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Dear Friend and Gardener

Berries are the Best

Berries are the best. They are delicious summer fruits, especially when they are picked right off the bush and brought in for a morning bowl of cereal, a beautiful fruit tart, or a pot of jam. They are easy for the gardener because they are perennial plants and require little fussing over the years of their life.

In Heath we pay a lot of attention to blueberries. One section of town is called Burnt Hill because the hillside is covered with lowbush blueberries. A traditional method of controlling many weeds and insects is by burning the blueberry fields after harvest every few years.

There are many who are passionate about lowbush blueberries and think they are far superior in taste than highbush blueberries. My taste buds are not that refined and so one of the first crops we planted in 1980, our first spring in Heath, was a collection of eight highbush blueberry plants from Miller Nurseries. Blueberries need at least two varieties for cross pollination. This can also give you a longer harvest season by choosing early and mid-season varieties.

Within three years we were starting to get a harvest. I did not keep very good records at the time so I cannot attest to how much of a harvest. However, one of the benefits of berries is that they do not need much time before you are picking the fruits of your very limited labors. I can tell you that we are still getting a good harvest from those bushes. Blueberries are also considerate and do not need picking every day to avoid mold. They hang ripely on the bush waiting until the gardener has time.

I should say we get a good harvest if we beat the birds and critters to it. The first few years we netted each bush individually. Sometimes I decorated the nets with foil flash tape to scare away the birds. Then the bushes got too big to manage that efficiently. We finally built a PVC pipe cage around a single line of five of the bushes and lay bird netting over that. I wish we had designed the blueberry patch with a cage in mind right from the beginning, but we learn as we go.

I did not prepare the soil of that first blueberry planting. I knew that blueberries required acid soil and my assumption (correct) was that Heath had sufficiently acid soil. I was lucky to also have soil that drained well.

When I planted red raspberries several years ago, we did rototill the bed and I sprinkled a little compost, lime, rock phosphate and greensand in a totally unscientific manner. However, if there is a general rule to spread a little 10-10-10 fertilizer on a new berry patch, I figured I accomplished the same thing organically. I also remembered my old Greenfield neighbor, John Zon, who had a beautifully productive raspberry patch and he said he did nothing but mulch with fallen leaves in the autumn.

This time I bought my raspberry bushes from Nourse Farms, the excellent nursery we have right in our own backyard. There is no problem with finding a sunny site at the End of the Road, and I am lucky that with the exception of the Sunken Garden, the soil drains well. A sunny well drained site is all that raspberries require.

Blueberries need a little occasional pruning out of dead branches over time, but raspberries need to have the old canes that have already fruited taken out every year. It is also a good idea to prune out any spindly canes. You want the largest sturdiest canes to produce the best crop.

It is also a good idea to provide wire supports for a raspberry row, to provide support over the course of the year. I also find supports a way of maintaining a straight row. New shoots will come out into the path between rows and they need to be pruned out.

I occasionally throw a little compost along the rows, but remembering Mr. Zon, I mulch between the rows and find the bushes do well. I want to mention that raspberries do not need netting. For the most part birds are totally uninterested in them.

Two years ago I planted black raspberry bushes, again from Nourse Farms.

My first harvest last year ripened while I was away and was very poor because the berries dried up on the canes. At the same time the canes were bending over and the some of the tips were rooting where they touched the soil. It was making a mess in the garden. But I thought that was the only way they renewed themselves and left the mess and went looking for advice.

This year I belatedly found the advice about pruning black raspberries. I waded into all the bent over and rooted canes and pruned them out. I then cut back all the new canes that also were growing straight up to a height of about three feet to encourage growth of lateral fruiting branches.

However, after harvesting only a quart or two of small black raspberries, the rest of the berries were drying up into hard little balls. What was this recurrent problem?

I called the experts at Nourse and got a simple answer. They recommend two inches of water a week for black raspberries. It will take some thought and work to arrange that if we have another droughty summer. Wish me luck

Between the Rows –  August 18, 2012

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