With the increasing popularity of local foods, many of us are returning to the edible plants of our childhood memories. We may remember visiting Grandpa and going for a walk in the fields to pick wild blackberries in August, or visiting Grandma who had the most luscious strawberries in her garden. Even after many years, we still carry the memory of the aroma and sweet taste of that just-picked, perfectly ripe fruit.
Usually at least half the fruit we picked was consumed on the spot, leaving its colorful trace around our mouths, and staining our hands red or blue or purple. It’s a wonder enough fruit ever made it home to become a pie, or jam!
Part of us wants to plant those same fruits of our childhood, to share those early splendors with our children or grandchildren… while another part of us is a gardener who looks at zones and soils and garden space when deciding what to plant, and where. A third consideration is whether to branch out into some fruits we have only read about yet might grow and produce quite well in our garden.
If your garden space seems scant, fear not! Many backyard ‘orchardists’ are able to grow an abundance in a very small space. An inspiration for backyard orcharding on Dave’s Garden, AYankeeCat (in Connecticut) has a small lot just 50’ x 100’ that has her house and garage plus her entire garden space on it. The fruit trees she has planted are peach, oriental pear (with 3 grafts), oriental persimmon, fig, paw-paw,medlar, apricot, and goumi. Her berries are strawberries, cranberries, grapes, Aronia (black chokecherry), blackberry, blueberry, gooseberry, lingonberry, elderberry, thimbleberry, wintergreen, red currant, black currant, serviceberry and bush cherries. She has a couple of nut trees so far, too: chinquapin and hazelnut. Trees that normally require large spaces can be managed by planting dwarf trees, and/or trees that have 2 or 3 varieties grafted onto one rootstock.
Due to the many available varieties of berries, tree fruits and nuts, I have chosen to concentrate only on the most familiar berries for this article. Future articles will cover many of the less common berries you can grow, one article on backyard fruit trees, and one on nut trees.
Some of the more common berries are strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, currants and grapes. Technically, not all of these are true berries. True berries, like currants and gooseberries, are distinguishable from false berries (like blueberries and cranberries) where the fruit is formed from other parts of the flower, not just the ovary. Aggregate fruits like raspberries are collections of small fruits but not true berries either. Fruits like strawberries are formed from parts of the plant other than the flower and are considered accessory fruits. However, for this article I will call all of them “berries”.
The most popular of all the berries may be the strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa), known since the time of the early Romans and Greeks. In the U.S., Strawberries moved west with the pioneers and California is now a major producer. My grandfather was a small commercial strawberry grower in Florida when I was in high school. I remember planting thousands of berry plants, their roots packed in crates of damp sheet peat moss. I picked ripe berries after school, 10¢ per quart, earning money for a school band trip to Cuba.
It is an attractive plant with white flowers that produce berries high in Vitamin A and C. The kinds of strawberries are June-bearing (fruiting early June, mid-June and late June) or Ever-bearing (Day-neutral, fruiting in July through October). Some are evergreen, and some are deciduous. All will send out runners to carpet the ground, protecting the fruit.
There are about 70 varieties of strawberries available but I haven’t grown enough to make recommendations. I do know the huge commercial berries look wonderful but have little taste, in my opinion. Nothing tastes sweeter than fresh picked strawberries from your yard! Reproduction is almost always by runners although their seed is viable. Even though most cultivars are hermaphrodite, planting 2 varieties will insure cross-pollination and a larger crop. Nourse Farms suggests 50 to 200 plants for a family of 4 strawberry lovers. I have only 8 ever-bearing strawberry plants in my yard, just enough for a snack as I walk the garden, but not nearly enough to even think of making strawberry jam. Maybe next year… An Ever-bearing strawberry would look wonderful replacing the lirope along my sidewalk!
Ripe and Ripening Strawberries
Alpine or Wild Strawberries
Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca), the tiny sweet wild strawberry, are also called fraises des bois (French for strawberries of the woods). They are hardy perennials and will thrive for years growing in shade or sun. They do not send out runners like regular strawberries. Their seeds sown in early spring will produce full-size plants by summer, and a small crop of berries. Next year, if well watered, they'll bear from late spring until hard frost.
Blueberries… Ah, the blueberries…
Robert Frost, in his poem, Blueberries, wrote:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb, Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
Blueberries, somewhat disease resistant and trouble-free, are an excellent plant in the edible landscape and grow in zones 3a-8b. Blueberry varieties are described as Highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum), Lowbush (Vaccinium angustifolium) and Rabbiteye (Vaccinium ashei). Highbush blueberries are the most common commercial variety, growing from Florida to Canada, and can reach10’ or more if not pruned. Lowbush, predominantly in Maine, Canada around the Atlantic Ocean, and Quebec, may grow less than 12 inches tall, like a groundcover, although they can reach 3’ tall, and they are harvested with a hand rake like the wild cranberries in Maine. The rabbiteye, commonly grown in the south, has smaller fruit and is nearly self-sterile, requiring another cultivar to flourish. In fact, all blueberries do better with at least 2 cultivars planted. The value of the honey bee has gradually become fairly well recognized in most areas as the primary pollinator of blueberries.
Blueberries have a protective light powdery coating on the skins which helps them keep longer than other berries. They also contain very high amounts of Vitamins A and C. Freeze some in a single layer on a cookie sheet, then bag. Add a handful to cereal or yogurt for a healthy breakfast!
