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Winter Work: Building A Berry Patch

Winter is the perfect time to prepare your patch for that crop of summer berries you’ve always wanted. No more plastic punnets, an unrivalled depth of flavour and the joy of being able to pick the sweet taste of summer straight from the bush.

berry
You’ve not tasted berries until you’ve tasted ones you’ve grown yoursel

Coming in many shapes and sizes, berry bushes and vines are a delicious and prolific addition to the edible garden. The group of plants we commonly call berries includes cane-grown fruits like raspberries, bush-grown fruits like blueberries and small plants like strawberries. Cane-fruiting berries can be unruly ramblers and usually require trellising, while bush-fruiting berries grow as compact-sized bushes or low spreading plants, and can be well suited to growing in pots.

So Many Berries

With so many different berries to choose from for the home gardener, what to grow and how many of each will come down to what you like to eat and how much space you have to dedicate to growing berries. Climate is also a determining factor. Raspberries and blackberries prefer cooler climates, while blueberries and strawberries are tolerant to a wider range of climates, variety dependant. Some blackberry hybrids like loganberry, boysenberry and thornless blackberry also tolerate warm temperate and subtropical zones with careful positioning. Less common in Australia, but great to grow for variety, are red and white currants, blackcurrants and gooseberries. These woody perennials like a cold climate and add ornamental value to a garden as well as providing a healthy harvest.

The huge variety of berries available means that with careful selection and enough space you could have an extended berry harvest from spring, throughout summer and into autumn.

Common Backyard Berries

RASPBERRY

Raspberries (Rubus idaeus) are a delight to grow and are great for cold or temperate gardens. They are deciduous, dormant in winter, and boast summer and autumn fruiting varieties to extend your harvest (more on that later). All are self-fertile, meaning they don’t need a second plant to pollinate with to produce fruit.

Raspberries can be planted close together at 40 cm spacings and have upright growth of one-to-two metres that’s easily managed if bundled together, plaited or tied to a simple wire trellis. In warmer temperate, subtropical or tropical climates, the Atherton Raspberry (Rubus probus) is a good choice. This native raspberry thrives in warm climates and rewards with an abundant harvest.

BLACKBERRY

Blackberries are ubiquitous with foraging and also with being an invasive weed in unmanaged spaces and national parks. Luckily, there is a thornless variety that has sterile seeds so it can’t be spread far and wide by birds or other means. Thornless Blackberries (Rubus ulmifolius) are a deciduous bramble berry with minimal thorns and maximum taste, providing plentiful fruit in late summer. Thornless Blackberries are self-fertile and require a trellis for their vigorous horizontal growth.

This trellis could be strong wire or mesh between sturdy poles, or wire attached to a fence to allow you to train the canes horizontally or in a fan-like shape. Plants should be spaced between one and three metres apart to accomodate their sprawling canes. Like all brambles or trailing vines, blackberries can be spread from cuttings and suckers, so be mindful of where you dispose of prunings to prevent them spreading. Another way the brambles propagate themselves is to send out roots from the tips of canes that touch the ground, so unless you want a spreading patch, keep them tidy.

BLACKBERRY HYBRIDS

There are many blackberry hybrids, and their management is much the same. They are similarly vigorous and will need a robust trellis or fence to grow along. Popular varieties of blackberry hybrids include marionberry, which are tasty eaten fresh but very thorny; loganberry and tayberry, both crosses between raspberry and blackberry with a tart flavour which is perfect for jam making; boysenberry, a cross between loganberry and blackberry; and youngberry, which is a cross between a blackberry-raspberry and a dewberry. It can be hard to know which one to choose, so if you can’t decide, check with your local nursery to see what does well in your area.

BLUEBERRIES

Blueberries are a deciduous or semi-deciduous perennial woody bush and are classed as either a high or low-chill variety, with winter temperatures determining which is best for your area – there’s even options for warm and humid climates.

