Growing and Picking Berries

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One of my favorite parts of late spring and summer has become the ripening of berries. We’ve had a mix of blueberry varieties and a small bed of strawberries for several years.

I got just a handful of black raspberries from the two canes that were mature this year. I’ve planted several more plants and look for a better crop of these next year.

The strawberries have run their course for this year, they were sweet and juicy. The early blueberries started ripening just as the strawberries were fizzling out. The mid-season blueberries are going great guns now.

By great guns I mean that I’m getting a pint of berries every other day. We keep a two pint box of mixed berries in the fridge. I fill that up each harvest day, any excess goes to the freezer. To most people that’s not a lot. For the two of us that’s plenty for us to enjoy fresh berries every day and still have some to freeze for use this winter. We do not do jams and jellies.

Watering Berries

This spring I planted more black raspberries, some red raspberries and some boysenberries. Most of these are … surviving. It’s been a dry year. I’ve been watering, but that never does the plants as much good as rain. I don’t water new plants too much after they’ve started growing because I want them to put down deep roots. Pamper them and they won’t.

I suspect the dogs have been watering a couple of them. That doesn’t help at all! I’ve erected fences around these to keep the canines at bay and they seem to be recovering. Those I water daily until they turn green again. I also do a daily watering for the plants that are bearing fruit. They require extra water if you want big juicy berries. Watering early (like just after daylight) gives the leaves a chance to dry before the sun gets hot and could scorch them if wet (water drops act like magnifying lenses in the sunlight).

Picking Berries

My general rule of thumb in picking berries is to let the berry tell me when it’s ripe. There are external signs: blueberries turn a deep blue all over (no more pink or purple), blackberries show no more red and get shiny. Blueberries are downright tart if picked while even a little pink.

But I find that when the berry is perfectly ripe, a gentle tug will remove it from the stem. If it fights me so I have to tug harder: it’s not ready, thus it is not quite as sweet as it could be. If I get zealous to gather as many berries as possible, it will be a less than perfect haul – show some patience and the reward is sweet.

Ending Berries

Once each type of berry has run its course the plants need to be cut back and prepared for winter. Most of this work is done in the fall. My strawberries are one exception. Being June berries, they yield one crop early in the year. So once they have stopped producing, the leaves start to die off and I might as well cut all the plants back to ground level, remove all the debris, thin the bed if it’s getting over-crowded, and mulch the bed with a thick layer of pine needles. These will protect the plants during winter and break down to feed the plants in coming years.

Thinning the bed will take one of two forms. One is to remove the small, new plants that formed from runners off the mature plants. Just snip the runner and pull the young plant out.

These little upstarts make an excellent way to establish a new bed if you are extending or moving the bed. Just bury the sprout and they will take it from there.

Strawberry plants produce well for about three years, then decline sharply. To combat this you can establish a new bed each year with the sprouts you took out while thinning, then dig out the three year old bed and start that bed over the following year. If you don’t have room for multiple beds, allow some runner sprouts to stay and pull out the oldest plants when you thin (after the third year). By allowing multiple generations in one bed, you can keep it thriving.

Second year raspberry canes fruit in the spring. Once all their fruit has been harvested (early summer) go ahead and cut those canes off at ground level and remove them to make more room for the first year canes.

The other berry maintenance is done in the fall, so I’ll get into that closer to that time.

So far, the berry production has been the highlight of my garden. The vegetables are doing well, but somehow this berry crop has been more fun than all the rest. Especially the Triple Crown Blackberries, they’re just scrumptious! I must admit, a fair number of those never make it back to the house (wink).