This is a two part series. We’ll cover strawberries and blueberries in this article, and raspberries and blackberries in Part II.
There is nothing quite like going into the garden and picking berries that can be eaten fresh. All berries are perennials; Therefore, it is important to choose a good location because that is where they will most likely stay.
Purchase a dormant strawberry cane, which consists of a crown and root that will send shoots, leaves, and eventually stolons upwards. Most varieties last three to four years and then need to be replaced.
Planting: Do not plant where potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines or peppers have previously been planted as Verticillium wilt will be transmitted. The chosen location requires six hours of direct sun; plant in well drained, loamy, sandy soil. It is best to prepare the bed in autumn with composted ox manure and organic matter. Have the pH tested; it is best at a pH of 6.5, so you may need to incorporate sulfur or ammonium sulfate into the soil to reach that pH.
Plant bare root plants in March or April and in pots in May. Loosen the soil, plant 6 inches deep, fan out the roots and leave the crown at ground level, 8 inches apart. It is best to mulch to retain moisture and soil acidity.
Regular watering is particularly important before and during the harvest. Fertilize with 5-10-5, especially before fruit set and during harvest. Always pinch back runners to send energy to crop and berry production.
Bird control is important when the berries are ripening, so it’s best to place hoops and netting over the plants or use floating row covers. Shadecloth can be applied in July and August to protect everbearing plants that produce in late summer.
Harvest early in the morning, leave on the calyx, refrigerate and only wash before consumption. After harvest, remove the leaves but do not damage the crown. Cover with mulch (straw) for protection over the winter.
There are three types of strawberry plants.
- June camp is the most productive with a heavy harvest. They bloom in autumn and bear fruit in June. They produce runners, so matted rows are encouraged to fill the spaces. When you’re done producing, trim or mow any leaves to encourage vigorous new growth, but don’t damage the crown. Examples: Rainier, Chandler, Shuksan.
- Each bears fruit twice – once in spring and once in late summer, but in small numbers. Examples: Quinault, Beauty of the Ozark.
- Day-neutral fruit set in spring and autumn and few runners, so the hill system is best. They are sensitive to heat, so fruit production decreases in July and August. Examples: Tristar, Tribute.
Blueberries have their growing challenges, but plenty of rewards (80 calories/cup full of antioxidants). Once established, they are long-lived and provide fresh berries every year.
It is important to precondition the soil, especially in eastern Washington where alkaline soils (6.5-7.5) are present. Blueberries require acidic soil (4.0-5.5); if you don’t provide that, it triggers iron deficiency, which leads to yellow foliage and then dead plants.
Start treating the soil the year before by mixing sulfur powder into the top 8 inches of the soil. Test the pH and you will have to repeat the process. Improve the soil by adding organic matter, rotted manure, sawdust, or peat moss (an acidifier).
Plant in full sun, but afternoon shade is desirable in eastern Washington with its hot summers.
Plant at least two varieties, which will result in better pollination and larger, earlier fruit. Two or more different maturation times also extend the season for your enjoyment.
Buy container plants that are 3-4 years old, or you can purchase biennial bare root stock. Remove all blooms for the first year to encourage strong roots and stems.
Dig a hole 14-18 inches deep but fill in with organic material. Blueberries have shallow roots, so spread the roots out on top of the soil, then fill in the hole, leaving a slight indentation to allow water to sink to the roots. Avoid fertilizing in the first year to avoid burning the roots. The spacing depends on the variety, but the average is 4 to 5 feet.
The water should be constant, with even watering of the shallow roots. It’s best not to let them dry out, so mulching is necessary. A drip system with a timer is best. Drought symptoms include flushed foliage; weak, thin shoots; and reduced fruit set.
Use a balanced 5-10-10 fertilizer in spring or before fruit set. Follow-up treatment in May annually with ammonium sulphate at leaf bud break to keep soil acidic.
Netting over the plants before and during production is the best way to protect the berries from being eaten by robins, starlings and finches.
After four or five years you will need to prune back to vase shape in early spring and open the center for air circulation. Remove low-hanging branches near the ground. Remove broken, diseased branches and any sticks larger than 1 inch in diameter at ground level. If they are branchy, cut off the tips of the branches with hand scissors. Flower buds are closer to the top and are thicker and less pointed than leaf buds.
Harvest when ripe; not all ripen at the same time, so you’ll need to pick every three to five days throughout the season. Harvesting is best early in the morning. They can be kept in the fridge for two weeks and also freeze well.
There are five main types of
- Tall bush in the north, east coast, 5-9 feet tall, but also common in the Pacific Northwest. Examples: Duke, Bluegold, Bluecrop, Blueray, Chandler and Legacy.
- Tall bush in southern Florida and California, 6-8 feet tall; need rest period of 32-45 degrees. Not recommended for home growers.
- Low bush, NE USA, Minnesota to Virginia, 2 feet high. Examples: Blomidon, Burgundy and Brunswick.
- Rabbit Eye, Southeastern US, 6-10 feet tall, likes long hot summers, sensitive to winter chills. Examples: Pink Lemonade, Tifblue and Powderblue.
- Half High, a cross between tall and low varieties, 3-4 feet tall. These do not require pruning, which is required for tall bushes. Examples: Legacy, Ozark Blue, Northland, Chippewa, and Northblue.
Enjoy the “fruits of your labor” and if you have any questions you can call or email the Master Gardener Clinic. We are here to help you succeed.