If it was an apple in the Garden of Eden, would you need a snake to tell you to eat it? No! Canadians love apples! But did you know that commercial apple growing in Ontario got its start in Toronto’s East End?
As we look around it might be hard to believe that apple orchards once flourished between the Danforth and Queen Street and from the Don River to Victoria Park. But there are clues and I’ve looked hard to find them. Why? Well, I love living here and I love apples!
None of us can remember those orchards. By the end of the 1920s, older people looked back upon the days of Leslieville and Riverside’s apples.
The area between Ashbridges Bay and Danforth Avenue was ideal for apple orchards. The sunshine, maximized on the south-facing slopes, and the rich soil created ideal conditions for apples.
Gullies, cut by streams, ran south the heights near the Danforth, draining away frigid air away, preventing frost damage to spring blossoms.
The farmers diverted the streams to feed water by gravity into ditches among the rows of apple trees, irrigating them with clean, cool, spring-fed water. The steep slope sheltered the orchards that produced some of Canada’s best apples.
The first settlers planted apple trees in Leslieville not long after they arrived here in the 1790s. Many orchards here started as mixed farms like the Ashbridges. But farms dedicated only to orchards did not develop until later. One man, above all others, nurtured the apple industry.
In 1825 trained Scottish gardener George Leslie sailed to Canada. In 1826 he moved to Toronto to open a seed store downtown. In 1832 he organized a fruit exhibition:
Then came the time when a few men saw the possibilities of the future if fruit-culture was undertaken in a systematic way. George Leslie, one of the earliest nurserymen in Toronto, organized a fruit exhibition in 1832, but a few specimens of apples, some wild plums, and some small fruit [berries] were all he could procure. He brought trees from New York, organized a nursery, and succeeded in interesting others in the subject.
Most farmers bought their trees from English suppliers, but often the saplings couldn’t prosper under different growing conditions here. Leslie secured and tested varieties to find ones good for Canadian farms.
In 1842, he opened an eight-hectare (20 acres) nursery near Leslie and Queen. Here he tested new varieties and compared their performance against older apple cultivars. He sold the successful trees to farmers across the country although delivery was slow because mud and deep ruts often made roads impassable in spring. He built his downtown store near the wharves and his nursery on Ashbridges Bay so that he could ship trees by boat whenever possible.
L. would also invite public attention to his Nursery Establishment, for the cultivation of FRUIT and ORNAMENTAL TREES, on a more extended scale that has been hitherto attempted in Canada. Trees and Flowering Plants will be carefully packed, so as to bear transportation to any part of the Province, should their passage take two weeks.
An ad from a little later in the spring of 1845, assured buyers that the trees would grow in local conditions:
The collection of Fruit Trees comprises the most valuable and approved varieties, adapted to our latitude… Orders by Mail (post-paid) from any part of the country if accompanied with a remittance, or a satisfactory reference in the City of Toronto, will receive prompt attention. Priced Catalogues will be furnished gratis in all post-paid applications. 
In the spring of 1848 George Leslie sold his business downtown in order to focus on growing trees. His nursery had now grown and he offered 40,000 apple trees for sale. He had planted them in 1843 and took pride in his “well grown healthy Trees.” Each year he put out a new catalogue.
In November 1848, The Farmer and Mechanic pointed out that Leslie was a valuable resource for Canadians:
…Mr. Leslie having procured all the best varieties cultivated, and perfected arrangements for procuring new ones as they from time to time are ushered into notice, a full and complete assortment of the choicest fruit trees may be had at the Toronto Nursery, each warranted to be true to their sorts, at as low a price as can be had in any part of the United States.
In 1849, he began writing articles for journals such as The Farmer and Mechanic, promoting Canadian apple growing and exports abroad:
I have been engaged in the business of tree culture for twenty years in this neighbourhood. In recommending varieties of fruit, I shall mention only such kinds as personal observation has convinced me are quite suitable for this neighbourhood. …Canada has a right to share, with other parts of North America, the profit and honour of having her fruit shipped to all parts of the world.
