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Fruits and berries: The basics of growing at home

Mar 10th, 2013 | Category: Growing

by Chuck McClung

With the spring season arriving, home gardeners are eager to get outside. In this article we’ll explore planting fruit trees and the many kinds of berries we can grow in the Pacific Northwest.

Maybe you’ve never planted a fruit tree or maybe you’ve tried growing fruits or berries and it just didn’t seem to work. Many novice gardeners become confused from what they read on the internet about growing plants, because what works in other parts of the country simply may not work here in our unique climate.

Entire books are written just on the basics of growing fruits and berries. To help you get started then, here just are a few essential tidbits that you absolutely must know to grow fruits and berries.

The Basics

Like I often say, a good place to start is to “Know Your Plant.” Plants have many differences in terms of how big they grow, how they spread, how they are pruned, etc. A little information can go a long way.

Whether you have clay soil or sandy soil, always amend your planting hole with compost. Use your own compost or purchase one of the many kinds of all organic compost from your local garden center. Use an organic, slow release fertilizer at the time of planting, and continue to reapply it according to the instructions on the label.

Buy plants from local independent nurseries. Box stores often receive fruit trees from out of the region, and they certainly are not concerned about which varieties grow well here. Your local nursery takes the time to ensure they sell only those varieties that perform well in that region.

For instance, many varieties of apples that we see in grocery stores cannot be grown in our cool wet climate and are more suited for eastern Washington. The ‘Fuji’ apple does not grow well here, but a newer variety ‘Ben Shogun Fuji‘ is a good Fuji substitute for our climate.

You’ll also get a much higher quality plant from a nursery than from a box store. It is true, you do get what you pay for. And oh yeah, at a local nursery you can actually get answers to your questions.

Fruit Trees

For best results always stake your newly planted fruit trees, or any tree for that matter. Staking your tree stabilizes the trunk which allows fragile feeder roots to grow and more fully establish themselves. Use at least two strong stakes (e.g. 2”x2” cedar stake, 3“ diameter pole); use three stakes in a windy area. Consult your local nursery and the proper way to stake your fruit tree when you purchase it. The tree should remain tied to the stake for at least a couple of years, maybe longer in windy areas.

All fruit trees are grafted (budded) onto a root stock to control the growth rate and variety for that fruit tree. This graft union looks like a “knob” at the base of the trunk. The graft union must remain above the level of the soil/mulch/lawn. One common problem related to this is that if the planting hole is not backfilled properly, the whole tree can sink in the planting hole which, over time, buries the graft union. Not good.

If you are going to plant a fruit tree in the middle of the lawn, dig out a big 3 ft. circle of lawn; be sure the graft union is higher than the top of the lawn which may be much higher than the level of the soil once the lawn is removed.

Many kinds of fruit trees (e.g. apples, pears) needs a “pollinator,” or another variety of tree to provide pollen for your fruit tree. Your local nursery can tell you which varieties will pollinate your varieties of tree. Sometimes having a neighbor with a fruit tree is enough.

Regarding apples and pears, I suggest planting “keeping” apples and pears, that is apples that store well over the winter. We typically harvest many other crops in the fall. Why not plant fruit trees that you can harvest after the majority of the vegetable garden is harvested? I like to encourage people to plant fruit trees that provide food over the winter. Try apple varieties like Gala, Mutsu, and Jonagold. My favorite “keeping” pear is ‘Comice’. Harvest these in mid fall when they are still rock hard, wait for them to ripen, and enjoy their incredible buttery texture and wonderful flavor.

Most fruit trees, especially apples and pears, must be pruned annually. It is especially important to prune them the first year after planting. At a local nursery you’ will be purchasing a tree that has already been pruned. Consult your local nursery or attend a local class about proper fruit tree pruning.

Many underestimate the damage deer can inflict on fruit trees. Deer love young fruit trees. You’re wasting your time and money to plant fruit trees without preventing the deer from eating them. A four foot high circle of dog fencing around your tree simply won’t do it. There are many creative ways to physically keep deer away from your fruit trees. Liquid Fence remains the best deer repellent for our wet climate.

Blueberries

Blueberries are very easy to grow in the Pacific Northwest. Blueberries like acidic soil (which most of us have) and moisture, and do not like to dry out in the summer. They perform best when more than one variety is present to ensure good pollination and fruit set.

Blueberries are considered to be in one of three groups: early, mid, and late season. I think it’s best to have one or more of each group to ensure an extended harvest season and good cross pollination.

Growing blueberries tends to be easier for most gardeners than growing raspberries. Blueberries require less space, less pruning, and are more easily integrated into the landscape. Blueberries make great landscaping plants with white to pink flowers in the spring with intense red foliage in the fall. Some varieties (e.g. Sunshine Blue) are evergreen and keep bluish-green foliage all winter long. Many dwarf varieties of blueberries (e.g. ‘Top Hat‘) perform quite well in containers.

Birds love blueberries! Explore the many ways to scare or prevent birds from eating your wonderful harvest.

Strawberries

As with tomatoes, there’s nothing quite like a good, homegrown strawberry. They are very easy to grow, and produce fruit just as easily in containers as in the ground.

Strawberries are best bought in bare root bundles. You’ll save a ton of money that way over buying them in pots. Good bare root strawberries will produce fruit the first year.

