Every sunny backyard should have a berry patch of some sort. Just a few highbush blueberry plants will guarantee lots of muffins and pancakes studded with large, plump berries and enough pies for family and friends. A small strawberry garden will produce berries to top yogurt or cereal for a month and ensure sweet somethings for strawberry shortcakes. A trellis of raspberries -- red, yellow, or purple -- can produce delicious soft fruits for cobblers and tarts for three months or longer.
At my farm in Bedford, I have gone a bit berry-crazy, planting so many bushes and plants that my freezers are still full of frozen currants, blueberries, gooseberries, and raspberries through the following April. All those fruits should have been consumed before then -- turned into jams, jellies, sorbets, and desserts way before the new season could begin.
This overzealous planting is the result of the growing techniques we’ve instituted at the farm. When I designed the vegetable-garden complex about 10 years ago, I laid out extensive soft-fruit gardens around the large greenhouse. I had seen similar plantings in England at some of the stately homes I toured on drives through the countryside, and I couldn’t wait to attempt a similar design. I desperately wanted neat beds, organized plantings, clearly defined rows, and easy picking. I could no longer tolerate a messy berry patch, scratched arms, or berries lost deep inside the brambles and branches.
I built trellises and used sturdy hand-cut granite posts (antique grape stakes from China) as uprights to neatly rein in raspberry brambles between horizontal copper wires. The wires can be adjusted on wooden ties outside the posts, which makes it so easy to pick berries from the prickly canes.
Gooseberries and currants are smaller shrubs, and they have a neat growing habit, needing just a bit of yearly pruning to remove broken or overgrown branches. Strawberries can be grown in long raised rows or beds, the earth heavily covered with straw to keep the ripening berries aboveground. The plants are vigorous dividers, sending out shoots that are cut from the mother plant and replanted to produce fruit. I like to replant every three years to maximize fruit production. I grow fraises des bois, or woodland strawberries, along paths or garden edges. They do not send out runners, and the bushy plants can make effective, pretty edging plants.
Perhaps the easiest berry to grow is the highbush blueberry. A few years ago, I planted a very large rectangle (140 by 20 feet) with six types of blueberries, hoping to extend the season. I’m happy to report that the garden produces heavily and for a bit longer than eight weeks. In 2010, we built a granite-and-wood pergola with a fine netting top to keep the birds from devouring the berries. Our jams and jellies have never been tastier, and our pies and pancakes and muffins are bursting with flavor. The sorbets and ice creams are colorful and tart, and I have found that once established, a berry garden takes much less maintenance than a vegetable or flower garden and is just as rewarding.
These easy plants aren’t picky about whether the soil is sandy or loamy, but to avoid fungal diseases, apply organic compost and provide free-draining conditions. Because the plants have shallow roots, irrigation of the rows will likely be necessary.
Mature gooseberries can produce for 10 to 15 years. In the second season, prune the bushes, getting rid of older, less-productive branches.
Prune both currants and gooseberries in early spring, before the plants leaf out. Cut off the flowers the first year after planting to allow the plants to develop strong growth. And remember to remove branches that are more than three years old.
In the wild, these tough plants thrive near bogs and love moist, acidic soils (a pH between 4.5 and 5) with good sun and drainage. They require at least an inch of water a week during growing season and up to four inches a week while the fruit ripens to juicy perfection.
Remove fruit-bearing branches (also called canes) of raspberries and blackberries after they finish producing to encourage new growth and to let sunlight into the bushes. Cut off the tips of the vigorous canes during dormancy so that they can support the later fruit. Or use a trellis system of taut wires and sturdy posts.
Learn more in our Berry Varieties tutorial.