Grow: Kip's Maintenance Blog
May: The Small Pleasures of Growing Your Own Fruit
Want to grow your own fruit, but don't have the space? Kip discusses small fruit that can grow in any sunny corner of your yard.
One of the greatest pleasures of gardening is picking and eating small fruit grown in your own backyard. Unlike apples — which require some serious pest-management measures to ensure edible fruit — most berries are fairly undemanding in regard to their culture. Likewise, an orchard-size space is not required, for most soft fruits grow on compact plants that are a good fit for any sunny corner of the yard.
Strawberry plants are diminutive to the extreme, forming ground-hugging mats, which would never cause one to suspect their kinship to the stately rose. They require an acid soil and a watchful eye to see that the fruit they bear is not lost to slugs, squirrels, or birds. If you only grow one variety, I would recommend one of the day-neutral types, such as 'Tribute' or 'Tristar', because these produce fruit throughout the summer and not just in June.
There is a myth about blueberries I hear from time to time. Many people are convinced that the tiny low-bush berries, such as the ones harvested wild in Maine, have better flavor than the plump high-bush berries under cultivation. My suspicion is that these people are comparing the Downeast delicacy to blueberries found in the supermarket, and that they have never tasted a fully ripened high-bush blueberry. Once they turn blue on the bush, they are only partially ripe; it takes another two weeks — until the fruit is nearly black — for the full flavor to develop. Alas, the birds are not so discriminating, and if a person waits the necessary time, there might be nothing left to harvest. This is why it is advisable to grow blueberries inside a screened structure, or at least cover the plants with netting.
For the price of a half pint of raspberries one can buy a couple of young raspberry canes which will eventually provide as many berries as a person might care to pick. For some reason, birds seem to have no interest in this precious fruit (but watch out for bears and your neighbor's kids). For my money, the variety with the best flavor is 'Taylor'. Maintaining a raspberry patch is not difficult, but certain protocols must be observed. For varieties that bear in the summer, the fruited canes are cut to the ground as soon as all the berries are picked, allowing the new canes (which will fruit the following summer) the space and light to develop. For fall-bearing varieties, the fruited canes should be cut to the ground early in the following spring.
Speaking of cane fruit, I would be remiss if I failed at least to mention the thornless blackberry. Anyone who has ever been attacked by wild blackberry canes will understand what a blessing this innovation instantiates. The fruit of 'Chester' is the size of the end of a large man's thumb. When perfectly ripe, the flavor beggars description. I would trade all my future portions of red raspberries for a bowl of 'Chester' right now.
Two types of fruit sadly underutilized in American gardens are gooseberries and currants. This may be due partly to the fact that Ribes species are host for white pine blister rust, which can be lethal for certain species of pine trees — in some regions the small fruiting shrubs are banned. The best argument I can give for growing gooseberries is that they make some of the best pie I have ever eaten. I'm not kidding. Currants (and I am referring to the red, not the black, ones) are especially good for eating out of hand. Let them ripen for a few weeks after they color up, and on hot summer afternoons when your tail is dragging as you try to get through your gardening chores, grab a few "strigs" (the pendulous chains of small berries) and pop the fruit into your mouth. Their tartness will wake you up, and your flagging vigor will be miraculously restored.
Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.