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Growing Berries

growing berriesEveryone loves growing an edible landscape. One of the backbones of an organic garden is small fruits, such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. These fruits have been family favorites for hundreds of years, and are just as good fresh from the garden as they are preserved in jams or baked into pies and cobblers. Adding berries to your backyard will be one of the best investments of your time, as most berry crops can be expected to produce fruit for five to ten years or even longer.

Berries have also been used medicinally in many cultures for centuries.

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Start Growing Berries

All types of berries will have specific needs depending upon which particular type of crop you are planting. A few common similarities are that almost all berry plants throw out runners, or roots that grow horizontally out from the main plant to produce the next generation of plants.
Because of this, we like to recommend that berries are planted in raised beds, which can help not just with containing your crop to a designated area, but also with soil drainage.

Additionally, many berry types such as raspberries and blackberries grow upwards, requiring the support of a trellis to maintain their height.

When and Where Should You Grow Berry Bushes?

Most berries will grow best in an area with well-drained soil that receives plenty of sun. Of course, some varieties of berries have more specific requirements than others.

growing strawberriesStrawberries

Strawberries are one of these. When compared to blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, strawberries are short-lived crops. The “mother” plant will only survive a few years before it dies. However, it does produce several “daughter” plants in this time. The trick is to maintain a balance between mother and daughter plants in your strawberry bed to avoid overcrowding and to ensure your crop continues fruit production year after year.

Raised beds are recommended for strawberry planting, as these crops require good drainage, and the edges of the bed will help contain your strawberry roots.

Additionally, you’ll want to consider the type of strawberry you are planting. Strawberries come in three main varieties:

  • Summer-bearing (or “June-bearing”): These bear all of their fruit in one very large crop in early summer.
  • Everbearing: These produce two smaller crops, one in early summer and one towards the end of the growing season.
  • Day-neutral: These are a newer variety which produces fruit throughout the season.

Each of these types also has distinct advantages and traits pertaining to the growth patterns of the crop itself. Before you make your decision, you can research much more about growing strawberries and the different varieties available here.

Blueberries and Lingonberries

Blueberries and Lingonberries are also special considerations in that they require acidic soil. The process of acidifying your soil should begin about a year before you intend to plant your berries. These berries like a pH of about 4.5-5.5.

To achieve this pH, dig in peat moss, coffee grounds, and pine needles. Then, even mulch with pine needles. Once you’ve added the material and let it bake in there for a few weeks, use a soil tester to determine the pH. After this, you will want to maintain the desired pH throughout the season. This can be done by continuing to mulch with an acidic material, such as the pine needles.

blackberry bushRaspberries and Blackberries

Raspberries and blackberries (Genus Rubus), which are also known as brambles, should be planted in late fall or early spring with plenty of room to grow. Since brambles grow through shallow runners, it’s best controlled by planting in a raised bed.

Additionally, raspberry roots do not like the heat of the summer. Due to this, mulching and preventative use of a fungicide are recommended.

During the growing season, brambles will shoot up canes or stalks. These are vegetative in their first year and flower the next before dying. New canes grow each year so after the initial year in the ground, you should expect to produce a crop of fruit each year. Raspberries and other brambles can live for ten years or more when properly maintained before the original plants will need to be replaced.

However, you will want to beware, they are susceptible to disease. Because of this, avoid planting near members of the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) and at least 500 yards away from any wild Rubus crops.

Understanding Seed Germination for Berries

Most berries you will want to plant are self-fruitful, meaning you do not need to worry about cross-pollination in order for the seeds to germinate.

However, blueberries require two compatible varieties in order to achieve successful pollination. It is always best to purchase viable blueberry seeds from a nursery for your garden, as the seeds you harvest from inside the fruit itself will not replicate the fruit it is harvested from and can produce unpredictable results.

We recommend visiting in order to ensure you are purchasing the best seeds for your garden.

Starting Seeds Indoors

Berry seeds should be started in seed trays, in dampened peat moss, and covered with a quarter inch of soil. The medium needs to be kept consistently moist, and the trays should be kept in a warm sunny area. Alternatively, you may suspend a fluorescent light slightly more than a foot above the seed tray.

