Berries (Countryman Press, 2017), by Roger Yepsen presents a variety of berries to readers, including types that have nearly vanished from American gardens and diets. This book offers key advice on finding, identifying, growing, and preserving your own berries. The following excerpt is from the Introduction, “Perishable and Precious.”
The most dependable source of berries, and the freshest, is the home landscape. Unlike many foods that could be called delicacies, berries grow with a minimum of fuss. If you’ve succeeded with zucchini, you’ll probably manage with berries.
Most berries are relatively self-sufficient. The plants establish themselves quickly, require a modest amount of annual maintenance, and can be expected to yield dependably for years. Try a couple of easygoing blueberry bushes, with their compact form and fall color, and discover why berry plants once were fixtures in North American backyards. Currants, gooseberries, and elderberries also are mild-mannered and attractive. If you are in need of a ground cover, look into lowbush blueberries, lingonberries, and tiny checkerberries with their wintergreen-flavored leaves.
Strawberries are a delectable exception. Although wild strawberries seem to flourish just about anywhere without anyone’s prompting or primping, a bed of a plump domesticated variety will need attention if it is to produce well. Nor does a mat of strawberries add much to the landscape. Raspberries and blackberries offer their own challenges, rapidly growing into briar patches if unchecked. A sprawling, briared bed of berries isn’t ideal for a cramped yard where young children play.
Planning the Berry Patch
Before buying berry bushes, make sure that you are clear on what these plants will demand of you in terms of pruning, staking, and trellising. If you are looking at the offerings of a mail-order nursery rather than buying locally, pay particular attention to the numbered hardiness zones stated for each variety; if you are in zone 5, as indicated by the maps printed in catalogs and gardening books, a berry plant hardy to zone 6 will be at risk each winter.
Blueberries, currants, gooseberries, and elderberries are among those berry plants that can stand alone without being propped up. They are good choices if you don’t care to get involved with rigging up a support system. Raspberries, blackberries, and their relatives grow best if their wandering, drooping canes are given some rigor and order. A simple alternative is to drive a wooden or metal stake in the ground by each plant and tie the canes to it. Another approach is to buy or make the sort of wire cages used to help tomato plants reach for the sun. If you have several plants that need support, it may be more efficient to handle a row of them with a trellis, which looks like a stunted clothesline. Two or more wires are stretched taut between end posts. That sounds simple enough, but you’ll have to dig holes for the posts.
Handle with Care
Fresh berries generally are evanescent things, sensitive to bruising and mildew. Promptly discard any berries that appear damaged, overripe, or moldy — one bad berry can spoil the whole basket. If berries are wet, allow them to dry on paper toweling. Place them in a container lined with more paper towels and keep it in coldest part of the refrigerator.
The ideal temperature for most berries is just above freezing. If you have a lot of berries on hand, you may want to adjust your refrigerator’s thermostat so that the coldest part of it hovers around 33 or 34 degrees Fahrenheit. As a general rule of thumb, each hour that picked berries spend at room temperature means one less day of shelf life. Delay rinsing berries until just before you use them.
For storage over a longer time, spread a layer of berries over a baking sheet and freeze them in batches, putting each batch in a freezer bag or other container as you go. Keep them in the freezer for up to six to twelve months.
Freezing changes the structure of berries to varying degrees. Strawberries turn pulpy because of their high water content; blueberries and cranberries, on the other hand, retain their shape. As the water within the berry’s cells turns to ice, the cell walls are broken, releasing juices and softening the texture — an advantage if you will be converting the berries to juice.
Berry Life Spans
Here are estimates of how long various berries will remain in good shape after picking if refrigerated:
Raspberries: Up to 5 days
Strawberries: Up to 1 week
Gooseberries: Up to 1 week
Blueberries: Up to 2 weeks
Cranberries: 1 month
Note: Store-bought berries will have a shorter shelf life, depending on how they have been handled.
Excerpted with permission from Berries (Countryman Press, 2017) written and illustrated by Roger Yepsen, published by Countryman Press, © 2017.