From brambles to blueberries, dedicate part of your plot to an assortment of dessert-worthy fruits. Whether your plot is on a country acre or at the end of your city backyard, just a scant cup of berries picked fresh from your garden is an unforgettable pleasure. Collect bursting blueberries for a batch of pancakes, some strawberries to flavor a smoothie, or a few sun-warmed raspberries to pop into your mouth and indulge in summer.

Brambles – Raspberries and Blackberries

Both raspberries and blackberries are bramble fruit that could find a place by a back fence (where they won’t snag unsuspecting passersby). There are two things to remember about them: first, the berries grow on last year’s shoots, long arching canes that flower and fruit only once during their second year, and not again; second, left untended, brambles will run underground into a thorny thicket. In short, the plants need severe pruning. So get out the shears—and a pair of thick gloves, too. Before signs of growth, in early spring, prune out at ground level all canes that have already borne fruit. Then, cut away short or broken canes, and those that have strayed beyond the allotted space. Aim for 12 to 15 of the healthiest, tallest, and fattest rods spaced about a hand-span apart along every meter of a row extending roughly 45 centimeters wide; well-spaced canes are less susceptible to mildew.

The best thing you can do for a bramble patch is to mulch each October heavily with fallen leaves to suppress weeds, conserve moisture, protect roots from the bitter cold and provide raspberries and blackberries nutrients they need to survive winter.

Although most raspberry bushes produce berries in early summer on last year’s canes, several everbearing varieties, such as ‘Heritage,’ fruit on new growth, yield a second (sometimes larger) crop in August September. Pruning everbearers is as easy as taking the lawnmower over the patch in late October and cutting everything right to the ground.

Growing blackberries

Blackberries thrive on the West Coast but are not as winter hardy as raspberries. In colder regions, try ‘Chester Thornless’ and ‘Illini Hardy.’

Brambles are the kinds of plants gardeners like to share, but healthy stock from a nursery or online order source may be better than a neighbor’s bundle of canes.

Raspberry recommendations

  • Boyne: The dark red, soft, flavourful fruit is the first to ripen on the very hardy canes; recommended for colder areas.
  • Festival: Next to ripen on shorter rods, the medium to large red berries will freeze well.
  • Nova: Medium-sized fruit on canes with fewer spines; an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada introduction.

Blueberries

Blueberries are trickier to grow. Naturally, at home in peat bogs, the hardy, shallow-rooted bushes must have acidic soil to thrive: a pH of 4 is not too low, with five being a bit high. Since this is well below the range of most gardens, a blueberry bush grows best when planted in a large container of an acidic mix. A half wooden barrel (or equivalent size) is ideal and should be filled with 40 percent peat moss, 40 percent coir, and 20 percent perlite, with a cup of soil sulfur stirred in to further lower the pH. The half-barrel can then be left out in the open air or buried up to its rim in the ground. Most bushes are hardy to Zone 3, but if the container is free-standing, protect the plants’ roots with some bags of leaves heaped around the base in fall.

Blueberry bushes produce best when properly pruned each year in March or early April. In year one, remove flower buds. As you prune, aim for an open plant of younger stems by cutting out shallow branches and any that overlap or cross. Prune away some of the oldest canes annually and all weak, spindly, or damaged shoots. Head back the most vigorous upright shoots to force branching. Don’t be shy: removing up to a fifth of last year’s growth is not too much.

Blueberry cultivars

  • Chippewa: At maturity, expect 1.5 to three kilograms of large berries on a bush that reaches a height of 60 to 120 centimeters per bush; two plants ensure better cross-pollination and more fruit.
  • Northcountry: Very hardy, vigorous, and productive, a well-grown bush yields up to four kilograms of medium-sized fruit with a sweet wild blueberry flavor; does better than others as a single plant and foliage turn bright red in fall.
  • North­blue: Large, dark, flavourful berries on a shorter self-pollinating bush described as a real workhorse, a very reliable cropper, and vivid fall color.

Other blueberry cultivars of note are ‘Ka-Bluey,’ ‘Northland,’ and ‘Healthy Rubel.’

How easy is it to grow strawberries?

Strawberries are much easier to manage than prickly brambles. Set out starter plants in spring, 30 centimeters apart in humus-rich soil in a sunny bed, and mulch with compost and/or grass clippings. Before long, wiry runners will appear. To avoid an overcrowded tangle, pinch them off as they emerge so that all of the plants’ energy goes into fruiting rather than increasing. While you may have to race robins and chipmunks to ripe fruit—netting over the patch helps—the berries you get will taste sublime.