Be patient, with blueberries, seed germination may take anywhere from six to eight weeks, with some varieties even taking up to three months. Once the plants become large enough to transplant, move them into pots in a sunny, warm area and continue to keep moist.

Moving Outdoors

It is important to ensure that your berry plants have excellent drainage, so make sure that you’re planting them on a mound of soil for elevation. This will allow the water to drain away from the plants. You do not want your plants sitting in water, as they will rot.

Berry transplants can be fertilized in their pots after two to three weeks with a liquid fertilizer.

Most berries will do best in a long, narrow bed. Both raspberries and blackberries will grow upwards and will require a trellis for support. Detailed instructions on building a trellis for your berry crops can be found here.

Additionally, berry plants will send out runners, or roots horizontally which could spread haphazardly all over your garden. The best ways to prevent this is with a barrier system, either with a solid material planted about a foot into the ground around the outside of your bed or with frequent digging and a heavy layer of mulch.

Another, simpler and effective solution is to plant berries in a raised bed. We advise this option for many crops, as it is a wonderful way to maintain your soil and keep your garden tidy.

Direct Seeding

We do not recommend planting your berry seeds outside directly. For starters, some berry seeds may take a very long time to germinate. Even more so, it is quite difficult to maintain optimal conditions if you are planting your seeds in your outdoor garden.

Additionally, it is helpful to germinate your seeds indoors. This gives your seedlings time to grow into healthy young transplants before moving outdoors. Plus, by doing so you will be aware of any possible issues with the plant itself, such as disease or weakness. Since these issues can become evident as you grow the plant indoors, you are able to check it thoroughly and frequently, which is not nearly as possible in an outdoor garden.

Finally, an outdoor garden opens your already-fragile seedling up to many more diseases and pests than the controlled environment of a seed tray started indoors.

Watering and Mulching Requirements

Just like with many crops, when watering your berry plants it is critical to water at the base of the plant. You will also want to ensure that your plant is not sitting in a pool of water.

You want to elevate your garden beds as much as possible so that excess water can drain away. This is one of the reasons why we recommend utilizing raised beds throughout your garden space, but especially for your berry plants.

Remember that your berry plants will require a good deal of water during the growing season in order to produce high fruit yields. Just don’t forget that the goal is to ensure the water gets into the roots as opposed to sitting on the leaves or washing away nutrients. A drip hose or irrigation system is always your best bet for the most efficient watering.

After watering, do not forget to mulch your crops. Mulching is important for temperature control as it helps the soil below to maintain a more consistent temperature, despite the variations throughout the day and night above ground.

The material that you choose for your mulch is incredibly important as it will affect the pH of your soil upon decomposition. Pine straw or pine bark mulch is recommended for strawberries, but be careful not to bury the crown of the plant or the part where the stem meets the soil.

Furthermore, good mulch can help prevent many insects and other diseases that may otherwise attack your crops. Most berries will thrive with a wood-based mulch but you can learn more about what is best for your specific plant here.

Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations

In order to ensure the healthiest plants, you’ll want to avoid planting your berries:

  • close to other similar berries,
  • close to members of the nightshade family,
  • or in an area where these crops have been planted within the previous five years.

All of these crops have similar pests and diseases such as blight and verticillium wilt. Therefore, being in close proximity to one another increases the likelihood that one or all of the plants will become afflicted.

Below are some options for  companion planting (look here to find more options based on your specific berry plant):

  • Garlic: an all-around pest-fighter in the garden, garlic is recommended as a deterrent to Japanese beetles and as a natural fungicide for your berries.
  • Tansy: deters ants, cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles and squash bugs.
  • Turnips: deters the Harlequin beetle
  • Yarrow: deters the Harlequin beetle
  • Mint, Lemon Balm, Chives: attract bees & repel pests

When considering crop rotation, the important thing to remember is that we want to help our soil recoup nutrients in the off-season. Additionally, we want to rotate out of berries for as long as possible before planting them again in the same location.

If you’re looking to utilize a cover crop, here are two of the most common varieties:

  • Leguminous cover crops like clovers add nitrogen back to the soil.
  • Faster-growing cover crops like buckwheat suppress weeds.

