Growing Berries in Your Back Yard

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Grow-it-yourself strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and grapes are better tasting, more healthful (no pesticide residues), and more economical than their store-bought counterparts. Not only that, but berry plants are easy to grow! 

Crisp salad greens, luscious ripe tomatoes, and tender,
juice-filled melons are all satisfying in their own way and
no garden should be without them. For me, though, the
ultimate taste thrill is provided by the berry fruits … fresh picked strawberries, raspberries, blackberries,
blueberries, and grapes in particular. I value these crops
so highly that I make special forays into the back country
each summer to go after the wild ones … even though I
grow large quantities of the same delightful delicacies in
my own garden!

Below, I’d like to share with you a few thoughts and
suggestions on backyard berry production, in the hope that
I can convince you to begin growing strawberries and grapes
and bramble fruits yourself.

Strawberries: the Most Productive Berry of Them All 

Strawberries — because they produce a large amount of
fruit in a relatively small area — are among the most
productive (and most rewarding) of all berry fruits. If
you’ve never grown your own, now’s the time to start.

You can plant strawberries in spring, summer, or fall. Fall
is probably the best time of all, since plants put in the
ground then will develop strong root systems during the
cool autumn months and break out into vigorous, bushy
growth the following spring. The trouble with
spring planting is that you have to disbud the
young plants as flowers form and pinch back runners to
ensure vigorous growth (and worthwhile yields of fruit) the
following season. (This procedure isn’t necessary in the
case of fall-planted strawberries.)

When choosing strawberry varieties from a catalog or at a
garden store, don’t be fooled into buying so-called
“everbearing” varieties … stick with the June-bearing
types every time. Breeders have spent a lot of time and
effort trying to improve everbearing strawberries, but the
sad fact is that there still isn’t an everbearer on the
market that’ll give worthwhile yields. (Standard varieties
crop all in one two-or three-week period, but — even
so — they out-bear the everbearers easily.)

In order to enjoy a longer cropping season, it’s a good
idea to plant at least two varieties (one early, one late)
of this delicious fruit. Your agricultural extension
service (check the county listing in the White Pages) can
provide you with a list of recommended varieties for your
locality. In my experience — and I’ve grown and
inspected many different crops — the following
varieties can nearly always be counted on:

  • Fairfax — an early ripener — produces
    extremely soft, dark red berries that — although
    unsuitable for freezing — are superb when it comes to
    fresh-off-the-runner eating.
  • Guardian is a newly developed midseason variety
    that offers unusually good disease resistance and yields
    large, tasty, bright red berries.
  • Premier (early), Midway (mid-season), and
    Sparkle (late) are other widely available varieties and
    they produce large crops of delicious berries that are
    suitable for freezing.

One unusual domesticated variety that closely matches the
wild strawberry in appearance and flavor is the alpine
strawberry, Baron Solemacher. Baron Solemacher
plants cover themselves with beautiful white flowers, and
because this variety is so decorative, you’ll often find it
listed in the flower — not the fruit — section of
seed catalogs. And, since it doesn’t set runners, this
alpine strawberry must be grown from seed that is started
indoors ten weeks ahead of outdoor planting time. The seed
is tiny (and germination sometimes erratic) but a fine crop
of berries — fully twice the size of wild
strawberries — can be grown the first year. Just
remember that the seed requires light to
germinate:
Press the tiny grains into the soil’s
surface and keep the area moist and well lit.

I’ve seen many ingenious ways to grow strawberries
(including the “strawberry barrel”), but the easiest method
I know is one in which plants are simply grown all over the
top of a low mound of compost-enriched soil in an odd
corner of the garden. (Having grown strawberries in
regimental straight lines for many years — and having
worked hard to keep those lines straight — I was
delighted to discover the “mound method,” which is so
productive and yet so easy on the back!)

Regardless of how you arrange your plants, remember that
strawberries love soils that are loaded with organic
matter. Well-rotted manure, garden compost, and leaf mold
are all highly beneficial to the berries, even if you also
feed them with a general-purpose fertilizer.

