The most popular berries among gardeners are the same ones that still come to market: strawberries, blueberries and,
occasionally, red raspberries. We grow what we know, naturally enough.
But why stop with only those? With a few more bush and bramble berries,
you can have a steady supply of fruit all summer long. A gooseberry
bush or two will fill the gap between the last strawberries and the
first raspberries and still be ripening fruit when the raspberries have
finished. Midsummer brings on the red and white currants and blackcap
raspberries. After that come the blackberries and then blueberries, and
finally the late red raspberries, which ripen until frost. Compared
with apples, peaches or any of the tree fruits, bush and bramble fruits
are easy to grow. They rarely require spraying for pests and begin
bearing some fruit the year after you plant them. By their third season
they should be in full production. Perhaps most important, they're very
space efficient. None require a mix of varieties for cross-pollination.
With intensive culture, berries will reward you handsomely. First aim
for variety and a long harvest season, then plant small numbers of each
kind and care for them well. Buy the smallest number of plants you can
as you're learning, and if you want more, get a second variety.
Incorporate lots of organic matter before planting, and mulch with shredded leaves or compost every year. Prune regularly through the
season to keep each branch or cane as productive as possible. And train
the bushes and brambles against walls and fences to make better use of
space. Here are some thoughts on the major classes of berries and how
to fit them into your garden space.
These are the first fruit of the season, which may be why people
treasure them so. Since your fruit garden will provide you with a
variety of other berries all season long, forego everbearing
strawberries in favor of main croppers. An early and a late variety
will provide strawberries for two to three weeks. Consider old
standards, such as 'Fairfax' or 'Sparkle', that are so soft they leave
your fingers red with juice after picking.
Renew the planting every year by tilling or digging under most of the plants and letting runners set in well-worked, fertile ground.
Keep them in a bed to themselves, however, since strawberries are
susceptible to verticillium wilt carried by tomatoes, peppers, eggplant
and potatoes. Use wire arches over the beds (the kind you'd use for
plastic tunnels) to support bird netting.
Gooseberries grow on dense bushes that reach two to four feet tall
without training. They're hardy throughout most of the U.S. excepting
the southwestern deserts and the inland valleys of California. Best
fruit production occurs in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern U.S.
Gooseberries leaf out early in spring. The foliage is a lustrous green, turning bronze to red in fall, and branches are covered
with straight, inch-long spines. The ripe fruit is either translucent
yellow-green or dusky purple to red, depending on the variety. When
ripe, the fruit is juicy and sweet with a pleasing acidity. As with any
fruit, there are marked varietal differences in flavor.
Gooseberries are one of the few fruits that hold their quality well on the bush when ripe. The earliest gooseberries (which can be
picked green) fill the brief gap between the last strawberries and the
first red raspberries. When the berries reach about 1/2-inch diameter
and are still hard and a month from being ripe, they're excellent for
pies and other cooked desserts. This early harvest thins the fruit so
the ripe berries will be larger.
Gooseberries, especially the unripe fruit, are high in pectin; you can make very thick jam with no added pectin. A mature plant can
produce from five to eight quarts of fruit, so one plant may be all you
need. Where space is extremely limited, train gooseberries against
walls as fan-shaped espaliers or as single-stemmed cordons. These make
striking plants with year-round interest, and picking will be easier,
Gooseberries bear fruit near the base of one-year-old shoots and on short spurs on older wood. So no matter how carelessly one
prunes, there's always some fruit. Remove about 20 percent of the
oldest growth--wood that's been growing for three to five seasons--each
year. Also cut out enough of the newest growth to make the plant open
and easy to pick. Always save some vigorous new shoots to become future
main branches. Any new shoot can be cut back to four to six inches with
little loss in fruiting potential.
A 30-foot row of raspberries, trained to single stems against a wall or
fence, will yield about a quart of fruit every other day for three
weeks, and that's plenty of raspberries for most people. A more
traditional hedge-type planting will yield twice that amount, although
it takes at least twice the space. Intensively trained berries are
extremely productive. To get the most from red raspberries, plant at
least two kinds: a main crop variety for heavy early summer harvests
and a fall (or everbearing) type to close out the berry harvest. Where
the season is long, you may need to plant two fall varieties to keep
you picking until frost.
