raspberries, gooseberries and more, with lee reich

Ribes gooseberries in bowlMAKING ROOM FOR BACKYARD BERRIES just makes sense, says Lee Reich. You’ll never find the best-flavored varieties in any market—they’re just not “commercial” (you know: “commercial,” like a supermarket tomato…ugh). I got Lee’s 101 on creating a backyard berry garden of the best raspberries, gooseberries, blueberries and more—including ideas for gorgeous, edible hedges.

Lee Reich, a longtime friend and author of many exceptional garden books, including “Grow Fruit Naturally,” (Amazon affiliate link) lives on his “farmden”–that’s half garden, half farm—in New Paltz, New York. Some highlights from our Q&A on my weekly radio program, about backyard berry gardening:

photo copyright Lee Reichbackyard berries: a q&a with lee reich

Q. What fruits should I considering making room for in my yard—not just for flavor, Lee, but for success?

A. One thing first, that I always remind people: Around here—meaning probably East of the Rocky Mountains, don’t plant apples. They are just about the hardest fruits to manage because of pest problems.  Most people don’t want to go through becoming an expert in pest control and applying the right materials at the right time and so on.

The easiest fruits to grow, which are also the best backyard fruits to grow because they don’t really ship well so you cannot buy good ones: berries.

Raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, blueberries, black currants, red currants (and pink and white currants, too), for instance. [Photo of red currants espaliered on Lee’s fence, above.]

Q. You left out strawberries—was that on purpose? 

A. I should have said strawberries on my list just now, though they happen to not be one of my favorite fruits.

I like them because they’re early, and they taste good—but the taste can be very variable, even on one plant, and another thing:

I don’t like to crawl for my fruit. [Laughter.]

The other thing about them: Even though they are perennial, they do need to be replanted about every five years, because they do get overcrowded and get diseases, whereas with blueberries, you can go 50 years or more.

photo copyright Lee ReichQ.  So let’s start our backyard planting with raspberries, then.

A. Raspberries need to be replanted about every 10 years, because they pick up pest problems, get weedy, and can get also viruses from wild bramble plants—and the symptoms are not that obvious.  It could just be a slight decrease in yield, or the berries might start to get crumbly.

They’re perennial, theoretically, but as I say, it’s best to replant after about 10 years.

Q. Raspberries come bare-root from the nurseries, typically, early in the season—of you order by mail. They look like a bunch of sticks and roots.

A. Yes, people are always a bit surprised at what they get. I personally like bare-root plants, because you often have more variety to choose from. If you’re going to buy something in a pot, it costs more, and the variety is often more limited.

If a plant is dug at the right time, packed and shipped well, and planted well, bare-root plants do fine.

Q. Do I need more than one variety for pollination?

A. No, with raspberries you do not need more than one variety.

Photo copyright Lee Reich

Q. So if I want to do a raspberry patch—how much space?

A. First of all: Don’t call it a patch. [Laughter.] A patch is where they are just allowed to spread all over.

Q. I guess you’ve noticed how I garden: my raspberries are a thicket! [More laughter.]

A. No patches, no thickets. It’s a planting. If you do just plant them and let them go, it will be a roughly circular area, and it will be hard to get into and pick, and to prune, and light and air won’t get in, so pest and diseases will have an edge.

What you want to do: Plant them in a straight line, about 3 feet apart, and they’ll fill in the row. And you want to keep that row no more than about a foot wide over the years. I weave the canes onto wire fencing [photo above] for support.

So that’s the first part of pruning: As plants move beyond that 1-foot swath, you want to cut them out.

Q. Do we also cut the canes down at the beginning of the season?

A. Some people do that: because that old stem that already fruited isn’t going to be doing anything for the plant, which will be sending up new stems from underground.

Q. So old stems that have already fruited aren’t productive?

A. Yes, and some diseases may be harbored in them as well.

Q. I hack my “thicket/patch” down every spring.

A. You can do that, if they are ever-bearing types of raspberries—and those are especially nice for the home gardener, because they will bear the same year you plant them.

Q. How many plants for a backyard raspberry planting?

A. Maybe create a 15-foot row, with five plants spaced 3 feet apart. Or you could buy a few more and place them closer, and the row will fill in sooner.

Raspberries are especially nice for home gardeners, because they’re so perishable that you can’t buy raspberries that taste as good as the ones you grow yourself.

Most commercial plantings tend to plant varieties that are easy to manage, like ‘Heritage,’ which I think isn’t even worth eating.