Shallow-rooted strawberries grow well in containers, from large pots to half wooden barrels to remarkable strawberry pyramids intended just for the purpose. A 12-inch diameter (30-centimeter) pot holds three plants, while six will fill a half-barrel, the berries tumbling over the sides. Use a rich, well-drained mix prepared with sandy soil, fine compost and/or manure, some peat moss or coir (shredded coconut husk), and possibly vermiculite or perlite. The exact recipe is less critical than fluffy, porous texture. Everbearing or day-neutral varieties are best for containers, which should be protected over winter with leaves piled around them, or moved into an unheated garage or shed.

Strawberry cultivars

Strawberries either fruit in June or are everbearing. A popular everbearer, ‘Ozark Beauty’ yields large, sweet fruit all summer, not a lot at any one time but a steady crop. Also everbearing, ‘Fort Laramie’ is hardy to –20°C. ‘Jewel’ and ‘Honeoye’ both ripen full crops of tasty, extra-large berries in June.

Raising raspberries

The flavor of homegrown, fresh-picked raspberries is genuinely extraordinary. And even though these low maintenance plants produce fruit when completely neglected, here are a few tips for a bountiful crop.

Raspberries perform best in a location with good air circulation and full sun. Raspberry canes are biennial: In the first year, a shoot, or sucker (called a primocane), grows to its maximum height. The second-year that same shoot (now specified as a floricane) produces lateral branches, flowers, and fruit before dying. However, the raspberry root systems are perennial, so it’s critical to prepare the soil carefully before installing plants, as they will be in the same area for many years.

Preparing the bed

Remove all perennial weeds (e.g., Canada thistle, bindweed, quackgrass, horsetail) in the planting area. The next phase is to enrich the soil and improve its tilth by digging in composted manure or compost 12 to 16 inches deep (30 to 40 centimeters). Because raspberries are predisposed to some root diseases, wait three full years before you plant them where potatoes, strawberries, tomatoes, eggplants, or peppers have been grown. It is best to avoid poorly drained soils, which can lead to root rot.

Raspberries produce new suckers from buds on the roots and at the base of old canes, which means they are likely to spread far beyond their boundaries if you don’t control them. The best way to keep them in check is to plant them in an area surrounded by lawn, where stray suckers will be mowed down along with the grass.

Planting raspberries

Purchase raspberry canes from a reputable nursery, preferably one that sells specimens from virus-indexed (virus-free) or tissue-cultured stock; those passed along by neighbors and friends may harbor disease.

The ideal time to plant is early mid-autumn or early spring. You can buy one-year-old canes in pots or bare-root. They should be spaced 24 to 30 inches apart (60 to 75 centimeters) (the plants will fill in within two years).

Gardeners with little growing room often opt for a raspberry patch of casually arranged clumps, while others prefer straight rows with supports and wires to keep them vertical. Either way, new canes should be buried three to four centimeters deeper than their crowns. Spread out the roots in the hole, then cover them with soil, tamping around the plant’s base with your foot to set it firmly in the ground; water well. Mulch with a two to four-inch (five to ten centimeter) layer of shredded leaves, bark chips, or straw (not hay, which may be full of weed seeds) to conserve moisture and discourage weeds.

No fruit will develop the first season, and the plant will bear only a light crop in the second year; full berry production will begin the third summer.

Year one

At planting time, to help canes establish more quickly, prune back their tips by 15 to 20 centimeters, remove any blossoms that appear the first summer.

Year two

After harvest, as soon as the floricanes die, prune them out at the crown’s base. Floricanes can harbor insect pests such as raspberry cane borers, sawflies, and fruitworms, so do not compost.

Year three and beyond

In early spring, remove small or weak canes and the dead, brown tips of any that have succumbed to winterkill. Leave only the strongest and most vigorous ones, and shorten them to 1.4 meters for easier picking. Ensure enough space between canes (about 20 centimeters) for good air circulation and light penetration. After harvesting, prune out the dead floricanes.

How to care for raspberry canes?

A soft red rose called “Alexander Mackenzie” that blooms in June every year. It smells like ground red raspberries, a reminder that brambles are quickly on their way. Having a raspberry patch means you can harvest your fresh berries and revel in their rich sweetness. Add the sounds of grasshoppers playing in the grass on their back-leg instruments, and you have the perfect explanation for why you garden. Raspberries are among the more forgiving crops; once they’re planted, you can leave them alone and probably still get fruit. But you can increase the quality and number of berries by following a few easy steps: pruning canes, and mulching and staking plants. Fall is an excellent time to prune because you remove pests that otherwise overwinter and attack new spring growth.

Pruning

During its first year, a cane produces only leaves. By the second year, the cane also develops fruit. The cane dies after the fruit matures. The cane should be cut down to the ground.

