2018 was a late spring. The latest I can remember in 20 years of gardening in Syracuse. We didn’t make our first planting in the vegetable garden until Earth Day weekend…a full two weeks later than any other year that I can recall. But the strawberries came right on time.
Our patch of Honeoyes began fruiting lightly the first week of June and by the 2nd and 3rd weeks we were harvesting 20-30 lbs/week from our 40’x5′ patch. They’re finally starting to slow—we’ve probably only got another week or so of berries. But by then, the black raspberries should be ripe…
We may not be able to grow local mangos or bananas, but our northern climate does allow us to easily grow an amazing abundance of incredibly delicious and highly nutritious berries and other small fruits. It’s an easy, low-cost way to start producing some of your own fruit, and they’ll start fruiting within 1-2 years of planting. Berries are expensive to buy, especially organic, but easy to grow and maintain even for beginners. Pruning, trellising, and care are all very simple to learn. They’re also easy to propagate, many spreading by runners or suckers and/or rooting quickly from cuttings, so you can often come by plants for free or for a work trade in a neighbor’s garden. Plus, homegrown berries can be picked fully ripe, no need to worry about them getting squished during handling, packing or transport, which means you can pick them at the peak of their flavor.
There are so many types of berries, but below are tips on how to get started with some of our favorites! Or join us for our Summer Berry Pruning workshop on Saturday, July 14.
We started our strawberry patch in 2016 with 50 plants purchased for $18 from Fedco. Our original 40′ row produced runners to completely fill a 40’x5′ area with plants every 3-4” by the second year. A conservative estimate of this year’s harvest is about 70 lbs. U-pick organic strawberries have been $2.50 per pound the past few years, so that makes our harvest worth at least $175 this year alone. Since we fertilize only with our compost and mulch with leaves, our only other expenses were a roll of 9 gauge wire for cutting wire hoops ($6) and a roll of bird netting ($14) that we drape over the hoops to keep the squirrels out.
BLACKBERRY & RASPBERRY
In Syracuse, there are so many wild black raspberry plants, you can likely find them for free—you may even already have some. We pruned the wild ones in our yard to make them more productive and easier to pick. For raspberries and blackberries, the challenge isn’t in getting them to grow so much as preventing them from taking over and maximizing berry production rather than growth of a tangled mass of impenetrable thorns.
We started our patches of red raspberries and blackberries courtesy of the OCSWCD annual spring tree sale—each available at 10 canes for just $15. Last year we canned several pints of blackberry sauce (1 cup sugar to 12 cups blackberries) and froze 3 gallons of blackberries in addition to lots of fresh eating and pies. We also dig up rogue plants every year for our spring plant sale, since the plants are vigorous and readily spread beyond their patch. We’re in the process of moving the red raspberries, which fruited nicely the first few years, but now are in decline. It’s likely a combination of decreasing sun as nearby trees have extended their canopies, and increasing size of nearby black walnut trees, whose roots and all other parts of the tree contain juglone, a chemical compound which can inhibit the growth of certain plants (black raspberries are not bothered).
We also sourced our elderberries from OCSWCD, which were priced similarly to the blackberries and raspberries…an incredible deal if you’ve looked into purchasing elsewhere. Elderberries sucker readily and can form rather large colonies, so unless you have a lot of space to fill, you probably don’t need more than a couple plants to start. Elderberry jelly is one of my favorites, and elderberry-peach pie is a real late summer treat, but we mainly use them for making elderberry syrup and cordial (a traditional medicinal drink) to take advantage of elderberry’s well-established anti-viral properties during flu season.
CURRANT & GOOSEBERRY
Currants don’t spread like the other berries in this post, but they are easy to propagate by layering. There were neglected, overgrown red currants already on our property when we purchased it, so we just pruned and relocated them to a sunnier spot. We mostly use them in baking—little bursts of flavor in scones, muffins or pancakes. But, last year we also pureed them with water and a touch of maple syrup to make a really delicious juice. We acquired our black currants through a work trade at Frosty Morning Farm in Truxton. They’re a large-fruited variety, Titania, that make excellent sauce or jam. Gooseberries are also in the currant family. We mostly eat ours fresh, but there are some nice gooseberry chutney or jam recipes. The birds share quite a bit in the red currant harvesting, which can be tedious, so we don’t really mind. But we plan to net the elderberry, because the birds didn’t leave us much last year.
PRESERVING THE HARVEST
Berries are incredibly easy to preserve, so you can have them for baking, smoothies, jams, etc. all year round. To freeze: wash and hull berries, and arrange in a single layer on a baking tray. Place in the freezer until frozen solid, then transfer to labeled freezer bags or containers. To can: process jams, preserves or sauces in a boiling water bath, exact processing times will vary by recipe and jar size. Basic instructions for most common berries can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Want to get your own berry patch started? Or have a patch that needs a little TLC? We welcome you to join us for a workshop on Summer Berry Pruning Saturday, July 14, 10 AM to Noon.