It is not recommended to plant the same berry in the same spot for at least three years after the last planting and to not grow strawberries particularly for more than five consecutive years without some kind of crop rotation to help replace the nutrients lost in the soil.

Harvesting and Storing Berries

blackberry bush bloomingThere are several clues to look for to know when it is time to harvest your berries. Berries have a relatively short window of time when they are ripe for harvest, and need to be picked during this time. Otherwise, they will no longer be good.

First, watch the color of the berries. The color should change from a green to a color on the deeper end of the spectrum, depending upon the variety of the berry. Your berries may be red, blue, purple or even black. The goal is to watch for this color to develop, but the color is not the only sign of ripeness.

Additionally, the smell and taste of the berries can help determine ripeness. Ripe berries will develop a stronger aroma and will taste sweet.

Finally, ripe berries will be firm, but not hard to the touch. Try to pick your berries in the morning before the day’s heat builds up in the fruit. Depending upon the berry, the ideal time for harvest could be anywhere from June to August or September. However, whenever it is ripe, fruit should be easily removed from the plant. Do not twist or tug on your plant.

Remember your harvested berries can be kept for up to a year if frozen or canned, preserved as jellies and jams, enjoyed right away when baked into desserts or eaten fresh off the vine. The choice is yours!

Saving Berry Seeds

If you would like to save some of your own fruits’ seeds to propagate in future years, you will want to start by selecting the best fruit specimen from your garden. Then, simply follow these steps:

  1. First, allow the fruit to over-ripen; you want it to get “squishy.”
  2. Next, place the overripe fruit into a strainer with a fine mesh. Separate the seeds from the fruit but do not crush the seeds.
  3. Then, rinse the seeds well with cool running water and place clean seeds onto a paper plate. This will allow them to air dry for several days.
  4. Finally, move the seeds around every once in a while so that all of the seeds’ surfaces are sure to dry. You’ll know the seeds are dry when they do not stick to each other or the plate.

You can keep them in a paper envelope or plastic baggie, but don’t forget to label it properly!

Choosing the Best Berry Bushes for Your Climate

Traditionally, certain types of plants had to be grown in certain regions due to their very specific growing needs. For instance, for many years blueberries were traditionally grown in the north, in cool, humid climates. These days, thanks to horticulturalists development of hybrid plants, this is no longer necessarily the case. It is still very important to choose a plant variety that is meant for your particular climate, but chances are good that every type of fruit now comes in a variety that will flourish in your region.

Using our blueberry example, the older varieties still require the northern chill to produce fruit, but newer hybrid versions have been designed to grow in the south, and are actually frost-sensitive. The best bet is to decide which type of berry you want to grow, and then browse until you find a variety that is recommended for the climate conditions in your region.

The seed packet or plant’s label will have growing recommendations and instructions listed on the package or website where you go to make your purchase. This information should help you to determine if the plant will thrive in your area or if you need to keep shopping.

Additional Growing Tips for Berry Bushes

  • Anthracnose Fruit Rot is a disease all berry plants are susceptible to. You can identify this by tan or brown colored lesions on the fruit and/or circular spots on the leaves. Additionally, the flowers may turn brown or black.
  • Aphids are a common pest to many berries. They also introduce other diseases. You can identify an aphid infestation by crinkled leaves that appear curled up on the edges. Beware, as damage may spread from small patches to the entire plant.
  • Armillaria Root Rot affects the canes of blackberries and raspberries. Canes will die back and wilt. Infected main roots and crowns will develop a whitish mycelium with a mushroom odor.
  • Botrytis is a fungus that can affect many berries. The fruit will show the gray fungus, and it can also affect leaves and canes.
  • Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs like to feast on berries. They can be distinguished from other stink bugs by light bands on their antennae.
  • Orange Tortrix Leafroller larvae cause damage by feeding on developing buds. The larvae are light brown to yellow-green with a brown head and can be a major contaminant. Look for rolled leaves webbed together. Adult moths are tan or grey with darker mottling.
  • For more common berry pests and diseases check out this guide from the Northwest Berry Foundation.