The popular 'Heritage' variety, for example, will be finished in early September in USDA Zone 6, with about four weeks of potential
ripening weather left. It's a mistake to cut raspberry canes back in an
effort to make the canes self-supporting. The most fruitful buds are
those nearest the top of the canes. You'll get the best results by
tying the canes to two wires 2-1/2 and five or six feet off the ground,
depending on the vigor of the variety. Main-crop raspberries fruit on
one-year-old canes. After harvest, cut them out at ground level to
favor the new canes. When you've got vigorous new canes growing about
six inches apart, remove any new ones that appear through the growing
season. Fall raspberries fruit on new canes at the end of their first
growing season and again the following summer. For heavier fall crops,
prune the canes to the ground after the first harvest in autumn and
forego the summer crop from fall varieties.
Although closely related to the reds, blackcaps have a distinctive
flavor, ripen a little later, and require slightly different training.
Black raspberries spread by bending the tips of their canes to the
ground where they root, leapfrogging along at two to three feet a year.
New shoots arise only from the original crowns, not willy-nilly from
the roots as with reds. In most other respects, they're very similar to
the reds. There are no fall-fruiting black raspberries. In an attempt
to bend to the ground and root, the canes elongate and become thin and
weak at the tips. Unless you want to start new plants, cut these
raspberries back to 3 or 4 feet. They'll be self-supporting, with no
loss of fruiting potential. Cut the old canes out after harvest. Since
black raspberries don't throw root suckers, they take much less
thinning than reds.
Judging by flavor alone, most people would regard currants as two
totally different fruits: the fresh, tart, and crystalline reds and
whites versus the strangely pungent and heavy blacks. But they're close
botanical relatives, and because they ripen about the same time and
their culture is almost identical, it's best to consider them together.
Red currants are one of the most beautiful fruits. When the berries are ripe, the plant literally drips with long clusters of
gleaming scarlet beads. Each red berry (white currants are just
different varieties of the red currant) has a transparent skin, so
sunlight makes it glow from within. Currants are very juicy and quite
tart. When fully ripe, they are enjoyable out of hand the way you would
eat any other berry. Traditionally, currants are used for jelly, jam,
and cooked desserts. Ripe currants will hold on the bush for much
longer than most other fruits without dropping or losing quality.
Black currant bushes are slightly larger than red currants, and the fruits are not so conspicuous. Black currants are meatier, less
juicy, and eaten fresh they're definitely an acquired taste. Cooked,
however, they lose their musky overtones and make one of the finest
flavored jams of all.
Blackberry culture began in North America, although there are
fine-flavored species native to Europe and Asia. Today's improved
varieties have mixed heritage, part American natives and part Eurasian
species. Blackberries are far and away the heaviest bearing of the
bramble fruits, producing about twice as much as red raspberries. They
ripen in mid-summer after the raspberries are finished, and are more
heat tolerant than raspberries.
Blackberries are robust plants that need to be restrained or they can become weeds. They grow and can be trained very much like red
raspberries. However, since they throw root suckers so vigorously, you
may want to confine their roots with metal or fiberglass barriers sunk
a foot or more below ground level. Blackberries are much more thorny
than reds or blackcaps. Where space is restricted, or if you don't have
the patience to pick a prickly plant, choose the new thornless
varieties. Many of these are limber-stemmed and trailing in habit, so
you'll need to rig a wire trellis to train them up.
Blueberries are really a new fruit, domesticated only within the last
75 years. They probably would have been tamed sooner if people had
understood their need for an acid soil. Brought from the American wilds
into gardens, the fruits almost always died because the soil had been
limed. Blueberries demand a soil pH between 4.0 and 5.5. Correct the pH
for blueberries with peat moss (mixed at least 50/50 with your native
earth) and perhaps some soil sulfur, and the plants will do well over
most of North America. The bushes have extremely shallow root systems,
so the heavy peat blend need not be deeper than 12 inches. Blueberries
need a steady supply of moisture; the water-retentive peat will help
with that as well.
One blueberry bush is all you need. In its fourth season it will produce a pint or so of fruit. At maturity, when it's grown four
to six feet tall, the right variety can produce up to 20 pints over two
to three weeks. However, if you've room for three or four varieties,
you can stretch the harvest to eight to 10 weeks, into the fall
raspberry season. Although cross-pollination isn't essential, it will
encourage larger fruit. Blueberries are extremely handsome shrubs,
notable for their brilliant fall color and bright stems in winter. Some
of the newer varieties are low and shrubby, 18 to 24 inches tall. Keep
them away from masonry walls and foundations, where the soil can be
excessively alkaline. But they're excellent among other ornamental
shrubs (if the soil's suitable) or by themselves in an informal hedge.
When a branch stops producing fat flower buds in fall, it's time to cut
it out at ground level. That's all the pruning blueberries need.