For me, summertime conjures up magical childhood memories of climbing trees, catching lightening bugs and playing daylong games of hide-and-seek in the lingering twilight well past 9 at night. I can also vividly remember picking berries, right from the garden or gathering wild berries in the woods.
Berries are not only good — they’re good for you! Berries have tons of vitamin C and anti-oxidants; they are low in calories; and they supply minerals and essential nutrients. Cultivated varieties not only produce heavier crops of fruit, but bear larger, juicier berries that, in my opinion, are more flavorful after freezing, compared to almost any other kind of fruit.
So first things first: the soil.
Good soil equals good berries, my grandmother used to say. Berries have shallow roots and are sensitive to waterlogged soil and fluctuating moisture. You can remedy that by bulking up the organic matter content of your prospective berry patch. Mix materials like compost, peat moss or barn bedding into the top foot of soil with a rototiller, spade or garden fork. Turning over the soil also kills weeds, which are hard to eliminate once your berry beds are established.
Blueberries prefer soil that is in the pH range of 4.5 to 5.5. The pH level is important, so get your soil tested and make the extra effort to correct the pH before you plant. Periodically re-test the soil, and make corrections to maintain the proper acidity over the life of the planting.
Consider putting up a trellis for your blackberries and raspberries; you don’t need to support blueberries. This way the canes grow upright, the plants stay drier, so they are less prone to pests and diseases — and the best bonus, the fruits are easier to reach.
For the simplest trellis, I just string 2 wires between two posts. For end posts, I use 4-by-4s made from cedar or other rot-resistant wood. Sink them into the ground at least 2 feet deep; brace the end posts to keep them upright, and add middle posts since the rows span more than 30 feet.
Select a sunny spot with at least 6 hours of sun each day. Preferably pick a place that is gently sloped so cold air can drain away. Dig a hole about 14 inches wide and as deep as the nursery container, about 7 inches. Enrich the hole with a 50/50 mix of organic matter and the soil from the hole. Next, place the plant in the hole and fill in with the remaining soil mixture. Apply an organic fertilizer according to manufacturer’s directions; I use Jobe’s Organic Fertilizer for Fruit and Citrus. Cover with 4 inches of mulch. Keep consistently watered, at least 1 to 2 inches per week. The blueberries will produce the first year, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any raspberries or blackberries in the first year, it usually takes them 2 years to produce fruit.
Once the fruits are ready to harvest — if you can beat the birds to them — they should be picked every 2 to 4 days. Collect them in the early morning, they’ll store longer. Berries will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.
Blueberries: you don’t have to prune blueberries for the first 2 to 3 years. You may want to remove blooms to encourage vigorous growth. After the plants become established, prune in late winter. Remove dead, weak and crossing branches and thin out older branches to force new growth. Keep the plant center open to sunlight.
Blackberries: blackberries are one of the most carefree berries you can grow. Once you have harvested blackberries from a cane, it is important to cut it back because it will not fruit again. First-year stems have green canes and second-year stems have a thin brown bark. You need to know the difference to prune correctly. Pruning will direct the plant’s energy toward new growth, which will bring you berries next year.
Raspberries: like blackberries, raspberry roots are perennial, but the canes only live for two years. Raspberry plants can be divided into two categories based on the season in which they produce fruit. Fall-bearing varieties produce fruit in the summer as well as the fall, while summer-bearing varieties only produce fruit in the summer.
For the summer-bearing raspberries, remove the spent canes during the summer, at ground level, after harvest to prevent build-up of disease and to provide more space for new canes to grow.
For the fall-bearing raspberries, during the summer, after harvest, remove the spent cane at ground level. During late winter, remove all weak, diseased and damaged canes at ground level and leave only vigorous canes. Remove the upper portion of the cane that had fruit in the fall.
Pests: some of the pests that can affect berries are: nematodes; root weevils; aphids; fruit worms; and crown borers. A few diseases you may encounter are fruit rot, root rot and spur blight. Keep your plants pruned so air circulation is at a maximum, and try not to water from overhead or overwater berry plants.
Berry Growing Tips
Here are a few tips that will help you have a “berry good time” in no time.
Berries are insect pollinated so attracting many different kinds of bees and other pollinators is important. Berry flowers vary in size and shape, so different species of pollinators are better at pollinating the various flowers.
Cross-pollination is required for some blueberry varieties, and it is recommended for all varieties. To ensure good pollination, plant at least two different varieties that bloom at the same time.
Many people don’t realize this, but a huge plus about blueberry plants is that they make excellent hedges. In order to form a solid hedge or screen, you should plant them with only 2½ to 3 inches apart from the next plant.
Store berries — short term — in the refrigerator. To freeze, spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place them in the freezer for about an hour then pack into plastic freezer containers.
In areas that experience cold winters, simply place the canes on the ground and cover with a heavy layer of mulch. This will be sufficient cold-weather protection. In the early spring, before new growth emerges, lift the canes and reattach them to your support.
Once your bumper crops of berries come in, try these recipes for family treats or to give to a friend.
No Guilt Berry Muffins
- 1 cup soy flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons wheat or oat bran plus 1 tablespoon soy flour mixed together
- 1 cup berries (blackberry, blueberry or raspberry)
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ½ cup sugar
- ⅓ cup sparkling water • 2 eggs
- Vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rub a six-cup muffin tin with vegetable oil. Evenly sprinkle the pan with the wheat bran and soy flour mix, being careful to coat the sides of the cups also — this will prevent sticking.
In a bowl, mix all the remaining ingredients, except the berries, until well blended. Then fold in the berries, and fill the six muffins cups evenly with the batter. Place on the center rack of the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the tops turn golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool before serving. Makes six muffins.
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ teaspoon butter
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 4 cups black berries
Place all the ingredients in a heavy-bottom, non-aluminum saucepan. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes to draw the juices. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for about 30. Skim the froth off the top, and stir frequently to prevent sticking.
After about 30 minutes, test the consistency by doing a spoon test: dip a spoon chilled in the freezer into the preserves. This will cool the preserves so you can see how it will hold up when cold. If it’s still too runny, continue to cook a little longer.
Pour hot preserves into sterile pint-sized glass jars. Screw on lids, and process in a hot water bath.