Blueberries are surprisingly easy to grow as long as you get your soil right. They need an acidic soil (around pH 5) and are very sensitive to pH changes due to fertiliser additions. For this reason, it’s best to grow them in a dedicated bed or pots so you can control the soil pH. Blueberries need protection from strong winds and heavy frosts, and benefit from light shade in hot areas. They are not usually supplied bare-rooted, and are best planted from potted plants in late winter and early spring, or autumn. Bushes grow up to two metres tall and may be planted quite close together, so they make a great edible hedge. Check out Pip Issue #17 for a full rundown on how to grow blueberries.

STRAWBERRIES

Strawberries are a popular inclusion in many gardens, being hugely versatile and much loved by kids and adults alike. Strawberries are a little different to the other berries, as the productive life of the plant is quite short. The parent plant will flower and produce fruit in spring, summer and into autumn, and will send out runners on which new plants grow and take root. Removing older plants and replacing them with young ones every couple of years will maximise your crop. Strawberries are shallow-rooted and make an excellent living mulch under other deeper-rooted fruit trees and shrubs, as well as in large pots or in hanging baskets. They need a good supply of fertiliser and water to keep them producing, and will be happiest in full sun or dappled shade. Spring and autumn are great times to plant strawberries.

Strawberries
Strawberries are very easy to propagate and share
blueberries
Because they grow on a medium-sized bush, blueberries are relatively easy to find a home for
cane-fruiting-berries
Cane-fruiting berries require a bit of work, but the rewards are delicious!

Choose Your Patch

When it comes to deciding where to place your berry patch, start by determining if the berries you’ve chosen will need support, like a trellis, fence or wall. Also make sure you will be able to access them easily come harvest time – there’s nothing more disappointing that not being able to get to that ripe berry because it’s out of reach!

Next, you’ll need to work out how much sun the berry patch will get. Most berries prefer full sun, although blackberries, currants and blueberries will tolerate partial shade and even benefit from it in the afternoons in warmer summers. Consider where the sun falls on your garden in spring and summer (you could look back on photos or use a sun-tracking app), and choose an area that is going to get at least six hours of sun from early morning. A northern or eastern-facing position not blocked by trees or tall buildings is perfect in cool climates. In warmer climates, planting on the southern side of structures and trees may have the best microclimate to provide a shadier, cooler space.

Another important consideration is wind, as windy conditions can impact young growth and affect fruit set by damaging flowers. If your patch will get strong winds in spring or summer, consider placing a barrier like a hedge or screen in the wind’s path to provide protection. Try this strategy in areas where late frosts in spring may damage flowers, too. A hedge works really well to shield pockets of the garden from heavy frosts and can make all the difference in getting a good harvest.

Perfect For A Food Forest

Not everyone will have the space to create a dedicated berry patch, particularly if you are living on a smaller urban block or your garden is already quite established.

If this is you, consider growing berries throughout the garden in polycultures or ‘food forests’. It helps to encourage a diversity of beneficial insects and to minimise the work of protecting the berry crop from birds and insect pests, as well as reducing weeding.

Plants that are well suited to this style are blueberries, particularly in large pots dotted throughout the garden; raspberries, due to their minimal trellising requirements; currants, as they tolerate dappled shade and do well as an understory plant around more established trees; and strawberries, as a living mulch or edible border to pathways. You could also use existing fences to string wire on and train brambles along. Another great way to squeeze some berries in is to create a berry arch, or several, over existing beds or pathways. This makes use of vertical space and also provides a sturdy trellis.

Preparing Your Soil

Preparing your soil early means new plants will have plenty of time to settle in and get a head start when the soil starts to warm up in spring. All berries prefer a fertile, aerated and free-draining soil and most, excluding blueberries, will thrive with a neutral to slightly acidic pH. Waterlogged and cold soil can lead to issues with rotting roots and stunted growth, and very poor or sandy soil can result in slow growth and low fruit set, so it’s worthwhile putting in some effort now when preparing where you will grow them.

