Wild blueberry pancakes. Strawberry shortcake. Raspberry tarts. Blackberry jam.
No matter whether you grow ’em, pick ’em, or just buy ’em, the mention of berries is sure to bring to mind any number of delectable treats. Modern shipping and storage technology means that fresh strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are usually available at your local grocer throughout the year. But those who grow their own are about to receive their rewards—June and July bring the peak of the first berry harvest throughout much of the country.
Probably the most popular berry in the US is the strawberry. Strawberries are a great choice for the home gardener since they are relatively easy to grow and don’t need much space. Just plant them in full sun, in a raised bed or well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. Some varieties even will thrive in containers.
Early spring is the best time for planting strawberries. June-bearing varieties will produce fruit the season after they are planted. Day-neutral or ever-bearing strawberry plants, on the other hand, will produce fruit the first season they are planted. The fruit of the day-neutral plants usually aren’t as big or as sweet as the June-bearers, making the June-bearers more popular and well worth the wait.
Strawberries should be picked when they are a deep red. To pick them without damaging the fruit, don’t squeeze the berry, but pinch off the stem behind it with your thumbnail.
One of the berries that is native to the US (along with cranberries and wild raspberries and blackberries), wild blueberries are one of the so-called “super foods” that are packed with antioxidants. In fact, research has shown that wild blueberries have a higher antioxidant capacity per serving than many other fruits. (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 52:4026-4037, 2004.) Wild blueberries are often smaller and sweeter than the cultivated varieties usually available in stores. And while cultivated blueberries still have antioxidant power, they don’t pack the same punch as their wild relatives.
While blueberry plants don’t require a large space for growing, their “pickiness”—love of sun, highly acidic, well-drained soil, cold winter, and 140-day growing season—doesn’t make them a good choice for home gardeners in many areas of the country. However, Southern gardeners may be interested in the southern highbush or the rabbiteye blueberry, which is native to mid- and deep- South areas.
Blueberry plants usually produce fruit in their third year, so buy 2-3 year old plants for immediate gratification. By growing early, mid, and late-season varieties, you can harvest from early summer to fall. Blueberries should be picked when their color reaches a deep blue. To pick them without damaging the fruit, gently roll the berries between your thumb and index finger.
Raspberries and Blackberries
Raspberries, black raspberries, and their relative, the blackberry, grow wild in overgrown, brushy areas of the Midwest, Northeast and Northwest. If you aren’t lucky enough to have wild bramble bushes near you, you might consider adding a bush to two to your property. While they prefer cold winters and long, cool springs, there are cultivated varieties that can tolerate the temperatures of the upper Southeast. These generally are not an option for California or the Southwest.
Raspberries grow well in many types of well-drained soils, but prefer sandy loam soil high in organic matter. They should be planted in an open area that gets 6 to 8 hours of sunlight per day. Like strawberries, raspberries are available in summer-bearing varieties, which produce fruit once a year in early summer, and ever-bearing varieties, which produce two crops—one in the spring and another, smaller crop, in the fall. However, these berries need more space and care than either strawberries or blueberries—requiring 3-6 feet between plants; regular pruning to keep them from taking over and to maximize fruit yield; and, for some varieties, support to keep the canes and fruit off the ground.
Raspberries are ripe when they slide easily off the small white core. Ripe blackberries will be dark purple and easily crushed. It is best to pick them in the cool of the early morning. And be prepared for purple-stained hands!
Do not wash fresh berries until you are ready to use them so they don’t get water logged and mushy. Store them in a shallow dish or pan, covered with a paper towel and then plastic wrap. Especially ripe berries should be eaten immediately to avoid rotting or molding. Others will last 3-5 days if refrigerated immediately after picking.
Berries can also be frozen for use later. Simply wash, blot dry with a paper towel, and then spread a single layer on a cookie sheet and put in the freezer. Once the berries are frozen, they can be transferred to a plastic freezer bag. Freezing this way keeps the berries from freezing in clumps, making it easier to measure a small amount for use in recipes.
For more information on planting, growing and caring for berry varieties suited to your area, contact you local extension agent.