I would not plant that one, or a yellow sport of it called ‘Anne’—but again, they’re easy to manage, meaning upright-growing, not requiring staking, and ever-bearing. That’s why they are so popular commercially.

Q. I grow ‘Fall Gold’ and ‘Fall Red’—are those ones to recommend or not? 

A. ‘Fall Gold’ is one of my favorites, in fact.

Q. Are we supposed to feed our raspberry row? I never do.

A. They don’t need a lot, unless you have really poor soil, as long as you add plenty of organic mulch that gradually breaks down into the soil.

Lee Reich's netted blueberry "gazebo"Q. So blueberries–which of course is what you did your PhD in. Where do I put those in my landscape?

A. You could actually make them into a hedge, planting them 3 or 4 feet apart. You won’t be able to walk in between the plants, but they’re beautiful in multiple seasons, they are delicious, and productive for many years (assuming you prepare the soil properly)—and they’re a native fruit that birds love, too. I net mine, inside a blueberry “gazebo.” [Photo above.]

(More: Blueberry 101, with Lee Reich, including ow to create the right soil conditions for blueberries, and how to prune them.)

Q. Do I need more than one variety to get the best fruit crop with blueberries?

A. Blueberries are partially self-fertile—meaning you get more and bigger fruits if you plant more than one variety, so I recommend that, which also stretches out the harvest season.

Our blueberries start in late June-early July, and the harvest goes all summer long until early September.

Q. So what other fruit are we adding to our backyards, if we take your advice, Lee?

A. Among tree fruits, there is the paw paw—a native American fruit with a unique flavor. Some people say it’s like vanilla custard, or banana. I liken it to crème brulee. Two trees (of two different varieties for cross-pollination) would be enough for any household.

(More: How to grow paw paws, with Lee Reich.)

photo copyright Lee ReichQ. I love the idea of that blueberry hedge—are there other fruits I can landscape my property edge with like that?

A. Another one I’m crazy about for a hedge: Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa). People stop on the street when mine is in bloom [photo above] to ask what it is. It can get to 8 feet high, and rounded in shape, and in mid-April typically the thing just bursts into this abundance of flowers. There are so many of them you cannot see the stems.

4-44-P33The fruit is small—it’s a true cherry (with a cherry flavor between sweet and sour—1/2 to 5/8 inch in diameter, with a small pit. When you pick the fruit the stem stays on the plant—so there’s a hole in the fruit there, meaning this is not a commercial fruit—you wouldn’t be able to ship it. But it’s really nice to just eat them out of hand.

photo copyright Lee ReichThe birds and chipmunks and squirrels eat them—and I eat them, too.

With Nanking cherry, you also need two plants for pollination.

Q. One more fruit for our proposed garden—I think we have room for just one more?

A. I’d plant gooseberries [top-of-page photo]—a fruit that was getting to be very popular about 100 years ago. Then a disease of white pine, white pine blister rust, occurred, and the disease uses Ribes (the genus gooseberries and currants are in) as a host.

White pine was such an important tree, so there was a Federal ban on all Ribes—but it didn’t prove very effective, and besides, cultivated varieties weren’t really the problem, so then it was lifted, in 1966.

So two generations of gardeners didn’t know about gooseberries.

There are a lot of varieties, but many people think they are for cooking, when in fact there are many varieties—called “dessert” varieties–that are excellent eaten fresh, out of hand.

And gooseberries can fruit even in some shade—one of the few fruits that will (currants are another). And deer really don’t like eating the stems, another plus.

Once again, you have to go to a specialist to get a good variety. The most popular one, ‘Pixwell,’ for instance—it’s called that because it doesn’t have thorns, so it’s easy to pick–is small, tart and tough. Look for the dessert types in the specialty catalogs instead. Some of my favorites: ‘Whitesmith,’ ‘Hinonmakis Yellow,’ ‘Poorman,’ ‘Black Satin,’ ‘Webster,’ ‘Red Jacket,’ and ‘Captivator.’

more from lee reich

lee’s favorite fruit sources

I HAD TO ASK LEE REICH, whom Barbara Damrosch calls “the Pied Piper of fruit growing,” where he shops for fruit plants that go beyond the boring or commercial to the exceptional. Here are some of his sources that specialize in the best-tasting varieties:


how to enter to win the book

Grow Fruit Naturally by Lee Reich I’LL BUY TWO LUCKY READERS copies of “Grow Fruit Naturally” by Lee Reich (Amazon affiliate link). NOTE: THE GIVEAWAY IS FINISHED; WINNERS CHOSEN. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the bottom of the page (telling us where you garden, too):

Do you grow fruit in your garden, and if so: which ones? Are you thinking of making room for more?

