Berries - The Wonderful World Of
Tiny, Delicious Fruit
Successfully grow a variety of small, but wonderful berries - part 1 of 2
When the topic of berries comes up, people's eyes light up as they immediately start thinking about their favorite berry, their favorite recipe for that berry, and memories that date back to childhood going berry picking, or just sitting in grandma's kitchen eating homemade jellies and preserves that were so rich, and bursting with flavor, that they put all commercial products to shame.
Everyone loves berries because they each, individually, have such a unique and memorable flavor, and the great thing is, they are easy to grow as long as you know each one's cultural preferences. We are going to go over those preferences and give you some tips and tricks to have the best berry patch ever. Kind of makes your mouth water thinking about it, doesn't it?
Now, because there are so many berries, and hybrids of berries, we are splitting this article into 2 parts. This month we will discuss what are commonly known as bush berries, such as currants, gooseberries, blueberries, and strawberries. Next month, we will finish up with bramble berries such as raspberries, blackberries, and boysenberries.
Get ready to have some fun, because there are so many berries available now, that anyone can grow one kind or another very successfully, no matter where you live. Pick and choose what varieties will best work for you in your climate and area, and you will be sitting down to bowl full of home-grown berries with cream and sugar before you know it!
Deciduous shrub, Zones 3 -7
Currants are very easy to grow, and are small, topping out at 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 m) tall and wide. The fruit is produced on thorny shrubs that bear clusters of translucent fruit, which are closely related to gooseberries, but not related to the dried currant, which is a raisin.
Currants are still hugely popular in Europe, but they have been largely forgotten in the United States because of a ban that started in the 1920s and wasn't lifted until the 1960s.
The ban was put in place because currants are a host and carry the disease of white pine blister rust, and while the disease doesn't bother the currants, it can cause devastation to white pines.
Black currants and others that are not disease resistant are still considered a threat in some areas, so check before ordering, to see which North American states still have bans on planting currants.
The good news is: many new varieties have been produced over the years which are disease resistant and pose no threat, so these wonderful berries can be grown and enjoyed once again.
Currants come in various types:
Black currants - (Ribes nigrum)
Red, yellow (often called white), and pink currants - (hybrids of R. rubrum, R. sativum, and R. petraeum)
Jostaberries - (R. nidigrolaria) are a hybrid of black currant and gooseberry
Red currants are considered the best varieties with tall, vigorous bushes and large, easily picked clusters of fruit.
'Red Lake' and 'Minnesota 71' are two of the best all-around red currants, while 'Perfection', 'Wilder', and 'Red Cross' are also widely planted favorites.
Black currants, to some, have an unpleasant odor in their foliage, but their fruit have the most intense flavor, and are usually used in liqueurs and syrups, while the yellow (or white) currants have a more delicate taste. You can eat ripe currants fresh, but they are most popularly used in jellies, juices, and preserves.
Currants thrive in cool summer weather in full sun or partial shade. They can tolerate a wide variety of soils from light sandy loam to heavy clay, and tolerate a range of pH from mildly acidic (6.0 - 6.4) to mildly alkaline (7.6 - 8.0).
Currants need good drainage, and the bushes always appreciate the cool soil beneath an organic mulch such as straw or leaves, as well as some shade where summers are hot and humid, and irrigation where natural rainfall is deficient.
Pollination is by bees.
Choose cultivars resistant to mildew and white pine blister rust, especially for black currants.
Plant bareroot either in the fall or very early spring as soon as the soil can be worked.
After planting, cut away at ground level all but 2 shoots.
Water in and mulch around plants to keep soil cool and moist.
Black currants are suitable for hedges, in which case set bushes only 3 feet (1 m) apart, otherwise space bushes 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 2 m) apart.
Planting In A Container
Plant currants in pots at least 1-1/2 feet (30 to 46 cm) wide and deep in regular potting soil. Repot, cutting back some roots every fall.
In very cold areas, container-grown currants need extra protection in the winter since their roots are less protected than they would be in the ground. Pile large garbage bags filled with leaves around the container to provide extra insulation.
Water regularly and feed plants between late fall and late winter, before you replenish mulch.
Currants need moderate amounts of nitrogen and fairly high amounts of potassium and magnesium so choose a fertilizer accordingly.
2 diseases may become a problem, powdery mildew and leaf spot.
Pruning is best done during the dormant season in later winter.
