This week I’ll be discussing in more detail about how to design where berry bushes should live in your garden, how to go about purchasing them, general maintenance, and finally how to manage your harvest. Hopefully you’ll feel encouraged to try your hand at growing some this year and be rewarded with a berry large harvest.
Placing berries in the garden
Most berries are canes or shrubs and range from about 5-10 feet in height, so they occupy the herbaceous layer in the garden. Unlike fruit trees, berries can still produce quite well in shade (aside from sea buckthorn), so you can consider putting berries in natural beds as an understory to larger trees or in north-facing gardens that tend to get more shade.
Remember that berries are perennials so they’ll occupy a permanent location in your beds.
At about 5-10ft in height and a 5ft diameter spread at full maturity, you’ll need to leave some space between bushes, ideally planting some other pollinator attracting plants in between for diversity.
Also consider that some berries like blackberries and gooseberries have thorny branches, so if you don’t want to worry about thorns choose thornless berry varieties and make sure that any thorny berries you have are not interfering with garden access when deciding on their location.
Strawberries are a great ground cover that you can use as a living mulch to protect the soil in your garden from erosion and the summer sun. They have shallow root systems and only grow about 1 ft. tall, so you can grow them in the same space as your larger berry bushes.
Just make sure that you prune your bushes enough to allow light to filter through to the strawberry plants otherwise your strawberries won’t be as sweet.
Where to get berry plants
It’s usually best to buy berry plants or rootstock instead of growing from seed. Although you can grow strawberries from seed, it takes a few months for them to establish themselves. Unless you feel very confident in your seed starting skills it’s usually not worth the effort to grow from seed when you can get a bunch of 25 strawberry plants for around $12-$15 a bunch.
You can calculate how many plants you’ll need to purchase based off how much yield you need to feed your family. For example, if you wanted to feed 2lb of blueberries per family member for a family of four, you’d need 2 fully mature blueberry plants (producing 5lb each). One thing to also consider is how long a berry plant takes to reach full maturity. Below I’ve included a table with the average time to reach peak maturity, average cost and maximum yield per plant.
Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries/blackberries are very easy plants to find online but some of the other berries I’ve listed as being good for backyard harvest are bit harder to come by. I’ve listed a few reputable organic nursery sources below, although the list is by no means exhaustive.
Purchase Berry Plants Online
The best time to transfer these plants into your garden is in the early spring right after the last frost to give them plenty of time to establish themselves. Most berries will be shipped as bareroot, meaning that their roots are exposed and dormant. It’s important to cover the roots with soil as soon as you receive your plant shipment to make sure the roots don’t wither or dry out while in dormancy.
Taking Care of your Berry Plants
Berries typically prefer very slight acidic soil, although I’ve found that if you have healthy organic soil you shouldn’t have a problem with any of these berries producing.
The only berries that really prefer acidic conditions are blueberries. If your soil is not acidic, you can add peat moss or pine needle mulch as an amendment to the soil. Once your berry plants are established, there isn’t much maintenance that you’ll need to perform except for light pruning.
Shrubbing berries should largely be pruned in order to allow sunlight to reach all the fruit. Also branches that cross each other should also be thinned. Caning berries can be more aggressively trained, for example into a fence.
Berries will generally change color to indicate that they are fully ripe. I’ve copied the table from part I that indicates the expected month of harvest for each berry type. The biggest challenge in growing berries is usually keeping the birds and small mammals from cleaning out your berries before you enjoy them. Especially because it seems like animals are less picky about the fruits reaching peak ripeness. So how do we deal with our “friendly” neighbors?
I’ve found probably the best deterrent is a light fabric mesh placed over the berries similar to what you’ll see in supermarkets used for carrying bags of citrus or avocados. In fact, I normally save those bags and repurpose them in the garden to protect my berries. I would recommend observing when animals tend to descend on your berries and place the protective fabric mesh a few days before hand to make sure you have a decent harvest.
Nicky places netting over blueberries
Strawberries can also suffer from perfectly placed slug attacks (imagine getting ready to pick that perfectly red strawberry only to find the tip and insides have been hollowed out).
Slugs have soft underbellies, so placing fine materials with sharp edges will usually slow them down. You can purchase diatomaceous earth to do this, but I’ve found the easiest and cheapest method is using egg shells. Simply let the shells dry out so it’s easier to grind them into fine powder. Then sprinkle the eggshells around your strawberry plants.
Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble
(adapted from Bon Appetit)
Combine flour, 2/3 cup sugar, and salt in medium bowl; whisk to blend. Add butter. Rub in with fingertips until mixture sticks together in clumps. Mix in oats.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter 11x7x2-inch glass baking dish. Place 1/2 cup sugar in large bowl. Add vanilla extract and mix well. Add strawberries and rhubarb to sugar in bowl; toss to coat. Scrape fruit filling into prepared baking dish evenly.
Sprinkle oat topping evenly over filling.
Bake crumble until filling bubbles thickly and topping is crisp, about 45 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes. Spoon warm crumble into bowls. Serve with ice cream.
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