety of species. There are the usual white cedars, pines, maples, and tamaracks that are native to the region, but Gour also pushes the limits with species often associated with more southern, warmer places. Those include black walnut, hickory, catalpa, fig, chestnut, magnolia, and the tulip tree, which are occasionally seen in forests in eastern Ontario, but are much more common in the southwestern part of the province.
Gour said a magnolia tree can withstand minimal exposure to minus 30 Celsius, as one of the trees on his property has previously.
“You have to be patient,” said Gour, in reference to starting trees from seed.
He planted 12,000 seedlings this spring. It can take up to four months for some varieties to sprout, while others take as little as two weeks.
Gour has relied on common sense and trial and error in developing his horticultural skills.
“I learned everything from scratch,” he said.
For François and his wife Lucie, finding seeds is part of operating their small nursery. If they know of a forest, park, or other open space where a seed exists, they will travel there and collect them, which is perfectly legal.
The Gours are also members of Boisés-Est, the francophone organization of private woodlot owners located mostly in Eastern Ontario who are dedicated to promoting healthy forests and responsible management of them. The association currently has about 200 members.
Education is also part of what the Gours do. They recently gave Siberian elm seedlings to students at École élémentaire Catholique St-Victor in Alfred to take home and plant in their yards so they could learn about growing trees and properly caring for them. They students also helped plant new trees to improve the nut arboretum at the FERCA-Collège d’Alfred campus.
François has also instructed people on how to properly graft fruit trees. That is the process of having two or three varieties of a fruit such as apples grow on the same tree.
Lucie said some trees are in high demand by some landowners because they have declined in prominence in certain places.
The small nursery is not necessarily a retail business at this time, but rather a place that supplies people who are interested in obtaining small numbers of trees—or unique varieties. For example, François has been assisting a property owner in Sudbury with obtaining apple trees that will withstand the soil and climate in Northern Ontario.
François said he tries to use a minimal number of herbicides and pesticides on his seedlings. The biggest challenge to the tiny trees is the squirrels, but dogs and cats are good at chasing them away.
A good thing though about squirrels is that they are a natural signal about when people like François Gour should start collecting seeds for their tree seedlings.
“Whenever the squirrels start to collect, you can collect,” he said.