Remember, too, not to set your plants too deeply, and try not to allow weeds to invade your strawberry
patch. (It helps to keep the soil around the plants loose
and open, and to apply a mulch.) Also, make sure your
plants get plenty of sun.

Properly cared for, your strawberry mound (or barrel, as
the case may be) should supply you with juicy, tart,
vitamin-C-rich fruit for three or four years, or longer.

Backyard Raspberries

Raspberries come in several colors — red, black,
purple, and yellow — but of the four main types, the
red raspberry commands my loyalty for its tangy, fruity
flavor and its productiveness. (Note: I don’t know why,
especially since yellow and red raspberries seem
compatible, but black and red varieties don’t grow well in
each other’s presence.)

When selecting raspberries from nurseries and catalogs,
you’ll find some described as “summer-bearing,” others
listed as “fall-bearing,” and still others called
“everbearing.” The term “everbearing,” however, is a little
misleading when applied to raspberries, since it’s used to
describe a plant that crops at two distinct times: once in
early summer, and again in the fall. Of the new
everbearers, a variety known as Heritage is
particularly noteworthy for its ability to produce a
moderate crop of large, red berries on old canes in the
summer, then a heavier yield on new canes in the fall.

As with all types of “bramble fruit,” raspberries are best
planted in the fall. When you receive your rootstocks from
the nursery, set them in fertile earth that’s been
enriched with garden compost, leaf mold, or well-rotted
manure, and keep the soil thoroughly cultivated for the
first few months after the planting.

You’ll find that raspberries produce many “suckers” (that
is, new canes arising from the base of the parent plant). A
certain number of these are necessary for the plant’s
proper development, but for maximum yields it’s
advisable — every fall, after the cropping season has
ended — to prune all but six or eight canes (per plant)
to within an inch of the soil line. (Those canes that you
do leave should be trimmed back to 30 inches in height.)

Blackberries: Better “Tamed” than Wild

Because wild blackberries are so abundant, many gardeners
pass up the opportunity to raise the domesticated kinds … which is a pity, since “tamed” blackberry plants offer so
many advantages over their wild counterparts. Cultivated
varieties not only produce heavier crops of fruit, but bear
larger, juicier berries … berries that — in my
judgment — retain more flavor after freezing than
almost any other kind of fruit. With the advent of
thornless blackberry plants and dwarf varieties (such as
Darrow) that require much less care than full-size
varieties, there’s no longer any excuse for not raising
blackberries in your back yard!

Blackberries will thrive in many types of soil, but do best
in moderately light loam to which humus has been added. (A
slightly acid soil — about pH 6.0 — is desirable.)
If the plants are to be trained to a trellis, set them six
feet apart … otherwise, give them three- to four-foot
spacing.

When the canes reach a height of three or four feet, their
tops should be clipped to encourage the appearance of
“laterals,” or side branches. Then — each fall, after
harvest — the canes that bore fruit that year should be
cut off at ground level and new canes (no more than ten per
plant) allowed to develop. When the new canes reach three
feet in height, they — in turn — can be clipped to
encourage the production of laterals. (And, after
these shoots have borne fruit, they should be cut
off at ground level, and so on.)

Loganberries and Boysenberries

Both of these bramble fruits are blackberry hybrids, which
accounts not only for their blackberry-like flavor but for
the fact that their cultural requirements are the same as
the blackberry’s. (As with all cane fruits, it’s a good
idea to apply plenty of compost to loganberry and
boysenberry plantings each year between spring and fall.
For maximum productivity, you also may wish to rake a
general-purpose commercial fertilizer into the surface of
the earth around the canes in early spring. And as always,
keep the berry patch’s soil weed-free.)

A Few Words About Blueberries

Most berries do better when they’re “companion planted”
with others of their own kind. This is especially
true — however — of blueberries, which are largely
self-sterile. In other words, to ensure high productivity
it’s essential that you plant more than one variety of
blueberry. (Currently, the three most popular varieties are
Earliblue, Bluecrop , and Coville , which
are — respectively — early-, mid-season-, and
late-cropping.)

