We are about to hit my favorite time of the season, when we can eat berries from our own garden for breakfast every morning and still have enough left over for dessert that evening.
The Big Three for small fruit in Maine are strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, and there are three secrets for success, according to David Handley, a vegetable and small-fruit specialist at the University of Maine’s Highmoor Farm in Monmouth: Pick the correct varieties, put them in the right location with full sun, and tend to them properly.
These fruits are all perennial, which means they come back year after year, but they require a lot of work to get started and some nurturing every year.
Strawberries are a perfect fruit to grow at home, and with the cold, damp spring this year, it’s not too late to plant them. You can pick strawberries the year after you plant them; peak production is in year three. The berries are big and tasty, and 3-year-olds can learn the joys of gardening by picking and eating them right from the plant.
Expect three to five years of production out of a strawberry bed, Handley said, adding that certain varieties, such as Honey Eye and Sparkle, can last even longer.
To extend the bed’s life, fertilize right after the harvest is completed. In a face-off with weeds, strawberries will lose, Handley said, so careful weeding is required. The berries spread with runners, so narrow the bed after harvest, using a sharp shovel or a garden edger to cut off the little plants that set up outside the row.
“One trick is that after you harvest and narrow up the bed is to put a little bit of soil on the plants,” Handley said. “The crowns tend to push up out of the soil, which makes them more susceptible to winter injury and critters.” Don’t bury the plants, he continued, just put a half-inch of soil or so on them after picking season has ended.
In the fall after the soil freezes, mulch the strawberries to keep the beds frozen throughout the winter. Straw is the most common mulch, but you can use pine needles or leaves, too, though they are a bit harder to remove in the spring. Either straw or pine needles will keep down weeds, but you need to remove most of them in spring.
Of all the commercial fruits grown in Maine, blueberries bring in the most money, but the low-bush blueberries that are the heart of the commercial industry are impractical to grow at home.
“Low-bush plants are very slow to spread and take a long time to cover enough ground to get a good crop,” Handley said. “With high-bush blueberries after three or four years you can get a nice crop.”
Both high-bush and low-bush blueberries are native to Maine and require full sun to do well.
The key to producing quality blueberries every year from a high-bush plant is pruning. The plants produce the blueberries on branches that are one to six years old, so you want to cut out the oldest branches as well as thin out the weaker-looking new branches for fewer, but larger, berries. Older branches are gray while younger branches are reddish or yellowish. Unpruned blueberries produce in the wild, Handley said, but only every two or three years and with smaller berries.
RASPBERRIES AND BLACKBERRIES
Raspberries are a fruit that everyone loves to eat but no one likes to pick (blame the thorns) – which is why you see more you-pick farms for blueberries and strawberries. Raspberries, like strawberries, like to spread. You have to keep the rows narrow, about 12 to 18 inches wide, to make picking easier. You also want to reduce the canes (the stalks of the raspberry or blackberry) to about three per foot, so the plants are healthier and get better air flow to reduce mildew.
Raspberries produce on second-year wood, so you have to cut out the old canes each year.
Blackberries are similar to raspberries, but the canes are longer. The best method is to prune them to create hills of five to six canes that are 4 to 5 feet apart.
All of these berries have both early-season and late-season varieties. There are day-neutral strawberries, which produce whenever the temperature is agreeable (above 35 degrees), and ever-bearing types, which produce both spring and late summer to fall crops. Some raspberries produce a fall crop on new wood, in addition to a spring crop on second-year wood. With blueberries, you can plant both early and late varieties.
Home gardeners in coastal Maine are moving away from varieties that produce fruit after mid-August, because that is when a new pest, the spotted wing drosophila, reaches a high enough population to cause damage. If you want fall berries, regardless, you have two options, Handley said. Either spray the crops with insecticides every week, or, if you have only a few bushes, cover the plants with a very fine mesh that will let in air and light but keep out the insects,
There are less common small fruits to consider, too. Maine is a bit cool to produce tasty table grapes, although some people have luck growing Concord grapes and others hybrid wine grapes. The key, again, is pruning, to keep the number of vines down, and trellising, which makes the fruit ripen earlier.
Goji berries are said to make you happier, calmer, skinnier, and more athletic, plus they fight baldness. The jury is out about the reliability of these claims, but there’s no doubt that Goji berries are fairly easy to grow in Zone 5, which includes southern and coastal Maine. The berries are native to China, with the botanical name Lyceum barbarum, and produce a tasty fruit that is high in antioxidants. It is also a good-looking shrub with purple or pink flowers in the spring.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension is promoting aronia, or black chokeberry, as another small fruit is high in antioxidants. It is native and not tasty raw, as its name implies, but is good in juices and in scones or muffins.
Currants are a small fruit popular elsewhere, but they are illegal to grow in Maine. The fruit is a co-host for white pine blister rust, and since Maine is the Pine Tree State, it’s fruit non grata here, where officials do everything possible to protect the pines.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. Contact him at [email protected]