Red and yellow currants bear fruit best on stems that are between 1 and 4 years old.
Black currants bear on 1 and 2 year old wood, so when you prune, cut away wood that is more than 2 years old.
The object of pruning currants is to keep the plant open to help fight mildew, and to keep replacing branches that are older than 3 years with new branches.
Begin pruning after the third year from planting and aim to have 6 to 9 main branches eventually, 3 of them new branches, 3 of them 1 season old, 3 of them 2 seasons old.
Take out the oldest canes after the third season and leave 3 new ones to replace them. To help remember which are which, you may want to paint a mark on each stem.
Harvest and Storage
Expect your first crop the second season after planting.
Keep harvested berries out of direct sunlight, and since currants don't store very long, use them within a week or two of harvest.
For cooking, pick slightly underripe or green. For fresh eating, allow berries to fully ripen on the bush.
Harvesting Tip: The best way to deal with harvesting the thorny branches is to hold a branch up with one gloved hand while you strip the berries with your other, ungloved hand.
'Fay' - Large, dark berries. Easy to pick
'Minnesota 71' - Large berries on large clusters. Good quality
'Perfection' - Large berries on compact clusters. Good quality dessert fruit
'Red Cross' - Large, firm berries, light red
'Red Lake' - Large fruit with long stems. Good quality
'White Grape' - Large, pale yellow berries. Mild flavor
'White Imperial' - Large berries, pale yellow. Nearly sweet. Good dessert quality
'Wilder' - large, dark red berries. Large compact clusters
There are many more new varieties out now that are disease resistant. Check individual nurseries for available stock.
Yellow (white) Currants:
Black Currant Shrub:
Pink Champagne Currants:
Ribes rusticum, R. hirtellum and others
Deciduous shrub, Zones 3 -7
Gooseberries, like currants, have had issues with white pine blister rust, and there can be restrictions on importing or growing them, so in North America, check before you buy to make sure you can grow them in your area.
Cultivated gooseberries are very hardy and are a 3 to 4 feet (1 to 1.2 m) deciduous shrub with wood branches and ½ inch (1.27 cm) spines.
They have small pale green flowers in early spring and the fruit, which is egg-shaped and can be slightly fuzzy, is a translucent green until it ripens in August and September, when it turns red, or with some varieties, purple.
Gooseberry grows in soils that have neutral pH (7.0) to slightly acid soil (6.0 - 6.4), including heavy clay and sandy loam. It is shallow-rooted and needs moist soil with excellent drainage, it can't take poor drainage.
Gooseberry does best when permanently mulched to provide cool soil for the roots.
Plant gooseberries in the fall or the spring; spring being the better choice where cold, dry winters might harm fall-planted stock.
Set the plants at least 5 feet (1.5 m) apart and prune them back to about 5 inches (13 cm) tall. Because gooseberries tend to bud very early, consider planting on a northern slope to help delay budding so they are not damaged by a late frost.
Planting In A Container
Plant gooseberries in pots at least 1-1/2 feet (30 to 46 cm) wide and deep in regular potting soil. Repot, cutting back some roots every fall.
In very cold areas, container-grown gooseberries need extra protection in the winter since their roots are less protected than they would be in the ground. Pile large garbage bags filled with leaves around the container to provide extra insulation.
Gooseberries thrive in cool summer weather and are self-pollinating. They can take full sun or part shade, but do appreciate the cool soil beneath an organic mulch such as straw or leaves, as well as some shade where summers are hot and humid, and irrigation where natural rainfall is low.
Expect your first crop of fruit during the second season after planting.
Feed your plants between late fall and later winter, before you replenish the mulch. Gooseberries need a moderate amount of nitrogen, but need fairly high amounts of potassium and magnesium.
Gooseberries are upright bushes, and tend to have crowded branches, so regular pruning helps keep the shape open and help fight powdery mildew.
The best time is to prune is in the late winter before they begin to bud and the goal, like currants, is to have 1/3 of the branches be new wood, 1/3 of the branches be 1 season old, and 1/3 of the branches be 2 seasons old.
Usually 9 main branches are kept on a bush and the when the oldest 3 reach the end of their third season, they are pruned out and 3 new branches are allowed to remain to replace them. This system of pruning keeps the bush productive, since branches older than 3 years tend to produce less fruit.
