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Get Started Growing Berries

For the amount of effort it requires, growing fruits can sometimes be disappointing. That isn't usually the case with berries. Compared to tree fruits, berries are quick to bear, naturally resistant to pests and disease, and they require relatively little growing space. They are also loaded with nutrients. Here's an overview of the four most popular types of berries grown and what you need to know to start growing them.

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Choosing What to Grow

What kind of berries do you like to buy from local farmer's markets? This is an easy way to determine which types of berries grow best in your climate. In general, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries grow well in Zones 3 through 6. In warmer zones, rabbiteye blueberries and blackberries are popular, as well as varieties of raspberries and strawberries that are specially adapted to take the heat. To get recommendations on specific cultivars that grow well in your area, contact your state's cooperative extension agency. http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/

Creating Optimal Conditions

Soil fertility, moisture, and sunlight all impact the size and flavor of berries. In most areas, berries grow best in full sun. Where summers are very hot, they appreciate a few hours of shade from the mid-afternoon sun. To grow their best, berries need evenly moist, humus-rich soil and good drainage. Unlike most garden edibles, most require some degree of acidic soil in order to take up nutrients effectively. Because soil can differ from one part of the yard to another, after choosing a site you will want to have the pH of your soil tested.

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It is best to add any necessary amendments several months in advance of planting so they have time to take hold in your soil. If your soil is naturally on the alkaline side of the pH scale, you may want to consider growing your berries in raised beds or containers where it will be easier to control pH levels.

Preferred pH
Blueberries - 4.0 to 5.0
Blueberries (rabbiteye) - 5.5 to 6.0
Raspberries/Blackberries - 5.6 to 6.2
Strawberries - 5.8 to 6.5

Growing Strawberries

Strawberries can be divided into three main categories:

  • June-bearing: This type of strawberry produces a large, single crop of berries in mid- to late spring or early summer. They are easy to grow in most climates and the hardiest varieties will survive over winter. June-bearing strawberries produce lots of runners.
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  • Ever-bearing: These plants produce crops sporadically from spring to fall and are often grown as annual in cold climates. Day-neutral strawberries are a type of ever-bearing strawberry that, under ideal growing conditions, have the potential to set fruit continuously all summer long. Because ever-bearers produce very few runners, they make idea container plants.
  • Alpine (also called 'Wild' or Woodland'): Yield a continuous crop of small (3/4'), intensely scented fruits. They are often served as 'gourmet' strawberries in restaurants and are prized commercially for use in jellies, jams, and liqueurs. Alpine strawberries do not propagate by runners, but they can be propagated by division after a few seasons.

Site and soil: Choose a spot in full sun where tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes have not been grown in the last 3 years (strawberries are prone to some of the same soilborne diseases that attack these vegetables). Like all berries, strawberries like rich, acidic soil that drains well. Planting depth is very important.

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Too deep and the plant will rot; too shallow and they will dry out. At the perfect depth the crown will lie just above the soil grade. After setting the plants in the ground water them thoroughly to see if the soil settles and make adjustments to depth as necessary.

Care and Maintenance

  • In Zones 4 through 6: Plant strawberries in early spring. Remove flowers the first year and train runners to form a dense row 18 inches wide. When bearing is finished the following year, mow off the leaves, fertilize and keep the plants free of weeds. Plan to replace plants about every five years.
  • In Zones 7 through 9: Grow strawberries as short-lived perennials. Every other fall, dig up your healthiest plants and start a new patch. Mow the foliage from spring-bearers in early summer to limit diseases, and provide them with water as needed during summer droughts.
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Strawberries can be picked when they are still about 25% white. They'll finishing ripening in a day or two. For the best flavor and the longest shelf life, leave the cap and stem intact when harvesting.

Growing Blueberries

In addition to bearing fruits, blueberries make striking landscape plants. They feature dainty white flowers in the spring and fiery red foliage in the fall. Growing them isn't as difficult as you might think and a variety exists for almost every climate.

  • Northern Highbush: Best for Zones 4 to 7. These plants are long-lived and grow from 4 to 6 feet tall. They produce heavy crops of fruit with little maintenance and few problems.
  • Lowbush: These blueberries grow less than 3 feet tall, but produce delicious tasting berries. They are somewhat less productive than other types, but are great for mass plantings in colder climates with acidic soil.
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  • Rabbiteye: These are the best blueberry varieties for the south because they can withstand more heat and require less acidic soil. Varieties grow from 6 to 8 feet tall in zones 7 to 9 and require very little maintenance other than mulching. Plants perform best with at least 6 hours of full sun each day.

Cross-pollination isn't necessary with most types of blueberries, but planting multiple varieties usually results in all of the bushes bearing more and larger fruits. Planting different varieties also helps extend the harvest by several weeks.

Site and soil preferences: Blueberries thrive in moist, humus-rich soil with a pH of 4.0 to 5.0. The soil must have an acceptable pH before planting or the plants are unlikely to survive. Blueberry plants can live up to 50 years, so preparing the site in advance is well worth the effort. When the pH is too high (alkaline), the plants will develop yellow foliage (and eventually die) as they are unable to take up iron. Two or three foliar feedings of iron-rich kelp spread over the course of a few days may buy you enough time to correct soil conditions (add peat, pine needles, or fast-acting iron sulfate). Fertilize bushes once per year with cottonseed meal or soybean meal, or a fertilizer specially formulated for acid-loving plants like rhododendrons.

Pruning and maintenance: Pruning is done primarily to thin out old or dead branches or twigs. Protect blueberries from birds by covering them 'from top to bottom'with agricultural netting. For the best-flavored blueberries, wait a day or two after they turn blue before picking them and then 'tickle' them until they fall off into your hand.

Bramble Berries (Raspberries and Blackberries)

Raspberries and blackberries are considered bramble fruits. Depending on the species, their growth habits can be erect, semi-erect, or trailing. Because brambles vary in their tolerance for temperature and disease, it is wise to plant only those cultivars that are known to grow well in your area'plants that certified as virus and disease-free. Raspberries and blackberries are typically sold as bare-root plants and are planted in late winter or early spring, just as leaf buds start to develop on dormant canes.

Pruning and maintenance: All bramble fruits produce their best crops on canes that were new the year before (second year wood). Each year, the fruiting canes are typically removed immediately after bearing fruit, and the tops of non-fruiting canes are lopped off when they reach chest height. This forces lateral branching, which increases next year's crop. Unless you are working with thorn-less cultivars, always wear long gloves when pruning to protect your hands and arms. Healthy plants can stay productive for 10 to 15 years. When replacing existing plants, choose a spot as far as possible from the old site and from any wild brambles.

Variety of Berries on White Background
 

About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services.

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