To get the highest quality fruit from your raspberries, you should prune annually. Some people are intimidated by the idea. In the pruning, so it is critical to understand how the plant grows. A raspberry is fundamentally a root system that sends up canes or shoots. During the first year, each cane produces leaves only, and it feeds the roots. By the second year, the cane produces both leaves and fruits. After the fruit matures, the cane dies. Cut the canes that have produced fruit all the way back to ground level early spring or fall. After the first couple of years, thin out some of the one-year canes. This provides more light and food to the remaining canes, and your fruit will be less susceptible to disease and larger in size. A typical rule is to allow each cane its six-by-six-inch (15- by 15-centimeter) space.

Mulching

A four-inch (10 cm) layer of mulch preserves moisture and keeps weeds down. By far, the biggest challenge in maintaining a raspberry patch is combating weeds. Uninvited plants and perennial grasses compete with raspberries for water and nutrients. Although raspberries do an excellent job of shading the ground underneath, some weeds always survive. Mulching aids immensely in your battle with weeds. A four-inch (10-centimetre) layer of clean straw, rotted sawdust, screened bark, or similar organic mulch helps to retain moisture and reduces the need for weeding. Remember, however, that the woodier your mulch, the more nitrogen will be used by the soil bacteria to break it down—nitrogen your raspberries need. A good nitrogen source such as blood meal, fish meal, or alfalfa meal applied to the soil before mulching helps offset this loss. Apply the fertilizer once every year in early spring or fall, and cover with a one- to two-inch (three- to five-centimeter) thick layer of fresh mulch.

Staking

Heavy-duty wires strung from T-shaped stakes is a great way to contain canes. Tie your second-year canes to wires to ease harvest. Different systems of wires and posts are used to keep plants upright, making picking more manageable, and means walking between the rows is easier. The most common method is heavy, galvanized wire strung on T-shaped stakes. Sink a five- or six-foot (one and a half- to two-meter) post two to three feet (half to one meter) deep in the soil, below the frost line. Fix a three-foot (one-meter) crossbar to the top of the post; attach heavy eyebolts to the crossbar’s ends to hold the wire. Position the T-shape stakes at 20-foot (six-meter) gaps in the center of every row. Fasten the second-year canes to the wires in spring; the berries will be on the row’s edge, which results in more efficient harvesting. Also, this leaves space in the middle for the new canes to get ample sun and air.

For me, fresh raspberries in cream is pure heaven. If you don’t already grow raspberries, here are a few important pointers to get a patch off to a good start.

Buying plants

When buying plants, be sure to shop at a reputable nursery. It’s crucial that the canes are free from viruses and insects, and that you buy varieties suitable for your area. ‘Nova’ is the right choice in the Atlantic region—it produces large, disease-resistant berries with outstanding flavor. ‘Boyne’ is a productive, hardy variety popular in many areas, especially on the Prairies. Gardeners in the northern United States can grow many high-quality berries; new varieties worth watching are ‘Qualicum’ and ‘Tulameen’ —they’re sweet, large, and prolific.

Raspberry beds

Prepare your bed one year in advance. Many gardeners think, wrongly, that a quick tilling or plowing is enough preparation. The results are raspberries that are overwhelmed by a sea of perennial weeds by the end of the year.

You prepare the beds by first plowing or tilling, then seeding with buckwheat, a broad-leafed plant that only allows very little light to reach the soil. When the buckwheat begins to flower, you till it under and plant a crop of fall rye. The rye is tilled under the following spring, and the ground is ready to plant. These cover crops are toxic to quackgrass and enrich the soil with humus.

What is the best best soil for raspberries?

Raspberries are tolerant of many soils, but the best growth happens in deep loam soils that are neither too dry nor too wet. If your soil is gravelly or sandy, the addition of compost or rotted manure provides nutrients and helps retain moisture. Avoid heavy clay soils. If the only choice is a heavy clay soil, work coarse organic materials into the top four inches (10 centimeters) to make a well-aerated top layer where the roots can run freely. Plant your canes in the top layer, then apply mulch.

Raspberries favor slightly acidic soil; a pH of 6.0 to 6.5 is ideal. Add lime or sulfur to adjust.

Spacing plants

The distance among plants is a matter of debate among gardeners. Many prefer to plant them 30 inches (75 centimeters) apart in the row, the rows approximately 50 inches (125 centimeters) apart. Ultimately, raspberries will fill whatever space you allot them.

How to grow cranberries?

Cranberries have a long history in North America. The Pequot Indians in the Cape Cod area called them ibimi (bitter berry); to the Algonquin, they were atoqua (good fruit) and used fresh, cooked, and dried. Known originally as craneberry by early European settlers, who thought the flowers resembled a crane’s head, this term was eventually shortened to cranberry.

Originally native to northeastern North America, cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are now grown across the continent and are hardy to Zone 3 with some winter protection. B.C. is the largest Canadian producer with more than 25,000 tonnes on 1,400 hectares in 1998. But the world leader is the U.S. with nearly 255,000 tonnes in 1998.

