Between the Rows: Backyard berries

  • One of the raspberry bushes in Pat Leuchtman’s yard. For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • Pat Leuchtman

For The Recorder
Tuesday, July 18, 2017

If you have berries in your backyard, you can have fresh blueberries on your cereal in the morning and raspberries on your shortcake or ice cream for dinner dessert. As far as I am concerned, these are the easiest backyard berries to plant and harvest, but I am considering adding thornless blackberries.

No matter what kind of berries you want, the first thing to do is choose your site and prepare your soil. All berries need at least six hours of full sun a day and regular watering in well-draining soil. Check your soil pH. Raspberries prefer soil pH at 5.5 to 6.5, and blueberries need a more acidic soil, below 6.0.

I grew different varieties of red raspberries in Heath, and I have two rows of red raspberries and one row of golden raspberries in Greenfield. I think these are easy to grow and handle, and I confess that the older I get, the easier I want my gardening tasks to be.

Preparing the soil means digging out all the weeds and testing the soil. Then you can incorporate compost and a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer. Those numbers refer to the ratios of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, the three major nutrients needed for good plant growth, in the fertilizer. All this should be done at least a week or two before planting.

I chose bare root Prelude raspberries, which are supposed to begin bearing at the end of June, and Nova, which begins fruiting a bit later and bears into early August. My neighbor gave me five gold raspberry roots that will bear even later. These berries do not have large roots and should be planted only deeply enough to cover the root. They should be spaced at least 18 inches apart. They should be watered thoroughly after planting and watered well — an inch a week over the first season.

My three rows of five raspberry plants each are arranged with a bit more than two feet between the rows, which are mulched to keep down the weeds. Those rows will fill out with extra canes over time. Next year, I plan to install T-trellises that will define and hold in the three rows, making harvesting easier. Canes should be cut out after bearing at the end of the season.

Earlier this week, I visited a friend’s garden and came away with a box of ripe red raspberries. Already a few berries have formed on my new bushes, but I do not expect any real harvest until next year. Fifteen bushes is not a lot of berries, and I don’t see myself boiling up jars of jam, but there will be enough berries to eat fresh and enough to freeze for future treats.

The blueberries we planted in Heath more than 35 years ago are still bearing generously. I assumed the soil there was sufficiently acidic, and so it proved. The one mistake we made was not to consider how to protect the berries from the birds. Amazingly, birds are not very interested in raspberries. We did ultimately put up a kind of netted tunnel arrangement, but it was after years of makeshift netting schemes. Here in Greenfield, we have arranged four bushes in a square with a planned net tent to cover them.

In 2015, we planted our potted blueberry bushes — even easier than planting bare root plants — at the end of the South Border, which we hoped was sufficiently dry. We were wrong. This year we moved the four bushes that seemed healthy, but had not gained much growth. We put them into the north border, which is a higher raised bed. They have gained in growth, but still no berries. I am going to spread a little Espoma Holly-tone (4-3-1) fertilizer in that bed. Earlier, I spread some around my new acid-loving rhododendrons, because it includes a measure of sulfur that will lower the pH of my soil. It will do the same for the blueberries. We will think positively about blueberries in 2018.

Our new town garden only has room for two edible berries, but I want to add that we planted two elderberry bushes, which delight the bees when they are in bloom and the birds when they bear their berries in late summer. That is all we require of them.

However, the small berries these easy-care shrubs produce can be eaten by humans, as well, especially if you are interested in making elderberry syrup to stave off winter colds and the flu — or elderberry jam, or elderberry wine.

When we were in Heath, the house came with a wickedly thorny blackberry patch, but a Greenfield neighbor has thornless blackberries supported by her back fence. They are delicious out of hand, but can be turned into wonderful jam or jelly.

Nourse Farms offers five varieties that will bear fruit at the end of July and into September. These berries need a lot more room than other bramble fruits. They should be planted three to four feet apart, with three yards between the rows. They would benefit by being given the support of a larger T-trellis than is needed for regular raspberries. Or you can provide stabilizing wires to hold them against a sturdy fence, as my neighbor has done. They need soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8.

We are fortunate to live where we have access to a wonderful berry farm like Nourse in Whately. We can get a large selection of berry plants and a large selection of cultivars with good advice about planting and harvesting.

Pat Leuchtman had written and gardened since 1980. She lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com