Berries don’t like competition, so to start, thoroughly clear your area of weeds and grasses and add plenty of organic matter in the form of good compost and well-rotted manure. Make sure to re-cover the soil with mulch, hessian or recycled cardboard and newspaper – this keeps the weeds at bay, helps the soil life to establish, protects the soil from frost and compaction due to rain or watering, and encourages the worms to go to work for you. If you have poor drainage, mound the soil up where you plan to plant and add your organic matter right where you need it. Save any additional fertiliser applications until mid spring when the plant is actively growing – this will mean the plant has access to it right when it needs it. Berries need a good water supply, especially when fruiting, so organic matter additions and mulch on sandier soils will help to increase moisture retention.

Blueberries
Blueberries need an acidic soil and protection from extreme weather
wood
It’ll only take you one or two seasons to be able to quickly identify the difference between this year’s and last year’s fruiting wood
Blackberries
Blackberries have a bad reputation for being harmful weeds, but if managed carefully and kept in check, you’ll be rewarded with sweet summer berries.

Buying Bare-Rooted

A bare-rooted plant is a dormant plant that has been removed from soil and sold un-potted, often with its roots wrapped in damp coir or shredded paper and a bag for protection. Bare-rooted plants have the advantage of generally being cheaper than potted plants and giving you access to many different varieties, as they can easily be sent directly to you or your local nursery.

When you receive bare-rooted plants, get them in the ground as quickly as you can to avoid the roots drying out. Soak them in a weak seaweed solution for a few hours prior to planting them out to rehydrate the roots and give them a good boost. Prune off any damaged roots, and settle them into wide planting holes to the same depth as any soil marks on the stem.

If you do miss the dormancy window for buying bare- rooted plants, don’t worry, most plants can be sourced year round in pots and can be established easily enough in other seasons too.

Pruning And Maintenance

How you prune your berries will depend on the variety and, for cane berries, if it is summer or autumn fruiting. For most cane berries and for summer fruiting raspberries, you will need to remove the canes that have produced fruit that year and leave behind any of that year’s fresh growth. These only set fruit on second-year canes (floricanes) and you need to remove any dead wood or spent canes to make way for fresh growth.

For autumn-fruiting raspberries, cane management is much simpler; because they fruit on first-year growth (primocanes) you can cut them back to ground level after fruiting, ready for new growth the following spring.

It can feel tricky to know which canes to cut out once the plants are finished fruiting and are bare in the cooler weather. A good tip is to use a small tag or piece of twine to mark the canes that fruited that year so you know which ones to take out. Otherwise, simply scratch at the surface of the canes with your fingernail once the plants are dormant; new growth will be bright green, while the old canes will look dead and woody. On established plants, you can also snip out some old growth in summer after fruiting is finished, leaving just the current year’s growth in place.

pruning
Pruning for all berries is important not just for future harvests, but also for pest and disease management

Pests And Diseases

Pruning is important not just for future harvests, but also for pest and disease management. Although relatively hardy, issues with rust or mildew and sap- sucking insects are amplified in plants with poor airflow, so pruning to keep the plants aerated is also a must.

Another potential pest are birds, who love berries as much as we do and are alerted by their bright colours when the fruit is ripe. The best method to deal with birds is to use wildlife-friendly netting or an exclusion cage, or to simply accept that some of your harvest is a donation to the resident wildlife. The advantage netting has over cages is a net is easier to roll up and gain access to harvest your berries – though you may need to roll it up for an hour each morning to allow the pollinators in to do their work.

Once established, with good pruning in winter and protection from the birds, your berries will thrive with additions of compost and manure in late winter and spring, and regular additions of worm wee or seaweed tea and adequate watering during the growing season. With careful preparation now, you can be looking forward to an abundance of berries every summer.

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