Gardening Basics

Fresh Berries

Taste your own home-grown berries, and you'll want to grow more.

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Working in Mom's super-sized vegetable garden was one of my chores when I was a kid. Hoeing lima beans wasn't my idea of a good time, but what probably had more influence in turning me into a gardener was being sent around to the back of the barn to pick raspberries.

The bushes were planted against a barbed-wire fence, about halfway up an east-facing slope. That they were located comfortably close to a natural source of aged manure didn't hurt. On an August morning in my 10th year, the taste — and texture — of those sun-ripened berries left memories on my tongue that would last a lifetime.

The quest for fresh berries usually has to start with going to a pick-your-own berry farm or growing them yourself. Even the pickings of the trendiest market in town, full of raspberries in both yellow and red, can't match the taste. And the same is true for all the other berries that nature meant for you to pick and eat fresh, right in your own backyard.

Each of these berries requires something a little different in the way of culture, soil, moisture and temperature. No matter which suits your climate and conditions best, find a little room in your garden — and your heart — for these fresh berries. Giving a berry the particular kind of care it needs--the right kind of soil, adequate water and full sun--usually means it will ripen to its best flavor. Consult with your local extension agent or trusted nurseryman to find the best-tasting cultivars for your area.

Raspberries

Raspberries are a cold-hardy plant that, depending on variety, can over-winter in Zone 3. Raspberries have perennial crowns and biennial canes. They bear fruit on second-year wood, and after harvest, the canes die. You can either remove the fruited canes in the fall or wait till early the next spring.

Ever-bearing types bear fruit on first-year wood. Cut all the canes down in the early spring for an excellent fall crop. Selectively pruning so that you leave some canes from the previous year standing will get you both a summer and a fall crop, but the summer crop will be light and not as tasty, and the fall crop won't be as heavy.

Raspberries prefer a soil pH of 5.6 to 6.5, so you'll need to do a soil test to figure out how much elemental sulfur (or limestone) you need to add to bring the pH down (or up). Don't plant where tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or eggplants have been grown. Work organic matter into the top four to six inches of soil. Apply three pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer for every 100 square feet of planting area, mix in, and let sit for a couple of weeks or so. Plant about three feet apart. Keep weeds away by hoeing lightly (careful — the roots are very shallow).

You'll need to provide a trellis for raspberries because the canes flop. The easiest device is a T-post at each end of a planting row, with a wire strung between each end of the Ts. If the wires are about 18 inches apart, that's plenty of room for the canes to be accommodated in a vertical position. You'll be keeping the fruit off the ground and increasing air circulation to the plant to help it stay disease-free. Get more info on staking.

Make sure you get your plants from a reliable nursery; ideally, ask for certified disease-free plants. Raspberry plants can be disease-prone, and you definitely don't want to bring any of that home.

Although raspberries are tough, hardy, and productive in all kinds of climes, a particular variety may be none of those things in your climate. They vary greatly in terms of heat and cold tolerance, and you also want one whose growing season matches yours. Check with your local extension agent for the best varieties for your area.

Blueberries. Think of these plants not only as food producers but as ornamentals. In the spring, the clusters of white flowers turn these plants into things of beauty.

The biggest limiting factor on where blueberries can be grown is soil pH. They want it acid — 4.0 to 5.5, to be exact. If you can grow azaleas, rhododendrons or camellias, you probably won't have too much trouble with blueberries. Just dig a hole, mix the soil you've removed half-in-half with acid peat moss or acid compost, and you'll probably be set. The only way you'll know for sure, though, is to first do a soil pH test, a test that's absolutely mandatory if you know your soil isn't already quite acid. Soil test results from your local extension service will include instructions on how much additive — elemental sulfur or TK — you'll have to add to lower the pH. The best thing to do is treat the soil about six months to a year before you plant the blueberries.

Soil pH isn't something you can cheat on--blueberries won't let you. If the soil is above 5.5 or so, their leaves will start turning yellow between the veins. Left too long in a soil like that and they'll die.

Besides soil acidity, blueberries also want a lot of organic matter and excellent drainage. If your soil is likely to have standing water within 18 inches of the surface, either build up the bed or choose another location.

Once the plants are in the ground, a three-inch layer of pine bark mulch will help keep providing the acidity and organic matter that blueberries demand. Blueberries are extremely sensitive to being over-fertilized; the best approach is sparing application of an acid fertilizer that's labelled for use on azaleas and rhododendrons.

Cut off the canes after planting so that the top growth more or less matches the amount of root mass. For the first year, pick off the flowers so no fruit is set. That first year is essential to getting the plants established. (Some experts recommend pinching off the flowers for the first two years. If you just can't wait that long, add a bush or two to be reckless with, letting it set fruit as it wants.)

Blueberries bear fruit on canes that have overwintered. Note: Even when a berry is supposed to be self-pollinating, the plant produces more and better fruit if you also grow another cultivar that flowers at about the same time.

Blackberries. Don't let the thorny thickets of wild blackberries dissuade you from growing blackberries. Cultivated blackberries can be much better managed and can even be thornless, if you want. You can choose between thornless, which have trailing branches, or erect types, which are mostly thorny. If your winter temperatures dip below 0 degrees F, your only option is erect blackberries.

Blackberries need about the same type of soil as raspberries — moist, well-drained conditions with a pH of 5.8 to 6.5. As with the other berries, don't plant in an area where tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants or peppers have grown.

Note: If you choose a thornless variety, pruning and harvesting are painless, but you'll need to provide a trellis for the trailing canes.

Strawberries

Plant in the spring as soon as the soil is dry enough to work. (Raised beds are a good option.) Strawberries want their soil around 5.8 to 6.2. Don't plant where potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes or peppers have been grown. Also, don't plant in an area that has freshly turned-over sod. Plant about 18 inches apart in rows that are about four feet apart, and let the runners fill in the row, keeping the width of a planted row to about two feet.

The biggest problem you'll have with strawberries is weed control. Besides hand-pulling the weeds that pop up in a row, most gardeners find it easiest to just run a tiller down the middle of the rows, tilling in any runners and weeds that have popped up in the middle.

Choose varieties that are suitable to your area and select those that are resistant to verticillium root rots and other diseases that plague strawberries.

The first year of planting, it's best to pick off flowers and not allow fruit set so the plants can become established. For instant crops the same year, you can plant day-neutral strawberries, which keep bearing all summer and into the fall. With fruit that's far better than the old ever-bearing types, day-neutral strawberries can give you a relatively fast harvest. The downside: because their quality declines in successive years, most people treat them as annuals.

More on strawberries

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