Harvest and Storage
Gooseberries ripen over a period of 4 to 6 weeks in late summer to early fall and can be picked green or allowed to ripen on the bush. When harvesting, be careful of the thorns, which are considerable.
Berries keep up to 3 weeks at temperatures just above freezing.
Picked green, the berries are eaten fresh, and used in pies, jelly, and jam.
'Achilles' - Good eating fresh
'Hinnomaki Yellow' - Good eating fresh
'Downing' - Large, pale green fruit. Good for canning
'Fredonia' - Plum-sized fruit, dark red when ripe. Late, good quality fruit
'Houghton' - Small, dark red fruit
'Poorman' - Large red fruit, good eating fresh. Disease resistant to powdery mildew
There are many more new varieties out now that are disease resistant. Check individual nurseries for available stock.
Hinnomaki Red Gooseberry:
Deciduous shrub, Zones 2-9
Blueberries were first brought from the wild into domestication as little as 100 years ago, so this fruit is a fairly recent addition for commercial production. Prior to that, the only way to enjoy blueberries was to hunt for the wild bushes during the appropriate season.
The exciting thing is that so many new varieties have been breed, there is a blueberry for just about any kind of climate.
Some of the main species of blueberry are:
Highbush - (V. corymbosum) - Zones 2-9 - is the most common, growing to 6 feet (1.8 m) tall
Southern Highbush - Zones 4-9 - adapted to mild-winter climates, low chilling requirements, and is being grown successfully in climates as warm as southern California and Florida
Rabbiteye - (V. ashei) - Zones 7-9 - growing to 12 feet (3.6 m) tall, tolerates warmer, dryer conditions
Lowbush - (V. angustifolium) - Zones 3-7 - is also an important commercial berry
There is also another called a midhigh or half-high which is a hybrid cross between lowbush and highbush varieties.
All are vigorous and productive plants with several quality varieties available.
Basically blueberries like a very acid soil like azaleas and rhododendrons. (But don't worry, if you don't have the correct soil, there are ways around this).
The highbush must have acidic soil and prefers a pH just below 5.
The rabbiteye will tolerate a higher pH to 5.5 or more.
All blueberries need well-drained soil, and do best if heavy clay or sandy soils have a good deal of organic matter added to them. Given good acid soil, both are relatively pest and disease free.
Blueberries have self-sterile flowers (meaning they cannot produce fruit from their own pollen, and require pollen from a related cultivar), with the rabbiteye being more self-sterile than the highbush. At least two varieties should be planted together to help cross-pollination.
Plant both highbush and rabbiteye in the spring, usually as two-year-old plants. Adding peat moss, leaves, bark, or composted sawdust will lower the pH slowly, and in a year or two will make most soil acid enough for blueberries.
If the soil pH is above 6.5 or more, it can be made acidic with extra work. Give the plants an acid mulch, like oak bark or leaves, or add some sulfur or iron sulfate (use a soil test for correct amounts to apply) and be sure to keep the soil moist. The mulch will be enough food for the plants to provide a good growing environment.
Highbush plants should be at least 6 feet (1.8 m) apart and rabbiteye plants 7 to 8 feet (2 to 2.4 m) apart. It's a very good idea to plant at least two varieties together.
Lowbush blueberries spread by underground rhizomes; set plants 2 feet (60 cm) apart.
Planting In Containers
Choose midhigh blueberry varieties (these are a hybrid cross between highbush and lowbush) for growing in containers. Use a potting mix of equal parts acid peat moss and either sand or perlite.
If your tap water is alkaline, acidify it with 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) of vinegar per quart (.95 l) of water before applying. Repot plants every few years during the dormant season, pruning back the roots and tops at that time.
In very cold areas, container-grown blueberries need extra protection in the winter since their roots are less protected than they would be in the ground. Pile large garbage bags filled with leaves around the container to provide extra insulation.
Blueberries can take partial shade, but they fruit best when in full sun.
Use only acid type fertilizer (such as used for azaleas and camellias) at low rates and keep it away from the base of the stems. Blueberries are easily killed by excessive fertilizer.
Blueberries require soil that is very acidic and high in organic matter, and very well drained. Test soil pH before planting and if needed, add sulfur to lower the pH to 5.0. To further acidify the soil, you can also mix a bucket of acid peat moss or composted sawdust into each planting hole.
