Saturday, April 17, 2010

Berry Nice Thoughts

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Vermont holds springtime challenges and this morning is one of those days. It's 31 degrees and slight additional snow fell last night. The light wind makes it feel raw and quite the contrast to shorts and t-shirts of a week back. Even Karl the Wonder Dog, recovered from spring diet misfortunes, showed little interest in the walk I had in mind. Gail is out cleaning off the car and freeing the frozen wipers for a trip north to Jericho with Alex. I have plenty to do today but the fire in the Hearthstone sure feels good.

As the world begins to use the word "sustainability" more, gardeners begin to see the merit of interplanting their gardens and landscapes with fruits and vegetables. Naturally, berries are on the list. I got into this concept perhaps twenty years ago when it was first introduced and I try to spread the word each year. People often respond with weird looks when I mention picking blueberries from a bush inside a flower bed but some are accepting and many are coming around. We love all varieties of berries here on the mountain but feel the need for cautionary comments for the new breed of impatient gardeners.

Berries are a great food crop to integrate with existing gardens. Those that grow from larger canes or branches are the better way to begin because the plants are obvious by their size and gardeners get a quicker response to their efforts. This is where the cautionary part comes in.

Blueberries and gooseberries are usually available as potted plants although wholesalers often offer special deals in quantities of 25 or more. Cane types like raspberries and blackberries come potted or bare root and as bare root the purchase quantity is often either 10 or 25. Bare root means just that, the roots have no soil attached, are not potted and must be planted soon after their purchase. Once in a while wholesalers will offer mature blueberries as freshly dug balled and burlaped instead of planted. They do this when the plant is large as it makes handling and planting easier. But here's the catch. Berries take 2-7 years to become established enough to reward you with sufficient berries to do something with. And over that time, management of the plant is required.

Up top is an image of some canes of a purple raspberry at my friend Mike's house. This is a great raspberry with strong canes and heavy fruit production. The plants came from Elmore Roots Nursery, in Elmore, Vt three years ago. If you look carefully at the first image you'll notice some of the canes are different colors. The lighter canes are the older ones that are shedding some bark. Some pruning may be required but care is important and you must know the variety of berry before you start to prune. Some berries produce fruit on new growth and some on old growth so pruning old growth on the wrong variety will mean lots of new growth but no fruit. Be sure to ask your nurseryman to identify what varieties he is recommending so you get it right.

Blueberries do best in full sun and planted in an acid soil. Potted blueberries are often in the 15"-22" range which means they will require another couple years to begin producing and really about 5 years to provide a generous amount of fruit. Here in Vermont where winter snows can pile high in late November through December and then melt down during January thaws, I think it's best to stake new plants while they get established. By year five some pruning is needed.

If you look at the image just below here you see the difference between new and old growth. You'll get the best berries from old growth but you need a pruning sequence so all the branches don't age out at the same time. Just like an apple tree, I recommend a three year plan to get started meaning that each year you prune out the largest, oldest branches. The Internet has plenty of good reading on this and homesteading books abound with advice.

Once you get an established group of plants, you'll find your self picking berries and freezing them for year round use. Here's a picture of Mike's patch of mature blueberries. They produce well and are just approaching the point of needing some minor pruning.

Here in Vermont the University's Plant and Soil Science Division sponsors a Vegetable and Berry Grower page. It has plenty of links to about everything you need to know to take the first step towards berry production. Think berries and give them a try!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where thoughts of spring have turned to reminders of winter as snow pours from the sky and all berry bushes just sit still.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm
On Facebook at Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens
Tweets on Twitter as vtflowerfarm


David said...

My blackberry bush has grown two gigantic canes and I have no idea which one to prune. Soon this plant will be a jungle onto itself! I got berries last year but the birds did a job on them before I could taste even one. Oh well, I guess I need to plant more!

Jerald said...
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