Whether you want to save a little money on your grocery bill this summer or you’d like to broaden your gardening horizons, growing berries in your own backyard can be a wonderful pastime that saves you money and brings delicious homegrown fruits to your family’s dinner table. Fruit gardening – specifically growing your own berries, such as raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and more – can be fun, rewarding, and more than likely, easier than you would expect.
Stella Otto, author of The Backyard Berry Book: A hands-on guide to growing berries, brambles, and vine fruit in the home garden, offers professional tips and tricks to help you grow your own berries in your home garden. She shares fruit gardening tips for berries of all kinds – raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, currants, gooseberries, grapes, and hardy kiwifruit. Whether you are a beginner at gardening or a longtime gardening pro, consider Stella Otto’s tips and tricks and get started growing your own berries in your home garden.
Q. Life Love Beauty – What kinds of berries are best for beginners who want to grow their own fruit?
A. Stella Otto – All of the traditional berries are quite easy to grow in the backyard garden. Brambles, that is raspberries and blackberries, seem to be some of the most popular and easiest to start with. Currants and gooseberries are also very trouble free. These are great choices because they are either quite expensive or not even available in the grocery store. Strawberries are also good because they are quick to come in bearing and so much sweeter from the backyard garden.
Q. Life Love Beauty – What kind of soil do these berries need, and what can you do if your soil is less than optimal?
A. Stella Otto – A fertile, well-drained, sandy loam soil is ideal. Soil should be tested for pH (acidity or alkalinity) with a range around neutral, from 6.5 to 7.0, preferred by most berries. The exception is blueberries and lingonberries, which prefer a more acidic soil in the 4.5 to 5.0 range.
For less than ideal soil – heavy clay or dry sandy types – adding organic matter or compost will eventually help improve the soil drainage or moisture holding capacity. Realize this is an ongoing process not a one-time instant fix. Planting in raised bed can sometimes be a quicker solution if the soil in the beds is well amended.
Q. Life Love Beauty – How much sunlight do the various kinds of berries need?
A. Stella Otto – Most berries require at least 6 hours of sunlight as a daily average to set fruit buds and ripen the fruit. In hot southern climates, some fruit – brambles, grapes, and kiwifruit may need protection from excessively strong afternoon sun. Planting on the east side of a building or in the shade of a large tree can accomplish this. Currants and gooseberries may drop their fruit if temperatures regularly exceed 90 degrees. Consequently, they do not grow well in the Deep South.
Q. Life Love Beauty – Where is the ideal location to grow Raspberries, Strawberries, Blueberries, Blackberries, etc.? (Along a fence, next to a shed, in a garden bed, in a barrel or container, etc.)
A. Stella Otto – Any of these locations will work equally well. The important factors are to see that the soil fertility and drainage are appropriate, they receive adequate sunlight and water, and that they do not have heavy competition from weeds. For convenience, you may also need to consider how easy it is to tend the fruit if it is grown on a supporting trellis as you would grapes, kiwifruit and some brambles. Also, remember that containers will dry out more quickly than a garden bed and water accordingly.
Q. Life Love Beauty – How much water do the various kinds of berries require?
A. Stella Otto - The rule of thumb is one inch of water per week. It doesn’t matter whether this comes from rain, irrigation, or a combination of the two. Consistent moisture yields the best quality berries. Trickle irrigation is easy, effective, and water saving. It also helps reduce spread of diseases since it does not wet the foliage or fruit.
Q. Life Love Beauty – Can you provide any other tips for beginners who want to grow their own berries?
A. Stella Otto – One of the most important aspects of growing a bountiful harvest is making sure your planting area is well prepared before planting. It is especially critical that it is weed free. If you have not gardened before, start small. You will be happier with a luscious harvest of berries you have time to care for than struggling with a large overly ambitious project. Get to know the needs of one or two of your favorite fruit the first season and then add more types or varieties as you gain experience.
Q. Life Love Beauty – How long is the harvesting season for each kind of berry?
A. Stella Otto – Most berries have roughly a month long harvest season, although you can stretch this a week or two in many cases by planting several varieties of the same fruit; an early, a mid-season, and a late maturing variety. Of course, if you are growing several kinds of berries, you’ll have something ripening for most of the summer – starting with strawberries, then blueberries, currants, raspberries, blackberries, and grapes – into the fall, depending on what you’re growing.
Q. Life Love Beauty – Do berries need any special care tips, such as pruning or fertilizing?
A. Stella Otto - Each berry has its own cultural needs. All of them will need some fertilizer or compost annually. Don’t over-do the nitrogen fertilizer though or you will have vigorous leafy plants that don’t produce as much fruit. Except for strawberries, most should receive fertilizer in the early spring. Strawberries should be fertilized when beds are renovated after harvest is over. Bush and vine fruit should be pruned annually, usually in late winter or early spring. Brambles should have “spent” fruiting canes removed after harvest as well as having excess new canes thinned out.
Q. Life Love Beauty – Is there any effective way to keep the birds and animals from eating all your homegrown berries?
A. Stella Otto – Protecting plants with netting as fruit is close to ripening is probably the most effective. “Scare eyes” sold in nursery catalogs can be effective in some cases, but will not deter robins or starlings. Unfortunately birds can be a nemesis. Sometimes it’s easiest to just plant a bit of excess and expect to have to “share.” In some areas deer browsing on plants can be a problem. Flicker tape, hanging scented perfumed soap or fencing may keep them away. A family dog that patrols the garden has been most effective, where this is possible.
Q. Life Love Beauty – Where is the best place to get your starter berry bush?
A. Stella Otto - I prefer to get mine from mail order nurseries that specialize in fruit. They offer the widest selection and usually have varieties to suit many different growing locations and conditions. Their staff is also typically best educated to make good recommendations if you are not sure what would do well for you.
Q. Life Love Beauty – Can you grow berries from seed?
A. Stella Otto - Most berries are grown by cloning or division. This insures that they will be true to their variety type. Cloned plants also have less time between propagation and fruit production. One exception is alpine strawberries. They can be grown from seed much like one would grow vegetables such as lettuce or carrots.
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