Fresh berries may be the most expensive produce on grocery store shelves — they may also be the healthiest. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries have high levels of antioxidants, flavonoids and resveratrol. Experts recommend eating at least 2 servings of fruit a day (a serving of berries is 1 cup) for full health benefits.
A few backyard berry plants will provide plenty of fresh fruit to eat and to preserve in jams and jellies. A mature blackberry plant yields two to three pounds of fruit, a blueberry bush three to 10 pounds and a grapevine 20 pounds!
To grow your own backyard berries create an environment that supports plant health, choose cultivars well-suited to the region, and provide proper plant care.
Each spring, gardeners with good intentions visit the garden center and purchase berry plants without considering the unique environmental and cultural demands of growing backyard berries. They are disappointed when the plants die or fail to produce fruit.
I was that good-intentioned gardener. A few seasons back, I purchased three blueberry bushes and planted them without testing soil. All three bushes withered, turned purple and produced only a handful of berries. Had I performed a soil test prior to planting, I would have learned that my soil is alkaline and naturally low in phosphorus. Blueberries require an environment with an acidic pH and adequate nutrients.
Learn from my mistake and test your garden soil. A soil test will detect nutrient deficiencies and prescribe amendments to help your plants thrive. Contact your county Extension Office for help locating a reputable soil testing lab.
Choosing berry cultivars
Make note of each variety’s ripening season. Strawberries are categorized June-bearing, everbearing or day neutral. Blackberry and raspberry brambles are summer-bearing or primocane. Strategic planting provides a continuous berry crop throughout the growing season.
Plant berries in early spring. Bare root plants should be soaked in water for 20 to 30 minutes before planting. Loosen container plants by gently tapping sides of the container. Dig a hole twice the size of the root mass. Place roots in the hole, level with the ground and then backfill with soil. Water thoroughly after planting.
Check the nursery tag for the cultivar’s pollination requirements. Often berry plants need more than one plant for pollination.
Plan adequate space for plants and structural support. Brambles and strawberries need two feet between plants, blueberries five feet, and grapes eight feet. Grapes and brambles require structural support to keep berries off of the ground and ease maintenance.
Caring for backyard berries
Fertilize berries after planting and each year thereafter in early spring. Apply mulch around the base of plants to control weeds, protect roots and maintain moisture.
Pruning plants removes old canes to promote new growth and improves access to air and light. Although pruning needs depend on the cultivar, in general canes that produce fruit and die need to be pruned. Check the nursery tag for the cultivar’s maintenance needs.
Aim to water one to 1½ inches each week. Always water at the base of the plant; wet foliage and humidity promote plant disease. Controlling diseases and insects in berries can be a challenge. The Midwest Home Fruit Production Guide contains comprehensive disease and integrated pest management information for backyard berry growers.