Horticulturalist shares knowledge in online book

Contributed photo
Thaddeus McCamant grew up with a fascination for growing things, including this large onion.

By Lori Fischer Thorp


Rest assured, the current expanses of white snow will eventually transition to a world of green.

“Historically, it has always come, so if you look at the odds, they’re in favor of Spring coming,” quipped Thaddeus McCamant.

When warmer weather does arrive, the Frazee horticulturalist will be ready.

Thaddeus McCamant helped his brother, Tom, establish the only commercial peach orchard in Montana, where 12 acres of trees exhibit vibrant spring blossoms.

“I look forward to planting different shrubs and trees,” he said. “I always look forward to planting things.”

His lifelong pursuit has been fostering similar passion in others, which led to his 2018 online book, “Perennial fruit: New, unusual, and unique crops for northern climates.”

“The target is people who want to try something unusual, whether it’s a home gardener or a commercial grower,” McCamant said.

The writing project was published by the Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture, and took two years.

“My main job at the time was to teach other people, and I would write when I was able,” he explained.

McCamant said he’s now “formally retired.” He continues to do some teaching, gives talks to different organizations each winter, and keeps working with growers. “The main crop I work with is strawberries,” he said.

Black rot is the primary foe of apple trees in this area. It needs to be combatted by pruning, which can be done now.

“I do lots of travelling to advise growers, and helped the one by Perham start,” he said. “There’s room for a lot more strawberries, that’s for sure,” he said. They are maintenance-heavy, “that’s why there’s so few strawberry growers. They’re a lot of work.”

“In the field I’m in, for most people, their success is dependent on how many journal entries they’ve published,” McCamant said, “but I’ve taken a different path” which has included weekly articles for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. His writing voice is informative and approachable.

“I feel very fortunate that I actually got paid to write a book about weird fruit,” he said. “It’s like a childhood dream to write about it, and what’s more important, I got paid to do it. I never told them I would have done it without being paid,” he said.

His attraction to the topic had an early start. 

“I’ve always been outside, and I’ve always been fascinated with growing things,” McCamant said. He was raised in Montana as well as Colorado, where the valley he grew up in “really triggered everything.” Mentors there supported that curiosity.

“I always like to point out, I started picking fruit, and I became really close to the people I worked for, and I run into that all the time these days, people who are really close to their employees,” he said.

“When I go to meetings, I like to say I started out as a fruit picker, and that puts me apart from a lot of people who have graduate degrees,” he said. “Going back to age 9, basically if it grew on a plant and was edible, I ate it.” 

McCamant completed his undergrad and graduate studies in Eastern Washington state, where there’s an important distinction in regions.

“Washington is divided by the Cascade Mountain Range,” he explained. “Thinking about any agricultural product, it’s about 95 percent likely to be from the east side of the mountains, whether it’s hops or apples or wheat,” he said.

Since then, McCamant has immersed himself in specialty crops. 

“I work with every fruit crop that they grow in Minnesota except grapes,” he said. “If there’s a new fruit crop coming down the line, I make sure I’m involved with it,” so he has valuable guidance.

“There are two things people need to do at this point,” he said. “Look up buying plants, and prune.”

Taking shears or loppers to a tree is “essential,” he said. “You have to take out dead branches.”

“You can start pruning at any time,” he said. “It might be difficult to get around with the snow, but it can be done now.”

“When I prune, I like to shape the tree in the way I want the tree to look,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you end up with the fruit on the top, and you don’t want that, you want the fruit throughout the tree. You want to be cutting big branches so the tree doesn’t get too tall.”

“One of the big things in this area that you have to watch out for is the disease ‘black rot,’” McCamant said. “You have to take out any branches with it. Not many people know about it, and many of the pest control books don’t talk about it.”

Black rot “causes the branches to rot and die,” he said. “It spreads from tree to tree, just in apples,” and is “one of the leading causes of apple trees dying, especially in this area,” because “We don’t have a lot of pests here.” Burning the diseased branches “is ideal” he advised.

Perennials in proper climates return yearly, so one planting can yield harvests for decades. Challenges include knowledge and proper maintenance.

McCamant’s book begins by explaining “Most of Minnesota lies within the USDA hardiness zones 3 and 4, and gardeners often wish they could grow a larger cultivar of fruit. Cold winters kill or harm trees and branches, while short growing seasons prevent certain crops from properly maturing.”

Fortunately, there are always new crops being developed.

“Many emerging crops,” the book explains, “are completely unrelated to common temperate fruit sold in stores,” nearly all of which come from “species of two plant families: the rose family and the heath family…By contrast, emerging crops belong to more than eight families.” 

“Emerging fruit crops that are unrelated to more common fruits are often susceptible to entirely different diseases and insect pests,” the book continues. Also, “Many of these crops have entirely different nutrients and health benefits than fruit commonly sold in the grocery store.”

The learning curve on the crops can be approached through reading, talking to growers, and applying that learning, as McCamant does.

“One of the things I have in my yard is honeyberries,” he said. “That appears to be a crop that is here to stay. The other name is haskap. It’s a shrub from the Russian Far East and Northern Japan. They’re extremely hardy.”

“They’re a honeysuckle,” he said. “They don’t taste like honey, they’re actually pretty sour. Anything that you want to use a blueberry for, you can use honeyberries. They have very small seeds,” and the advantage over blueberries is “you don’t need the really acidic soil.”

Regarding diminishing numbers of pollenators, McCamant said, “I don’t think it’s a big problem here. When I look at plum or apple trees in my yard, about 25 percent of the insects are honey bees, 75 percent would be about 10 other species of insects, and so we don’t need to bring in honey bees, so many other insects will pollenate the apples here,” he said, adding that pollinator reductions are affecting other parts of the state.

McCamant’s yard also includes apples, plums and pie cherries, as opposed to sweet cherries.

“Of course,” he said, “I make a mean cherry pie.”

“There’s four or five varieties (of cherries) that grow here well,” he said, and he grows four of them. “Carmen Jewel is the one I recommend to most people,” he said.

His supplier-of-choice is Honeyberry USA, based in Bagley. 

“They won’t sell anything that doesn’t grow here,” he said.

McCamant’s milestones have included working with his brother Tom, with whom he “helped start the only commercial peach orchard in Montana.” 

“He started in 2000,” McCamant said. “We’ve worked together ever since he started.” 

The 12-acre orchard’s product goes to grocery stores, farmers markets, and direct roadside sales. 

“We sold some to brewers, we did a lot of things. We had a huge crop last year, it was a bit of a struggle to keep up with it,” he said. He added that for growers he works with “pretty much everyone has a good irrigation system.”

McCamant’s daughter, Holly, graduated from Frazee High School in 2016. 

His interests include triathalons, cross-country skiing and skijoring. “I do the skiing because I needed something to do in the off-season,” he said.

Whatever the time of year, McCamant is a gracious wealth of knowledge.

“I never get tired of questions,” he said, though he modestly declined to share his recipe for cherry pie.

To harvest more of McCamant’s perennial information, go to https://misa.umn.edu/publications/perennial-fruit (Credit: This publication was a project of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota.)