Commercial cultivation of cranberries in Canada began in 1870 when William McNeil put in a few plants at the edge of a bog on his farm in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. Today there are almost 65 hectares of cranberries in the province.

Carrying on the tradition is Blake Johnston in Aylesford. For Blake, it’s a family affair. His father, Orville Johnston, began growing cranberries in 1952, planting his first acres in Bala, Ontario. Blake worked in construction and landscaping while maintaining his Bala operation involvement until 1997, when he sold his share to his brother. Blake moved to the Annapolis Valley marsh with his wife, Kate, and their children, Jessie, Amelia, and Walker. Today, Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh in Aylesford is the largest cranberries producer in Nova Scotia, with nine hectares in production and 11 recently planted hectares.

It costs a whopping $75,000 per hectare, on average, to develop a cranberry operation. After selecting an appropriate site-marshland, as level as possible to make planting, flooding, and harvesting the field easier-a, the ditch is installed around the marsh to lower the water table and provide drainage; a system of reservoirs, dams, and flood gates is needed to manage water levels. Then the planting bed is built up: a layer of clay to maintain the water table; an organic layer such as peat moss; and finally a layer of sand, which not only allows the plants, propagated by cuttings, to root easily, it also drains quickly when the beds are flooded. Plants spread by runners, forming a six-inch tall (15-centimeter), thick mat that helps keep weeds down. After planting, an irrigation system is installed.

It can take three to five years for plants to produce a viable crop. Some farmers plant small areas to complement other aspects of their operation, but Blake relies solely on cranberries for the farm’s income. He has seen prices rise and fall as supply outstripped demand or vice versa, but he’s philosophical; if there’s a disappointing harvest or prices aren’t up to par, “There’s always next year.” He wryly observes that Kate, a stockbroker with Scotia MacLeod, “has been supporting my cranberry habit for nearly 20 years.”

Different cultivars are planted according to their productivity, keeping quality, and season length. Blake plants’ Stevens’, which he calls “cranberries for dummies” because the cultivar is so undemanding and productive and ‘Ben Lear’. Planting is usually done in May, and it takes almost five tonnes of cuttings to plant a marsh’s hectare.

A common misconception about cranberries is that they grow in water. At harvest time, beds are flooded for six to 48 hours to allow the plants to untangle and the berries to float to the top for easier gathering. In winter, flooding forms a protective barrier of ice to keep the plants from drying out. In spring, a bed may be flooded to protect growing plants from drying winds and keep buds from opening too early. Some producers also flood in late fall or early spring to kill off fungus or pests. Frost is always a danger in low-lying marsh areas, where cold air can settle even in July and August, says Blake, who uses a sprinkler system to protect his plants.

During the growing months, April to October, constant vigilance is needed to keep insects at bay. As Blake puts it, “If you have a monoculture, you’re going to have pests.” To keep close tabs on pest populations, he sweeps a particular insect net over the vines and checks the net to see what beneficial insects or pests are present and what numbers. Using target-specific pesticides (Bacillus thurengiensis, for example), he can keep pests such as black-headed fireworm down to acceptable levels while not harming beneficials such as spiders. Blake uses an Integrated Pest Management program, using a combination of chemical, cultural, and biological controls to keep losses from pest damage to an acceptable minimum.

Once harvested, the bad berries are separated by a machine, then discarded. Visual inspection and packing follow. A good yield is 22,000 kilograms per hectare. Blake estimates that 98 percent of his crop is marketed as fresh fruit in the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario, and the Eastern Seaboard. Some of it goes into Mrs. J’s Preserves, a line developed and still managed by Blake’s mother, June, and sold in the farm’s gift shop.

For 17 years, Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh in Ontario has been a major part of the Bala Cranberry Festival. In October 2000, Blake and Kate carried on the tradition in Aylesford, and nearly 1,000 people showed up. Last year’s Bala Festival attracted close to 25,000 people, Blake says. With that kind of interest, the Johnstons hope the future for the Aylesford marsh will be just as rosy.

Homegrown Cranberries

In his former career as a landscaper, Peter Gaston frequently incorporated plantings of cranberries in his designs. Their use as a ground cover “has been overlooked,” he says.

The key to success in growing cranberries, whether for food or ornamental purposes, is to create the conditions they prefer: a moist but well-drained substrate using sand and organic matter is essential, with a soil pH of between 4.0 and 5.5. The backyard grower’s most significant difficulty is finding cuttings to plant; most nurseries don’t yet stock them, and cranberries do not propagate from seed. Cuttings can be divided into smaller segments, pressed down into a prepared bed, and kept moist with regular watering.

Pest control is not usually an issue for home gardeners, other than removing weeds. If your plants receive adequate moisture and minimal nutrition, the plants should resist the occasional predatory insect without substantial losses.

The most dangerous time for frost is at bloom and just before harvest. To protect against frost, mulch plants with evergreen boughs or burlap.