If you have very alkaline soil, mix equal parts of sand and acidic peat moss. Use this mix to make a raised bed or to replace your native soil excavated from a hole 1-1/2 (30 to 46 cm) deep and at least 2 feet (61 cm) in diameter.
Keep soil constantly moist, but not soggy. Remove the flowers the first year so the plants will put their energy into shoot and root growth.
To prevent berry maggots, hang red, round, sticky traps near your bushes before the first berries turn blue. Use 1 trap per bush. Leave the traps in place until you have finished harvesting fruit.
Remove loose dry mulch each fall and clear away any fallen berries since they can harbor disease organisms. Then put down a fresh layer of much. Each spring, top mulch again.
New plants should be pruned back at planting time. They should be cut back by one-fourth and any low, bushy growth near the base of the plant pruned away.
After 2 or 3 years of growth, regular pruning can start. On upright bushes, the goal is to open the center of the bush. On spreading bushes, the goal is to remove any low, shaded branches.
Prune plants in late winter just before growth begins.
Because blueberries bear fruit on the previous year's wood, and they bear best on young branches which are sending out vigorous new growth each season, the main goal of pruning is to keep the bush well supplied with young, fruitful branches.
After wood becomes 4 years old, it has lost its vigor and won't produce as well.
Prune out old canes and encourage new growth coming from the roots. For thinning, take twiggy branches off newer canes. If any shoots appear in late summer, prune them off.
Harvest and Storage
Plants usually bear their first crop 2 to 4 years after planting.
To determine ripeness, lightly move the clusters of blue fruits with your fingers, and the ripe ones will drop into your hand.
Depending upon your area, climate, and the variety, the highbush ripens from as early as late May to as late as mid-September.
The berries change from green to red, to blue as they ripen taking several weeks, and continuing to grow larger after they have turned blue. It is best to pick several times, starting 6 days after they the berries have turned blue.
The rabbiteye ripens as early as May or as late as August and often berries in the same cluster will ripen at different times. Harvest can extend over several weeks. Begin picking 1 or 2 weeks after the first blue color appears.
Keep the berries refrigerated at near-freezing temperatures for up to 2 weeks.
Lowbush Blueberry Patch:
Fragaria x ananassa
Perennial Plants, Zones 3-10
Plants grow 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) tall and spread by runners to about 1 foot (30 cm) across.
There are two major types:
June-bearing types: that produce one crop per year in late spring or early summer. Some people feel these are the highest-quality strawberries you can grow.
Ever-bearing and day-neutral kinds: which have almost identical performance in the garden, and have the potential to flower and set fruit over a longer time period. Their harvest peaks in early summer, then continues unevenly until fall.
Fruiting patterns depend upon the variety you choose and temperature. Plants will stop flowering when temperatures rise above 85° F (29° C), so if you live where you have cooler summers you can expect continual fruit, and if you live in a warmer summer climate you will have fruit crops in spring and fall.
Planting season can vary depending upon your area.
In mild-winter areas, set out June-bearing types in late winter or fall for a crop the next spring; in colder climates, plant in early spring, as soon as you can work the soil, for harvest the following year.
Set out ever-bearing types in spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, for summer and fall berries.
Plants usually come from the nursery tightly wrapped in plastic. Store them in the refrigerator or equally cold place until you are ready to plant.
Planting Tip: Although strawberries are self-fruitful, consider planting 2 or more cultivars to spread out the harvest season.
Plant in full sun, and be sure the soil is rich, well-drained, high in organic matter, and acidic, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. Most strawberry varieties don't tolerate alkaline soils.
If you have heavy clay, or soil that drains poorly consider planting in a raised bed, container, or hanging basket.
Try and avoid planting in low-lying areas where spring frosts might damage early flowers, and avoid planting in any soil that recently grew: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, or eggplants, because these plants harbor pests common to strawberries.
Set plants 14 to 18 inches (36 to 46 cm) apart, and in rows 2 to 2-1/2 feet (.61 to.76 m) apart.
Keep the crown of the plant above soil level because a buried crown will rot, and the topmost roots should be about 1/4 inch (.63 cm) below the soil because exposed roots will dry out.
To do this:
1. Make a small cone of soil with your hands, and set the plant on the cone.
2. Fan out the roots over the cone, pull in dirt, pat down firmly, and water to settle the dirt around the roots.
It is very important that the crown of the plant be at or slightly above the soil level, but neither so high that the roots are exposed, nor so low that it is buried.
