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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Pat's berry good summer

Berries are an easy food crop that can save you money and are amazingly nutritious.

Berries are expensive in the market because they require so much labor to pick, are perishable and need to be shipped quickly. Yet it does not take much time or trouble to go out and pick enough for a family.

I think blueberries are about the easiest berry to grow. Blueberries are hardy, a native plant that loves our acid soil, are long-lived, and do not need to be picked every single day.

We planted our blueberries our first or second year here. Thirty years plus and those bushes still bear heavily. What I wish I had thought of back then was to plant them so they could be “caged” easily to keep the harvest from the birds. A planting of four or six bushes, planted in two rows, with plants 4 feet on center in the row and at least 6 feet between the rows is ideal spacing and easily protected by a cage. We now have a cage consisting of PVC plastic piping around the perimeter, covered with black plastic netting when the berries begin to ripen at the end of July. The cage and netting come down after the harvest and are stored until next July.

Highbush blueberries are available in early-, mid- and late-season varieties. I have Blueray, early midseason, Bluecrop, midseason and Herbert, big blue berries that begin to ripen after Bluecrop. All of them are delicious.

I did not test my soil, assuming it was acidic enough (and it was) but since blueberries require a soil that is not much over a pH of 5, it is a good idea to have a test before planting.

Do not plant too deeply and do not fertilize your new bushes at planting time. In the future, fertilizing should only be done in spring or very early summer. I have done little fertilizing over the years, no more than occasionally shoveling on compost or rotted manure. It is important with any new planting to water well, and keep them watered while they get established. I have not managed to mulch very well, but it is a good idea. Nourse Farm suggests using aged woodchips, not sawdust.

The third year the plants are in the ground you will be able to start harvesting blueberries. We just started our annual harvest, which will continue into September. No pest or disease problems, except for the birds. I prune out any winter kill in the spring, but that is the extent of necessary maintenance.

By now we all know that blueberries are rich in antioxidants and Vitamin C. I remember that when two of my grandsons were living in California, their school had a curriculum program called Eat Your Colors, pointing out that richly colored fruits and vegetables like blueberries and raspberries, as well as carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, tomatoes, red bell peppers, purple cabbage, kale and green beans, were highly nutritious. What a delicious way to get our vitamins, anthocyanins, resveratrol and other unpronounceable things that will keep us healthy.

Red raspberries are very expensive in the market because they are so delicate. It takes a lot of daily labor to harvest them and they must be shipped carefully and quickly.

Unlike blueberries, they require annual pruning because after a floricane fruits, it dies and needs to be removed. Even so, raspberries are very little trouble. I have had no problems with disease and the birds are not interested, so they do not require netting.

However, a permanent but simple trellis is a very good idea. T-posts at either end of the row with two sets of wires along the sides are all you need. I have my wires set at about 12 and 24 inches to support the canes. These provide me the guidance I need to keep the number of plants controlled and in a straight row.

As with any new planting, the soil should be prepared by cultivating with compost. Raspberries require a higher pH than blueberries, between 6.5 and 6.8. I do lime my raspberry patch periodically to sweeten the soil, but I admit I have not tested the soil.

Red raspberry plants should be planted slightly deeper than they were in the pot, with 12 to 18 inches between each and watered well. They will grow slowly the first year. They should be watered when the weather is dry, at least an inch of water a week. Watering is very important for raspberries. Mulching the berry rows is not recommended, but I do mulch the path between my rows with leaves and sawdust. You will get your first harvest the second year.

As the canes start to fruit, they will also start to dry up and die. Prune out those canes as soon as the harvest is finished. Fall is also time to take out thin canes or those that are growing outside the desired area. You can dig those canes, of course, and give them to a friend. You don’t want to overcrowd the row because that can cause shading of some plants, resulting in smaller berries. Limiting the number of canes I allow is very hard for me, but this is one of those cases where less is more in terms of an easy and good harvest.

Next week, I will write about black raspberries. What kind of berries do you grow, and what tips would you give a novice?

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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