In the Garden:
Upper South
April, 2006
Regional Report

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Only weeks from now, these blooms will be clusters of succulent blueberries.

Wishing You the Berry Best

With the season of strawberry shortcakes upon us, I can't help but get up on a soapbox to exhort you to consider adding some of the easier-to-grow fruit crops to your garden. Why more people don't is a mystery to me. Nutritionists are constantly telling us to eat more fruit, so why not have it readily available right in our own backyards?

Fresh fruit is often expensive to buy at the grocery, especially organic choices, which is an important consideration as fruit is among the most pesticide-ridden of foods. Yet many homegrown fruits are easy to grow, and the surplus is often easily frozen for year-round use. My own favorites to grow include blackberries, strawberries, cherries, currants, gooseberries, and Asian pears, but blueberries and raspberries top the list.

Blueberries
The group of substances that put the "blue" in blueberries -- anthocyanins -- are responsible for putting blueberries right at the top of the list of fruits and vegetables with antioxidant potential. Plus the berries are high in fiber. In the garden, blueberries make attractive deciduous shrubs, growing about 6 feet tall with leaves that turn a beautiful red fall color. Their requirement for acid soil is not as critical as often suggested. By adding some powdered sulfur when planting, the bushes will most likely thrive for years and years. As added insurance, however, feed annually with a fertilizer designed for acid-loving plants.

You'll need at least two different varieties for adequate pollination, and four plants will provide enough blueberries for the average family. Blueberries are also easy to have year-round, as they are easily frozen with no special preparation. I just pull out a handful of frozen berries from the freezer bag in the morning, run hot water over them, and pour them over my cereal.

No pesticides are ever needed on blueberries, and the only two aspects of blueberries that approach the difficult are that you will spend a bit of time harvesting them and protecting them from the birds. Plastic owls and snakes, as well as shiny mylar tape blowing in the wind, will provide some protection, but the most effective method of banishing the birds is to build a temporary cage covered with bird netting. Although there are any number of ways to build this shelter, the easiest way for me has been to use a product called Build-a-Balls. There are holes in these, through which metal pipes are inserted to create a framework. Bird netting is then tossed over the top and sides.

Raspberries
As expensive as raspberries are to buy, there is no excuse for not growing some at home. Again, birds are the major pest but not nearly as bad as with blueberries. There are types that produce one crop in the summer, as well as ones referred to as everbearing that produce both a summer and a fall crop. Besides varieties that bear red berries, there are also yellow, purple, and black raspberries. 'Heritage' is the most widely available everbearing variety, but 'Caroline' has been shown to have the highest nutrition content. All raspberries are high in fiber plus packed with a wide range of vitamins and antioxidants.

The key to successfully growing raspberries is to have a well-prepared bed that is as weed-free as possible. A bed 3 feet wide and 50 feet long will hold 25 plants spaced 2 feet apart, and yield at least 50 pints of berries each year. As the 5-foot canes can be floppy, it's usually a good idea to add a wire support around the outside of the bed. Canes that have fruited need to be cut off at ground level each year. The lazy person's way to prune everbearing raspberries is to mow the entire row off in late winter. This eliminates the summer crop, but improves the fall crop.

Raspberries are very perishable and should be eaten as soon as possible after picking. My own favorite way is to eat them in the garden. To preserve them, spread them out on baking sheets and freeze, then put the frozen berries in freezer-safe plastic bags.


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