If the roots are very long and thick, prune them to about 5 inches (13 cm) long before planting. Healthy young roots are brown to cream-colored; black, wiry roots may indicate an old plant.
Mulch around the plants to keep weeds down and help keep soil moist and berries clean.
Planting Tip: Pinch off all flower buds for the first 3 months after planting. This will encourage strong roots and a healthier plant.
Don't let plants dry out, and try not to water from overhead, drip is best, to keep disease problems to a minimum. Plants like consistent moisture during bearing season, but when fruit begins to mature, let the soil dry out a bit between waterings.
Care Tip: Kelp sprays improve fruit set and enhance bud hardiness. Apply 2 or 3 sprays of kelp/compost tea, 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of kelp per gallon (3.8 l) of tea, from when flowers form in the spring until just before full bloom. Liquid kelp is available at any garden or home improvement center.
When fertilizing use a good balance fertilizer like a 15-15-15 or 10-10-10.
Feed June-bearing types twice a year. Once very lightly (use fertilizer at half the recommended rate) when growth begins, and again, more heavily after fruiting.
Feed ever-bearing types with consistent light feedings throughout the growing season.
Avoid heavy feeding of any type of strawberry in the spring because it just leads to excessive foliage growth, soft fruit, and fruit rot.
If you want larger plants with smaller yields of big berries, pinch off runners to help conserve the plant energy into a larger plant, if you want more berries, smaller in size, let the runners grow.
Most June-bearing types do better with yearly pruning, so after harvest, remove some of the top-most foliage.
If plantings have become too dense, remove some of the older plants and leave the younger more vigorous plants. This is best to reduce disease problems, and keep the quality of fruit high.
You can even treat strawberries as annuals, as commercial growers do, and tear plants out and replant the following year in a different location.
A good rule of thumb to follow is to not replant strawberries in the same location until at least 2 years have passed. You will have healthier plants and bigger fruit.
Care Tip: If you plant a new bed at a new location every 2 or 3 years, you will have a new bed of fruit coming into production just as you remove an old bed.
In cold climates, mulch strawberries with 4-6 inch (10 to 13 cm) layer of straw or other light, weed-free, organic material in late fall to protect the crowns from the cold and to prevent plants from heaving.
When temperatures begin to warm in the spring, and when pale new leaves begin to grow beneath the mulch, rake the mulch down between the plants to give them light.
Strawberries are susceptible to many, many diseases, fruit rots, leaf diseases, root diseases, viruses, and pests!
To reduce problems, plant with certified disease-free plants and remove any diseased foliage or rotten fruit as soon as it is noticed.
Care Tip: If you have had problems with gray mold in the past, and if humidity is high or weather is wet, a preventative spray of sulfur helps immensely. Reapply after rains. Sulfur spray is available at any garden or home improvement center and simply apply according to label directions.
Care Tip: If you have had problems with birds, cover strawberries with bird netting.
If you have problems with snails and slugs - read our Definitive Guide to Snail and Slug Control.
Harvest and Storage
Pick strawberries when the fruits are red and separate easily from the stem. Since the fruit rots so easily, store them fresh for up to a week in the refrigerator.
Varieties tend to be regionally adapted, but one type to consider is called a musk strawberry. They are shade tolerant, June-bearing varieties from Italy and have intense aroma and flavor. 'Profumata di Tortona' and 'Capron' are popular.
I know that was quite a lot of information about bush-type berries, but if you really want to grow a particular kind of berry, you have to have some accurate details in order to do it successfully, which is what we are all about here!
Another thing that made this story a bit longer than usual, was simply that there are so many kinds of berries these days, and between all the hybrid crosses and what not, it can make it difficult for the beginning, or even the advanced, gardener to sort out what exactly needs to be done.
I hope you enjoyed the information. I know for a fact that if you want to grow a currant, gooseberry, blueberry, or strawberry, you certainly can now!
Next month we'll be taking a look at how to successfully grow bramble-type berries in Part 2. Until then, enjoy getting ready for berry season!
Hilary Rinaldi is a member of the National Garden Writers Association, a nationally published writer, and a certified organic grower. She regularly speaks and writes about all gardening related topics, with an emphasis on making gardening a successful and enjoyable process for anyone who wants to learn. Weekend Gardener Monthly Web Magazine concentrates of giving detailed gardening tips and gardening advice to all levels of gardeners.
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