These soft fruits are among the fussiest agricultural crops. Commercial strawberry production is very pesticide intensive, and those growers, along with the nursery industry, are the last holdouts resisting the phase-out of methyl bromide. I have great respect for berry producers using organic or limited-pesticide methods. Harvesting blackberries and their relatives is a painstaking process which has resisted mechanization.
But berries can be easy to grow, packed with flavor, nutrition, and many healthful benefits. Various tropical berries have found their way into 'energy' drinks because of their high content of caffeine or related chemicals (funny the things we call 'energy' these days). Any report of a high antioxidant content results in a huge spike in sales and interest in growing them--blueberries are the latest example.
The easy ones!
Blackberries are vigorous vines, very easy and productive. The vines spread slowly and steadily by rhizomes, and will also root where they touch the ground. The Himalayan blackberry is the rampant, seedy plant overtaking campgrounds all over coastal California and Oregon.
But the garden varieties can be tamed. They are easy to confine if you tie them up and cut out any roots that spread out of bounds. A simple support system of two wires pulled tight between poles is adequate. 2 - 3 plants can be grown in an oak half-barrel and will give surprisingly large yields. Plant in full sun or light shade. Water every week or so until the fruit is done in late spring. After that they can tolerate considerable drought, but will grow more vigorously with deep soakings every couple of weeks.
What grows this year, fruits next year--and never fruits again. So the simplest management is to prune to the ground all branches which have fruited, just after you pick the fruit! Next years' shoots are already growing; leave them alone. This pruning can be done during winter, but it's harder to tell the old from the new. If your berry patch has become seriously overgrown, just cut the entire area to the ground after harvest. Next year's yield will be very light, but you can spend the summer developing a structure to train the vines.
'Boysen', 'Logan', and 'Marion' are popular and reliable varieties. 'Olallie' is one of my favorites--highly productive and with more of a wild berry flavor. The thornless variants of 'Boysen' and 'Logan' are chimeras: unique mutations propagated from stem cuttings. Root shoots of these do have thorns and are more vigorous, so they must be dug out. But nitrile coated gloves deflect the thorns and make it easy to train and harvest any variety.
Blackberry plants are available in the late fall and winter, and will begin fruiting in the second year.
Strawberries should be in every food garden. The plants are inexpensive, they are productive and easy to grow, and they will fruit right away when planted in winter or spring. U.C. Davis has introduced most of the varieties grown commercially, and they are very high quality, but they can't be picked and shipped ripe, so homegrown fruit is sweeter than store-bought.
Plant strawberries where they'll get at least 4 - 6 hours of sun, in soil that you've mixed compost in. They are planted on a slight mound so the crowns aren't buried. Water once or twice a week; they're shallow rooted and don't bear well if they get drought-stressed. 'Sequoia' has the best flavor, but produces only in spring; plant an everbearing variety ('Selva', 'Hecker', 'Fern', 'Ozark Beauty', 'Quinalt'
) with it to get fruit in the summer. The runners, which form in the summer, can be used to start new plants for a year or so. Strawberry plants decline steadily due to various diseases, so new plants should be purchased every couple of years.
Strawberry plants are available dormant in the winter, and in pots in the spring.
The only problem is that everything likes strawberries! Kids, sowbugs, birds, slugs, dogs, skunks, yard helpers
. To keep the bugs away, the simplest approach is to spread straw mulch around the plants when they begin flowering and pull the flowers up on top of the mulch so the fruit isn't touching the ground as it develops. Commercial growers put down plastic at the time of planting. Birds can be scared away with Scare Tape, a sparkly mylar material which dances in the breeze. As for the larger vertebrates, you're on your own
Berries for nibbling! Light crops on ornamental plants.
The little alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca--Fraises du bois) are cute and easy to grow. I have a half-barrel of them growing in the shade of a high sycamore tree, producing a light but steady sampling of tiny berries with intense wild strawberry flavor almost all season. They prefer shade; grow them as garden ornamentals and enjoy the fruit as a nice bonus.
Alpine strawberries are sometimes available from herb and vegetable growers.
Blueberries want fast, loose soil (don't we all?) with an acidic pH, and plenty of moisture. So adding large amounts of bark, compost, and soil sulfur is essential. Plantings at the Fair Oaks Community Garden have been successful using up to 50% bark-to-soil, 1 - 2 cups of soil sulfur, and irrigation via a drip system which runs at least once a week. Those are in full sun, but light shade is fine. They are very ornamental shrubs, and 2 - 3 can be planted (best for cross-pollination) in good potting soil in an oak barrel. You won't get a huge amount of fruit.
Blueberry bushes are available in pots from specialty growers. We recommend Southern Highhbush varieties, or certain heat-tolerant Northern Highbush hybrids. Here's a list of popular varieties
Give 'em a try?
Raspberries, sad to say, are very questionable here-- they'd rather be in Oregon. Hot weather in spring aborts the berries or causes them to develop poorly and we nearly always have hot weather at some point in the spring. I have never had good yields. Try them ('Heritage' is a good variety) in light shade and make sure they get plenty of moisture, especially during our predictably dry north March winds. For raspberry flavor on a more productive plant, grow the 'Tay' berry--a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry that is intermediate in flavor.
Huckleberries and lingonberries are closely related to blueberries. The blue-black evergreen huckleberry is familiar along the Oregon coast, and the deciduous red species grows inland up there. They could probably be grown with similar attention to soil and pH as blueberries. Cranberries are in the same genus, but it's hard for me to imagine anyone growing these mealy things at home.
Currants, black currants, and gooseberries are not happy in our dry heat. (Note: Zante currants, used in baking, are actually small dried grapes). I don't know of successful plantings of either in the Valley, but I would love to hear of any. Some ornamental currants grow nicely here in light shade, producing pretty flowers in spring and fruit which birds enjoy. Ribes viburnifolium is an evergreen species, and the deciduous species R. sanguineum and R. aureum have especially showy flowers. There are good examples in the Arboretum west of Mrak lake.
Tongue in cheek, Davis Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning recently suggested baking hackberry pies, using the abundant red fruit and drippy sweet aphid excretion from Celtis sinensis, the Chinese hackberry tree used along many of our streets. The fruit is usually described as 'edible' but 'thin and quite dry
enclosing a large pit'. Like the cranberry, it probably takes a lot of sugar to make the leap from edible to palatable! Nor are we recommending them. Where, you might wonder, does the name 'hack' berry come from?
Click here for more information about berries.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
Click here for Don's other Davis Enterprise articles