First thing each morning in berry season while the air is still cool, my young son and I open the backdoor, cross the porch and walk barefoot into our berry patch. I take a bowl and pick. As my son enjoys his berry breakfast, birds chirp the soundtrack.
The reward of growing berries so close to my kitchen goes beyond those perfect summer moments. Berries give more than they need. Unlike vegetables, you plant berries once and year after year they return like old friends. Berry plants are also very happy to spread the joy. A couple of raspberry plants can grow into a significant patch in a couple of seasons. Strawberries generously send runners and produce plantlets for more berries.
You know how much berries cost at the store. But have you considered how just a few berry plants can inexpensively feed your family well beyond the growing season with nearly as much vitamin C as oranges? Got the math yet?
Berries are also easy to preserve. Just place on a tray and freeze. Bag them up, and take them out as you need. When, during the winter, I enjoy my homegrown black raspberries, I find it’s like slipping back into summer for an instant.
As with anything, there are things to consider. First, decide which berry you want to grow. In general, all berries need full sun and, with the exception of blueberries, need neutral soil. Choosing types and varieties that ripen at different times prolongs your berry-harvesting season.
Raspberries – aka brambles – should be planted late fall or early spring with room to grow and in a place where ‘pretty’ isn’t super important. They spread through shallow runners but can be controlled by planting in a raised bed or by routinely digging them out.
“Raspberry roots really don’t like the heat of the summer,” said Steve Bogash, a Regional Horticulture Educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension. Bogash stressed mulching raspberries and also recommended treating them with a preventative fungicide to prolong the life of your patch.
Other maintenance is cutting them back after fruiting for attractiveness and pruning out some of the older brown canes – or stalks - in the winter or very early spring.
Strawberries are a pleasure to grow as well. There are three types to choose from. June bearing strawberries tend to produce larger berries and only one large crop of fruit over a few really happy weeks in spring. Everbearing and day neutral varieties both produce all season but in smaller quantities. Because they produce fewer runners they work well as a ground cover intermixed with flowers or shrubs.
You plant strawberries early in spring. Plant the roots shallowly in soil that is high in organic matter. Take care not to bury the crown. Bogash said the biggest problem folks run into with strawberries is weeds. Strawberries don’t like competition and robust weeds can choke them out.
Another well loved if slightly more finicky berry to try is the blueberry. Blueberries are planted in late winter or early spring.
Soil preparation is crucial. The soil pH needs to be very acidic - about 4.8. I will admit that I have killed blueberry bushes by improperly preparing my soil. Begin by finding your soil’s pH with a soil test. The pH can be lowered - or made more acidic - several ways, including by adding sulphur.
Bogash suggests preparing the soil for a couple of years before planting blueberries.
“If you get the pH right before you plant, you’ll look like a genius and your blueberries will be very happy, “ he said.
Whatever berry you grow, each offers the same joy of lifting a leaf and seeing the first ripe berry of the season, picking it and tasting it while still warm by the sun.