Before 1850, most Canadians didn’t value orchards or appreciate the potential for exporting this cash crop to Britain and the rest of Europe. George Leslie set out to change this by writing articles in farm journals and speaking at fall fairs and exhibitions (the trade shows of the day), educating farmers on every aspect of apple growing.
By the early 1850s, a wider audience was beginning to recognize that commercial orchards could be not only possible, but even lucrative. William Henry Smith, in his Statistical Account of Canada West, 1851, commented on the new interest in fruit growing, “We heard, two or three years since, of a Toronto merchant, having a residence a short distance from the city, who sent some apples from his orchard to Scotland, and made a profit of £40 on the small quantity sent.”
In 1856 the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) line opened, connecting Montreal and Toronto through Leslieville and commercial fruit farming became viable. Trains delivered nursery stock faster and more efficiently. The train stopped at Queen Street and DeGrassi where apples and trees were loaded to be be shipped by rail to east coast ports. Barrels and boxes of apples sailed to Britain and continental Europe. Once they could get apples to an overseas market, many Leslieville farmers divided their larger properties into small orchards.
The average size of a Leslieville orchard was about ten to 20 acres, but some, such as the Ashbridges, covered as much as 100 acres. A large orchard employed a dozen or more farm workers from spring to fall. While the major crop was apples, Leslieville growers planted a range of fruit from cherries to pears. However, the more tender fruits (e.g., peach, cherry, grape, plum, pear) were limited to only a few particularly sheltered locations such as that of Vincenzo Casci’s vineyard at Coxwell and Upper Gerrard.
After 1856 Leslie’s Toronto Nurseries specialized in mail order. Travelling salesmen visited farmers across Canada. In spring, farmers went to a train station and telegraphed orders for apple trees in bulk at wholesale prices directly to the Toronto Nurseries. Leslie delivered trees in several days by rail for immediate transplanting. These trees were mature enough to began producing apples that fall for a quick return on the farmer’s investment.
Leslie also commissioned other nurserymen to act on his behalf. For example, Charles Chapman distributed the George Leslie’s catalogue at his own Ottawa nursery. Auctioneers also sold consignments of his trees and shrubs in batches across Canada as they were in PEI in 1881.
Need for Training and Education
With all the new growers, trained orchardists were needed. George Leslie Sr. offered apprenticehsips and taught them everything they needed to know to have a successful orchard or nursery – from choosing the right varieties, planting, grafting and tending trees, grading apples for size and colour, and how to pack the fruit into boxes or barrels so that it wouldn’t not bruise during transport. He also taught them about prices, keeping books, marketing, etc. They spread out to create their own businesses across Canada.
One valuable marketing tool was the “Ex”. The Exhibition moved each year from city to city, however, many successfully lobbied for a permanent Toronto Exhibition and the first opened in Toronto in 1879. Later it was re-christened the Canadian National Exhibition.
One Leslie apprentice was Alexander McDonald Allan who married George’s daughter Esther. Allan became editor and owner of the Huron Signal and President of the Ontario Fruit Growers’ Association. Allan pioneered the export of fruit.
In 1886 the Canadian government appointed him Commissioner on Fruits at the Independent and Colonial Exhibition in London. In 1886 he shipped over 100,000 barrels of apples to Britain. He also helped developed markets for Canadian fruit in continental Europe, including shipments to Norway and Sweden, Germany and even far off India. He organized the Imperial Produce Company of Toronto, which became one of Canada’s largest fruit exporters. He also founded the London Fruit Co. to sell Canadian fruit there. The Pall Mall Gazette called Allan “The Fruit King of Canada.”
