April is here and it is time to start thinking about delicious berries! Many of us have favorite recipes, beverages or snacks that just wouldn’t be the same without the color and taste of fresh ripe berries. A lot of people have taken on the challenge of growing their own berries while more people dream about doing so. There are many berries that may be easier than you think to raise and harvest and with a few tips you can be sharing the bounty of spring in no time!
When homeowners dream about growing their own berries the first thing that comes to mind are “backyard berries”! These small fruits don’t require as much space as full grown trees and with the large variety of berries available, you can have an extended growing season. Things to consider before picking the right berry for you:
Do you want a self-pollinator, or two plants male and female? Self-pollinating plants have flowers that contains both the stamen and the pistil in the same flower. All strawberries are self-pollinating as well as most blueberries, however some find that there are benefits such as higher yields in blueberries if cross pollinated.
Where are you planning on planting?
What type of soil do you have?
Once you have answered these questions you will be ready to choose the right berries for you.
Blueberries are a great crop for homeowners, they do not take up much space and can even be grown in containers. There are three main types of blueberries that can be grown: high bush, rabbit eye and southern high bush. Blueberries prefer full sun for highest yields and most plants will produce a small amount by their 3rd year, however will not fully produce until around the 6th year. A mature bush should produce about 8 quarts of berries each year. Blueberries are a member of the Vaccinium genus and require and acidic soil with a pH between 4.5-5.5. It is a good idea to test your soil before getting started with a soil pH meter. If you find that your soil is not that acidic and needs to be amended you can do so organically over time by mixing in lots of peat moss and pine needles. After the blueberries have been planted you can maintain this pH by mulching heavily each year. If you are looking to lower the soil’s pH more rapidly, simply apply a fertilizer specialized for acid loving plants or add some aluminum sulfate to the soil before planting. Although blueberries are self-fertile, you will get larger berries and more of them if you cross-pollinate with two varieties. Also, keep in mind that the roots are sensitive to salt, so it would be a good idea to skip fertilizing the first year.
A favorite berry of many, strawberries come in a few types. There are spring bearing, ever bearing and day neutral. Spring bearing plants produce during a 2-3 week period in the spring. Ever bearing produce 3 periods of flowers and fruit in the spring, summer and fall. Day neutral strawberries are the best choice for the gardeners with limited space due to the fact that they do not produce many runners. They will produce fruit throughout the season and can be grown in beds, barrels or pyramids. No matter what type you decide, strawberries should be planted as soon as the ground is workable. When planting make sure to only plant the roots and not to cover the crown of the plant. After 4 or 5 weeks the plant will begin to produce runners, or daughter plants. Depending on the style of strawberry you are growing, there are different growing systems that can be used for ideal results: matted row system, spaced-row system or hill system. It is also important to know when to remove the blossoms of your variety in the first year to ensure a prolific crop. For all strawberries, plant in full sun for highest yields with well-drained soil high in organic matter. Before planting, it is a good idea to fertilize the chosen area with a 10-10-10 fertilizer, but do not over fertilize. Be sure to mulch the plants over the winter and be prepared to do so with early spring frosts. To ensure good production, know how to renovate your strawberries: mow the old foliage, cut leaves above crown and fertilize with 10-10-10. Thin the plants out and water 1” per week and you should be set for another great season!
Another favorite for pies, jam and wine is blackberries. This fruit is most happy when grown in full sun with sandy and acidic soils. Blackberries are very easy to grow and have multiple varieties to choose from. There are: training blackberries, erect blackberries, primo cane-fruiting cultivars, semi-erect plants that are thorn less and blackberry/red raspberry hybrids. It is good to note that regardless of variety of blackberry or hybrid, they are all self-fertile. As most berries, full sun is recommended, as well as fertile soil, with good drainage. Depending on the type you are planting plan on spacing 3-8’ apart in shallow rows. Trellises will be needed for most varieties of blackberries: trailing- two-wore system, erect- T-trellis, semi-erect- a Double T-trellis. All varieties will need to be pruned in the summer and mulching is important for moisture and weeds. Although fresh berries are the best you can also can, preserve or freeze these berries until needed.
A close relative of the blackberry is the raspberry, with its most popular variety being the summer-fruiting. The summer-fruiting type is easy enough, however the later choice makes growing simpler due to the fact that the canes grow and fruit in a single season. This mean that instead of picking through canes and leaving young ones to stand bore through a season like the summer-fruiting, you can cut the entire bush down each season. Another good reason to pick the autumn fruiting variety is because it is out of sync with the dreaded raspberry beetle. If you decide to test out both varieties make sure that you plant them far apart, for both send out long runners and can easily to get tangled.
The most unusual berry of the season is made popular by its distinct taste in pies, jellies, and jams and even wine! This hardy plant does not flower until late June, so you are free of worry for a late spring frost. Not only is this an easy crop to grow, but the berries are full of phosphorus, potassium and vitamin C. This plant prefers a moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, however it will grow in just about any condition. Elderberries should be planted in early spring about 6-10’ apart. They have shallow roots, so it is important to keep them watered the first year until established. Once established, fertilize with a 10-10-10 or ammonium nitrate each year. This fruit gets harvested in late August through early September, depending on the cultivar you plant. To keep your elderberry plants well and vibrant, prune and remove any broken, dead, weak or damaged limbs in winter or early spring. These plants are usually pest free, so not only are they easy going, they make a great landscape plant and harvest!
Now that we have gone through all the options for “backyard berries” the only issue is which ones to try. Remember, which ever you choose, be prepared: measure you space, test and amend the soil, know if they need other varieties to pollenate and when to prune. From Blueberries to strawberries, from jelly to pie these crops will keep your season sweet!