Nursery Notes: Small fruit creates world of possibilities

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Most folks have heard of elderberry wine or rhubarb crisp. Did you know that the French make a brandy from black currants? How about a Russian-made marmalade from the fruit of the sea buckthorn? Historically, native tribes used saskatoon berries in pemmican.

Small fruits give us a whole world of possibilities. By small fruit, I mean any berry bushes, canes or plants that give us some kind of edible fruit or berry. Sweet cherries are more like a tree fruit.

In my family, July jam rates right up there with homemade apple pie. As a child, I recall Mom saving the extra strawberries at the end of June and freezing them to mid-July when the rest of the ingredients for the jam were ready. Raspberries, sweet cherries, red currants and gooseberries all came from the backyard garden. Other people might call this a five-fruit jam but in our family it was July jam. Gooseberries were sometimes a little harder to come by but they are great for jam making.

They are high in pectin, especially when picked green. Pectin makes the jam set well. As fruit ripens the sugar content goes up (they become sweeter) and the acid content goes down. So, too, does the pectin level in the fruit, so if they are too ripe you need to add pectin from a box. As I recall, the fruit was just boiled up on the stove and then poured into Tupperware containers. Once cool, it was labeled and placed in the freezer for some cold winter’s day when you needed a pick-me-up.

These days, I find it relatively easy to grow all these fruits in our garden. Red currants are always productive and easy to pick a bunch at one time, unlike black currants or gooseberries, which are picked singly. I train the thorny gooseberry bushes to five or six open shoots so as to reduce the scratches from picking. One could wear gloves if that was a problem. All three shrubs grow well in any garden soil and there are no particularly special varieties to mention.

Raspberry canes, on the other hand, come in several varieties, which are better trained to a wire trellis. Boyne and Tulameen are two July-bearing varieties, which will produce very well and into August if picked continuously. Primo canes are first-year canes, which grow leaves in most cases, and second-year canes, known as flora canes, produce the fruit, after which they die off. It is best to plant them in well-drained areas, and keep in mind they are heavy feeders.

Strawberries come in a multitude of varieties, which fall into these three main categories: everbearing, June-bearing and day neutral. In terms of pounds per plant, the day neutral varieties will outproduce the June bearing (one large flush all in June) as they have three or so large flushes through the summer. Everbearing produce a small amount consistently through the growing season.

As strawberries and raspberries are so prone to a variety of plant viruses that reduce their yields, it is best to replant your patches with certified virus indexed stock every few years. These viruses tend to cause significantly reduced yields through a decrease in fruit size and volume. Plant healthy stock in good garden soil that is well drained with lots of organic matter. Fertilize with small fruit fertilizer (organic available), which has been formulated to boost production and keep plants healthy. Lawn fertilizer contains too much nitrogen and this will just help grow more leaves and soft disease prone tissues. Mulching with straw to keep the weeds down, moderates the ground temperature and keeps the fruits from the soil.

I like to plant my garden into pieces of landscape fabric so as to further control the weeds. I just don’t make it out to the garden often enough to keep the weeds down any other way. It lasts for years and I can reuse it through several crop rotations.

We are fortunate to live in a valley with such a great climate for growing our own food. Why not take advantage of it?

Evan and Wendy Davies own Beltane Nursery at 2915 Highway 3 in Erickson.