Varieties of Apples
In 1876, the Province of Ontario asked the Fruit Growers’ Association to undertake a display at the International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, a major World Fair. The early growers did not know a lot about the different varieties of apples, but many of the first varieties were not suitable for Ontario. Often the farmer chose a particular variety simply because he or she had “via the grape vine” that a particular apple grew well somewhere else. At first only the Snow apple or Fameuse was the only variety of commercial importance. Despite a drought, George Leslie & Son, of Leslie exhibited 35 varieties of apples. Even in those days some were concerned about the decline in the number of varieties of apples, a trend that is reflected in the lack of diversity on grocery shelves today.
The Vanished Orchards
Under John A. Macdonald’s National Policy, tariff walls went up to protect Canadian agriculture and the CPR carried people – and apple trees from coast to coast. Leslieville’s trees and fruit could now go almost anywhere in Canada, but the days of orchards in the East End were numbered.
In 1884 Leslieville and Riverside became part of Toronto and property taxes went up as the area became urbanized. While the cost of growing apples increased, the growers’ incomes did not keep step. Many cut down their trees and subdivided their property for housing. In 1888 84-year-old George Leslie told a reporter:
Value of land, for instance, has wonderfully advanced…although these grounds are so far east of the Don, they are already too valuable to hold for orchard or nursery purposes, and must be sold soon for building lots.
One Torontonian took the streetcar through Leslieville:
After crossing the Don, we passed through the little villages of Riverside and Leslieville, so close together that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Then the houses began to scatter. There were nursery gardens, with their rows of tiny young trees; one or two orchards, very pretty in spring when the blossoms are out, and prosperous-looking now, with the fruit showing through the foliage.
George Leslie died on June 14, 1893. Gradually the nursery lands were sold off. Now apples come from all over the world, but the species available are few compared to the many in George Leslie’s catalogues. Yet every spring I walk the streets in my neighbourhood looking for the few survivors of those early orchards. And I still snuggle up with an apple and a book and maybe a piece of good Ontario cheddar and think of Astracan Reds, Sweet Boughs, Early Harvests, Early Strawberrys, Early Joes, Golden Sweetings, Keswick Codin, William’s Favorites, Primates, Alexanders, Black Detroits, Duchesses of Oldenberg, Pommes Royal, Fall Pippins, Hawleys, jersey Sweets, Saint Lawrences, Indian Raventips, Baldwins, Bourrassas, Blue Pearmates, Holland Pippins, Mothers, Northern Spys, Peck’s Pleasants, Rambos, Red Canadas, Russets, Greenings, Seek-no-furthers, Talman’s Sweets, Waggoners, Kings of Tomkins County, and more, as I dream.
SOURCES FOR PHOTOS
 Canadian History, No. 10, June, 1900, 263
 Globe, February 18, 1845; Globe, March 25, 1845; The British American Cultivator, New series, Vol. 1, No. 9, September 1845
 Globe, April 1, 1845
 Globe, September 16, 1848
 The Farmer and Mechanic, Vol. 1, no. 2, November 1848, 42
 The Farmer and Mechanic, Vol. 1, no 7, April 1849, 188 –193
 William Henry Smith, Canada Past, Present and Future, London: T. Maclear, 1851, 419
 Henry J. Morgan, The Canadian men and women of the time, Toronto: W. Briggs, 1898, 11-14
 Globe, June 8, 1883
 The Dominion Illustrated, Vol. 3, no. 71, November 9, 1889, 299
2 thoughts on “Apple Time in the East End”
When we moved to Phin Ave. in 1970, there was a small orchard at the back of what was then 3 Oakvale. I used to take the Brownies there for outdoor meetings and camp fires. The Skullys owned that property. Mrs Scully was the daughter of the Greenwood Brick Works foreman. We were told the apples were Snow apples. We transplanted a young tree to the backyard of 1 Phin where it grew very successfully until we sold our home in 2010. It was overgrown but put out over 250 pounds of apples for donation to the food bank as well as all we needed for eating, apple sauce and cider. The new owners had the tree over trimmed (by the City!) and consequently the tree was dead within a year or so. The University of Guelph was supposed to take a cutting but I do not know if it ever happened.
Yes, I remember that tree too. I used to live on Ravina Cres. Thanks for the information! Joanne