By LEE REICH, Associated Press
Does a fresh-picked raspberry taste better early in the morning, when it’s still cool from the night air, or at noon, after it’s been warmed by the sun?
That’s debatable. But there’s no argument that few foods are as delectable as raspberries picked at their peak of ripeness, when they’re so fragile that they can’t be shipped in good condition further than arm’s length.
Blackberries, currants and gooseberries are equally delectable, and they’re all borne on plants compact enough to grow and look at home in the vegetable or flower garden.
Blueberries are handsome landscape plants — the highbush varieties as stand-alone shrubs, the lowbush as creeping groundcover plants.
A GOOD CASE FOR GROWING BERRIES
In addition to having delicious and diverse flavors, berries are remarkably easy to grow. Pest problems are rare if the plants have a good site and regular pruning.
Blackberries and raspberries, collectively called bramble fruits, grow best bathing in full sunlight. The same goes for blueberries.
Currants and gooseberries are among the few fruits that bear well even in some shade.
All these berries are comfortable in a variety of soils, but they do like their roots kept cool and moist beneath a permanent mulch of wood chips, leaves, straw or other organic material.
PRUNING IS IMPORTANT
Pruning berries is straightforward. Bramble roots are perennial, but individual canes live for only two years, so an obvious first step in pruning is to cut away, in late winter, any 2-year-old canes. Because brambles grow so exuberantly, they could quickly create a dank jungle, so winter pruning also entails removing enough young canes that the plants grow in a swathe no wider than a foot, with about 6 inches between canes.
Some people keep their brambles in clumps rather than rows, in which case you reduce each clump to the best half-dozen young canes.
Blackberries and black raspberries bear fruit on side branches, so they need two further pruning steps. Increase side-branching in summer by pinching out the tip of any young cane when it is 3 feet high. In winter, shorten each of those side branches to about 18 inches long.
Gooseberries and currants bear fruits mostly on 2-year-old and 3-year-old stems, so grow them as bushes with young stems constantly replacing older stems that you eventually prune away. All that’s needed each winter is to cut to the ground any stem older than 3 years old, and to cut away all but a half-dozen or so of the sturdiest, youngest (1-year-old) stems.
If you grow so-called everbearing varieties of red, yellow or black raspberries or blackberries, you could forgo all the previous pruning steps and just cut the whole planting to the ground each winter. This limits the crop to late summer and fall only, but does bypass possible threats from deer or cold — and it’s easy!
Highbush blueberries bear well on stems up to 6 years old. Once plants reach that age, every year cut a few of the oldest, thickest stems to the ground, and reduce the number of new shoots coming from ground level to three or four of the healthiest looking ones.
Prune lowbush blueberries to the ground every two or three years.
CHOOSE THE BEST
Growing your own brambles, gooseberries, currants and blueberries lets you choose the tastiest varieties. Fallgold, for example, is an everbearing, yellow raspberry that’s too soft for market, but a delectable sweetener for your morning cereal. Achilles is a “dessert” variety of gooseberry that you’ll never find in the market, but whose fruits are the size of a quarter, with a sweet flavor akin to grapes. Chester is a thornless blackberry variety whose fruits are utterly delicious if picked when they’re so soft that merely touching them stains your fingers.
Everbearing red, yellow and black raspberries are still yielding fruit and will do so until stopped by hard frost. All the other brambles, though, as well as gooseberries and currants, are mere memories of summer. Do keep them in mind though, because autumn is an ideal time to plant any of these berries, especially currants and gooseberries, which leaf out very early in spring.