By P. Allen Smith
o my delight, growing your own food has become increasingly popular in recent years. More and more backyard gardens are springing to life as the trend grows, and my research shows berry plants are one of the top selections.
Fortunately, berries are easy to grow and don’t require much space. With a little know-how and careful preparation, you can dine on raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries throughout the growing season. The first step is to know your growing zone, and then you can begin shopping.
Here are a few helpful hints I’ve learned over the years before you get started:
Blueberry shrubs are easy to grow, and there’s a type suitable for nearly every climate or garden space. In fact, you don’t necessarily need a garden because you can select dwarf varieties that will thrive in containers. However, when choosing a blueberry shrub for your garden there are a few characteristics to consider. Some blueberries require a companion blueberry plant of a different variety for pollination in order to produce berries. Other blueberries are self-pollinating, so one shrub alone will produce a good amount of berries.
Blueberries require a certain amount of “chilling time” to produce fruits. Northern Highbush, Half-High and Lowbush blueberries are best suited for climates where winters are long and cold. Rabbiteye blueberries hail from southeastern states, so will thrive in zones 7-9. Southern Highbush blueberries need even less chilling time and will thrive as far south as zone 10.
Raspberries are sweet, flavorful and a welcome addition to the garden. First, there are two types to consider – ever bearing and summer bearing.
Everbearing raspberries produce from early summer into fall on first and second year canes. The summer bearing types bear fruit on first-year canes once during the growing season. Aside from fruit production, raspberry pruning techniques vary on the two types as well. So, keep that in mind when selecting the varieties or when you’re ready to prune.
Next take a look at the varieties that will perform best in your part of the world. For my mid-south location outside of Little Rock, I grow Heritage and ‘Dorman Red.’ But, a few other reliable selections are’ Encore’ and ‘Latham Red.’ Check with your local county extension service or a trusted garden center before you go all in. Next, confirm the age of the plant you will purchase. I like to start with two-year-old bare root plants and plant them in very early spring.
The most common backyard berry for good reason – it’s often the most productive. During its relatively short growing season, a strawberry plant can produce a rewarding amount of fruit and, as such, offers a sense of satisfaction for beginning growers. I would recommend Bonnie Plants ‘Allstar’ strawberry. The name says it all. It’s a June-bearing plant that yields large, juicy, sweet berries that you could enjoy immediately in a lemonade or shortcake, as well as freeze – for those who want to enjoy a taste of summer in the throes of winter. These plants love rich soil with lots of compost, leaf mold and well-rotted manure, as well as fertilizer, of course. Keep the soil loose and make sure they get plenty of sun!
I think a large part of the Southern experience is picking wild blackberries on the side of the road. However, the ‘domesticated’ varieties of this fruit will provide sweeter yields and bigger fruits. Plus, the thornless varieties can make harvesting a little less painful. As roadside blackberry patches have shown, this plant likes to spread! In your yard, it can grow on a trellis or in a garden bed with a few feet in between. The fruit-producing canes should be pruned during the season, which will encourage new growth.
Though berries may take some trial and error before you get comfortable, they can be highly rewarding. Try planting one of each to see how it goes. It’s a learning experience the first time around. And if you are disappointed the first year, don’t be discouraged! These plants will return next year and offer more berries for your morning cereal or snacks. So, keep at it! If you’re interested in learning more about planting fruits and vegetables, why not take a tour of Moss Mountain Farm in Little Rock?