Wild blueberries are smaller in size compared to their cultivated cousins and will be covered in more detail in a later article on Less Common Berries. Blueberries are blue because of a flavonoid called anthrocyanin. This flavonoid is currently being investigated by scientists for its ability to improve eyesight and slow aging.Note: Blueberries tend to change color during cooking. Acids, like lemon juice and vinegar, make the blue in blueberries turn red. In an alkaline environment, such as a batter with too much baking soda, the blueberries may turn greenish-blue. The solution is to add the berries near the very end of cooking.
Blackberries… “The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice” –Proverb
Blackberries (Rubus spp.) look similar to raspberries but are larger, sweeter, but less cold-hardy. Most blackberries have thorns but new thornless varieties have now been developed. Most blackberry ‘canes’ (stems rising from the perennial roots) are biennial… that is, the cane produces new growth one year and the second year it bears fruit before dying back to the crown. Some hybrids are self-sterile. Blackberries produce a single crop in the Fall and most are hardy from zones 3-8.
I love to go out in late September among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries to eat blackberries for breakfast, the stalks very prickly, a penalty they earn for knowing the black art of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries fall almost unbidden to my tongue… ~ Galway Kinnell
Red Raspberries on the Cane
Picking Ripe Blackberries
Of all the berries, raspberries (Rubus idaeus) may be the most delicate, perhaps because they have a hollow core unlike blackberries. Red is the most common color but they also grow in shades of yellows to purple and black. They are more cold-hardy than blackberries, and adapt to many soil types as long as the soil drains well. Raspberries produce fruit either a single crop during the summer (summer-bearers) or 2 crops, both summer and fall (fall-bearers).
Most of the raspberries available in the grocery stores come from California, or are imported from Chile. Raspberries grow like blackberries, on biennial canes. They do spread underground but are easily controlled and/or transplanted. The only raspberries grown in my area are wild black raspberries, and the taste is just like the red ones as far as my taste buds can tell. I have now planted red ones here (last year and more this year) and I’m hoping I am far enough away from the wild raspberries up the hill not to have a disease problem.
My own raspberries had 2 crops, one in June and a larger one in September. My first raspberry bushes at my old house came from a Yard Sale and after spreading for 2 years, became very productive. I never learned what the cultivar was. Last year, here at my new place, I planted ‘Heritage’ (an ever-bearing red) which have not yet set fruit, and this year I added several ‘Caroline’ (also an ever-bearing red) which is said to have larger fruit with more intense flavor than ‘Heritage’. It also has more tolerance for root rot, a common disease in my heavy, wet soil. Nourse recommends 10-25 plants for a family of 4, but besides eating raspberries, I also make and sell raspberry vinegar locally. I hope my 12-14 plants will be enough when they mature.
Currants (Ribes ssp.) are not well known by American gardeners and most of us don’t like to eat them fresh. However, they have a strong, sweet-tart taste prized for many years in Europe, and are excellent for making jams or dried as ‘raisina’. I add dried currants to the scones I bake. The red currants are about the prettiest fruit I have ever seen… they seem to sparkle like clear red jewels. (Red Currants are pictured in the thumbnail at the top of this article.) There is also a white currant and a pink currant. Black currants have 5 times the Vitamin C content of oranges by weight. Currants are mostly self-pollinating but additional cultivars increase production by cross-pollination. The bushes mature about 3-4 feet tall, and are hardy in zones 3-8 but do best in zones 3-5. They will bear fruit in their second year, ripening in late June-early July. Propagate currants by sticking cuttings in the ground in November.
All currants (black, red, pink and white) are banned in Delaware, Maine, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey and West (By God) Virginia, in an attempt to prevent the spread of white pine blister rust. In addition, black currants may not be shipped to Massachusetts, Montana, Ohio and Rhode Island. Fortunately, there are a number of resistant or immune varieties, including Consort, Ben Sarek and Titania.
Grapes have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years in Egypt, and today there are more than 200 cultivars available. Modern cultivars all come from just 2 main species: European (Vitis vinifera), which is a tight-skin grape used for wines, and North American (V. labrusca) which is a slip-skin grape and more hardy than the European. The North American grape, V. labrusca, is also called the fox grape and is the source of the Concord grape. Concords are the most important grape for juice, jams, jellies and preserves. The popular table grapes like ‘Thompson Seedless’ and ‘Red Seedless’ came from V. vinifera.
Viticulture (cultivation of grapes) and enology (study of wine-making) are vast subjects beyond the scope of this article. I invite you to search the data on Vitis vinifera and V. labrusca in determining what grapes to grow for table or wines.
Try growing some berries in YOUR yard! I’ll be back soon with LOTS more berries for your growing pleasure…
As Mr. Robert Frost wrote:
It's a nice way to live, Just taking what Nature is willing to give…
I have a 'growing my own food' obsession that comes from my overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening. I am also a "teacher", a writer, a builder… and a craftsperson and... and… and many other things, LOL. In fact, I guess I am a generalist, and a Seeker.
I live in the southern Appalachian Mountains on a hillside with a creek in front, and drive a 15 year old truck I lovingly call “My Farmer’s Ferrari.”