June bearing strawberries (e.g. ‘Quinault’) produce one large crop in the spring. Everbearing varieties (e.g. ‘Tristar’, ‘Albion’) produce fruit over a longer period of time. Alpine and native strawberries produce a much smaller fruit, but it’s packed full of incredible flavor.

Provide lots of sun and water. Slugs love strawberries as do birds. Protect your plants or be prepared to share your harvest.

Raspberries and other Cane Berries

Raspberries and other “cane berries” like Boysenberries, Tayberries, Marionberries, Blackberries and Loganberries are very easy to grow. I think the most common mistake people make when growing these is underestimating the space that is required to grow a “patch.”

All of these berries spread with runners and do not stay in one place like blueberries. Most gardeners prefer to devote a bed for their cane berries. Your raspberries will take up less space if you provide trellising or a cage to support their widely arching stems.

There are many varieties of cane berries for you to explore. Have you ever had yellow raspberries?! This year watch for the new variety ‘Raspberry Shortcake’. This is  a dwarf, thornless raspberry growing only 2-3 feet tall. Great for containers!

Grapes & Kiwis

Grapes and kiwis both need lots of sun. More importantly, these vigorous, woody climbers absolutely require a very strong support system and lots of space to grow. An annual pruning in late fall or early spring when there are no leaves on the plant is absolutely essential. Again consult your local nursery on the correct way to prune grapes and kiwis.

Many varieties of grapes grow well here. ‘Interlaken’ is my favorite local eating grape. All varieties of kiwis grow well here. The little green, smooth skinned kiwis (sometimes called ‘Anna‘), are the only variety of kiwi that tend to ripen on the vine. The fuzzy kiwis, like keeping apples and pears, are picked unripe and hard, then stored and allowed to ripen over the winter.

Currants, Gooseberry and

Jostaberry

Currants, gooseberries and jostaberries are another group of edible shrubs that produce a lot of small berry like fruits. Currants are not as popular here as in Europe; they may be dried like raisins, and many varieties and colors of currants are out there.

Gooseberries are thorny shrubs that produce green to red colored sweet tart fruits. A lot of the newer varieties have much sweeter and less tart fruits. These days gooseberries are more commonly found at local farmers markets.

Jostaberries are hybrids between a currant and gooseberry with the best qualities of each. Jostaberries produce an abundance of black purple blueberry sized fruits. Plants have no thorns and when regularly watered, can grow quite large to 8 feet across. They would probably make a great thicket type hedge too.

These berries have one of the highest yields per square fruit of any berry producing shrub. If you have the space, I strongly encourage you to plant a couple of jostaberries.

All of these require sun and water. Plant more than one variety of any of the three to ensure good pollination. Be sure to get out there and actually pick. Sure the fruits are small, gooseberries have thorns, and it takes time. But if you take the time to pick you can amass quite a harvest from one or two plants.

Figs

Figs are one of my top favorite fruits. They are a large, easy to grow, deciduous shrub that requires sun, heat and alkaline soil. In the inland, coldest part of our region, figs may die back to the ground each year which significantly decreases their yield. Otherwise figs are an easy, disease free addition to the edible landscape.

Other Fruits & Berries

Honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea var. edulis) have not quite caught on yet in the Pacific Northwest, but a few people are growing them. An extremely cold hardy shrub native to Russia and Siberia, I think this will be one of the edible berries to increase in popularity in the coming years.

Actually a type of honeysuckle, honeyberries are the first berry to ripen in the spring. One feature of honeyberries that appeals to many gardeners is that they like part shade. While most of your other crops are in the sun, honeyberries can take up the shadier spots in the garden.

Serviceberries (Amelanchier) are one of my favorite berries that are very easy to grow. A native shrub that likes sun and water serviceberries make clusters of blueberry sized fruits. I like them because they have chewy seed that makes them texturally different from most berries. Serviceberries make great thickets as borders or for providing shelter for wildlife.

The Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is a native, very versatile landscaping plant. Not only do deer avoid them, they’re small evergreen shrubs with bronzy winter foliage. They work well as individual plantings or as low hedges, and being a native plant, evergreen huckleberries are drought resistant. They produce tons of sweet, small dark purple berries.

It’s cousin the Deciduous Huckleberry (Vaccinium parviflorum) is the more familiar, red huckleberry that you see growing on dead, decomposing logs in the forest. Both huckleberries are great additions to the shade portion of your edible garden.

There are many other fruits and berries for you to try like elderberries, shipova, medlars, quince, etc. I’ve mentioned here some of the easiest to grow and easiest to find. So much more could be said on the very basics of growing fruits and berries. I’ve helped gardeners grow their own for many years, and I hope the above distillation helps you with the most important ideas for successfully growing some of these wonderful fruits and berries.

Chuck McClung has a Master’s Degree in Botany and helps others solve their gardening dilemmas. He may be reached at orchid fruit@hotmail.com.

Published in the March 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

One Comment to “Fruits and berries: The basics of growing at home”

  1. Dee says:

    This article has been a wealth of information! A tree fell between our’s and our neighbors home. We are going to dig it up and replant. We want a fruit tree, a fig would be nice, but it is not a protected area from the deer and it is not a huge area. We’d love to attract more birds; some of these choices you mentioned would bring in all kinds of wonderful wildlife! Thank you!

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