It’s also important to bear in mind that blueberries
require a highly acid soil (pH 4 to 5). If the dirt in your
garden is neutral or alkaline, plan on working a good
quantity of pine needles, acid peat, wood chips, and/or
other acidic materials into the ground six months to a year
before you set out your blueberries.

At the time of planting (which is to say late fall in
California, late winter in warm southern areas, and early
spring elsewhere), the uppermost “twiggy” branches of each
blueberry bush should be pruned back (this will encourage
its roots to develop more rapidly). Pruning will be needed
again after about three years of growth as the plants
become densely thicketed with twigs and side branches.
(Simply cut away all small branches in the lower region of
the bush and clip off a number of side branches from the
main growing stems to “open up” the plant and let it
breathe.) After this third-year pruning, thin your
blueberry bushes of unneeded woody growth on a yearly basis. This heavy pruning will stimulate new growth
and encourage the early formation of larger-than-normal
berries.

As you’ve probably guessed, blueberries — because of
their bushy, shrub-like growth habit — make excellent
hedges.

Grapes for the Home Garden

Because there are so many varieties of grapes (well over a
hundred altogether) — each one of which is adapted to a
given climate and type of soil — it’s virtually
impossible for me to recommend any one or two or three
varieties in particular as being “right” for everyone.
(Especially since the varieties that are best for eating
are usually unsuitable for winemaking, and vice versa.)

My own personal favorite for eating purposes is a white
grape called Cayuga. The rootstocks of this variety give
rise to exceedingly productive vines that bear large,
thickly set bunches of grapes … grapes that are
indescribably sweet. For purple grapes, it’s hard
to beat the tried-and-true Concord. (My all-time favorite
grape product, in fact, is a pie made from the dusky,
blackishblue fruits of this variety.)

There are almost as many ways to plant and train grapes as
there are apples in the state of Washington, and each
method has its advantages and drawbacks. The
easiest way I know to get the job done, however,
is the Kniffin four-cane system, which goes as follows:

  1. First, work plenty of organic matter (compost, rotted
    manure, or what have you) into the soil. 
  2. Then drive sturdy
    poles into the ground about twenty feet apart and run No. 9
    or No. 10 gauge galvanized wire between them so that one wire is six feet and a second is
    approximately three feet above the ground. 
  3. Plant rootstocks
    eight feet apart along the length of this “fence.”
  4. As large side shoots begin to grow, prune away all but two
    branches from each trunk and train these two “arms” along
    the lowest-to-the-ground wire in opposite directions. Then — at the end of the first season (i.e., in
    late fall) — prune the arms of the old vines and allow
    a second pair of main branches to develop over the first
    pair. Thereafter, prune the vines severely back to the four
    main arms each fall.

You can expect a good crop of grapes the second season
after planting … and every year after that for at least
a generation.

Other Berries

So far, I haven’t even begun to talk about some of the
other, more “exotic” domesticated berries — such as
lingon-berries, currants, gooseberries, etc. — that
home gardeners can (and should) grow in their back yards.
Nor have I (for space reasons) talked about the joys of
foraging wild berries … although — as I mentioned
earlier — I’m so hooked on these fruits that I find it
necessary to both grow and forage them.

I don’t know which is more pleasurable … harvesting
nature’s bounty from the wild, or cultivating your own
berries and grapes. I do know this though: Enjoying the
best of both worlds is certainly a satisfying — and
healthful — way to live … one I wholeheartedly
recommend.

For More Information:

Sooner or later, you’re bound to need more berry-growing
know-how than one magazine article (and a few seed
catalogs) can give you … in which case you’ll want to
consult one or more of the following excellent books:

  • The Complete Guide to Growing Berries and
    Grapes
    by Louise Riotte (Garden Way,1975).144 pages. 
  • Growing Berries and Grapes at Home by J. Harold
    Clarke (Dover, 1976). 372 pages. 
  • How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the
    Organic 
    Method edited by J.I. Rodale and
    Staff (Rodale Press, 1976). 926 pages. 
  • Strawberries: King of the Fruits by M. E.
    Boylan (Apex-Health, 1974). 95 pages.