Me: I mostly grow fruit for the birds, though I do manage to get some raspberries for myself, and think it’s time for gooseberries (which I had decades ago, then took out to make room for who-knows-what else).

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” or something like that, and I will. But an answer is better! Remember: tell us where you garden, too (your state or zone). I’ll pick winners at random after entries close at midnight Sunday, April 13, 2014. Good luck to all.

listen to our whole conversation: the podcast

LEE REICH and I talked wildflowers on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The March 31, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

(All photos copyright Lee Reich, used with permission.)


  1. Jill says:

    I grow strawberries, blueberries, and black raspberries. My garden is rather haphazard, so I’m seeking to make it better.

  2. Lauren says:

    We have one peach tree, reliance, such good flavor! Would love to add blueberries – we currently enjoy the wild ones in the woods, but so does the wildlife that usually gets there first… interested in gooseberries now after reading this, will have to read up before making a decision.

  3. Taylor says:

    I have grown blueberries for years but last year we added a peach tree and two apple trees! Wish me luck! I need his book for sure.

  4. Susan Ginnings says:

    We are moving back to the family ranch and right now we only have left a blackberry patch that has run amok. We have to basically start over.

  5. Brenda Ward says:

    We live in Zone 7, Central VA. We have gradually been putting in Fruit Trees and Vines and learning to care from them as we go via the Net (great site btw). We have planted one Tree unless it needs a pollinator, since we only live on a Ace. I asked my children for them as a Mother’s Day Present in the beginning and I added to them each year as I had the funds too. I hope to add more and hope to be able to eat of each of them, since I qualify for Social Security this year and they take a while to mature to a excellent Harvest. Last year we had the blight go through due to too much rain and I had to cut several of the younger ones way back.

    We planted them not only to give back to the land, but to help us to live healthy and Frugally and to share with others as well as nature; and so we have some all season/some to preserve when time allows and the fruit is productive.

    We planted in this order beginning 2000: Peach, Italian Plum, Apricot, Sweet Cherries, American Persimmon (which has never fruited, so we think it was mislabeled.We added a European and American European a couple of years ago with hopes of pollenating it). Had to replace the Cherries. Then we added, Strawberries, Blueberries, Grapes, Blackberries, Raspberries (some from friends who were thinning out). Next we added, Plumcot, Asian Pears, Nectarine, Apples, Pears. Then Pawpaw’s, Pomegranate, Ever bearing Mulberry. Then we added Elderberries and grape size Kiwi Vine. We added some new varieties of Blueberries and beefed up the soil as they were not doing well. This year we will be replacing the Strawberries with different varieties in hopes of having them most of the season. Am reading up on more fruits in particular fast growing, due to our age.

    The unusual ones we can get from Edible Landscaping, which is about an hour away, that is where we got the Pawpaw and Pomegranate. The rest were either from the Local Co-op or Lowes. We tried a English Walnut, but it did not make it.

    We are still learning as we go… again, your site has been very helpful! Am delighted to have found you.

  6. Mila says:

    Growing in Northern Colorado – raspberries & strawberries – wanting to add gooseberries and currants! Elderberries also – and as many fruiting trees as I can fit in.

  7. Helga G says:

    I can never plant enough Raspberries for my Grandchildren. As for myself I would like Gooseberries and red and black Currants. But sadly I can’t grow them in South Jersey. Something about “White Pine Blister”. So I have to settle for other Berries and Fruit. Lee’s Book would probably help me pick the right Plants for my region.

  8. Jonda says:

    I have 39 strawberry plants, five blackberry bushes, A male and female kiwi plant, and a new grapevine. I also have a Myers lemon tree and a Valencia Orange tree. I’m a big lover of fruit and and would love to have more.

  9. Michael says:

    Here in 6B PA, I grow apples, Asian pears, sweet cherries, jujubes, Asian persimmon, medlar, pawpaw, red/ white mulberry, blueberries (high and low bush), currants, gooseberries, alpine strawberries, lingonberries, raspberry, Nanking cherry, and walnuts. As Lee says, apples and sweet cherries are a real pain and I am considering pulling them out. Everything else does well enough.

    I suppose I subscribe to the Scandinavian school of thought where all things must merge function and beauty.

  10. Julie Martin says:

    I have wild blackberries with brutal thorns–I’ve been trying to destroy and replace with Thornless varieties for the last four years but the wild ones are winning; I’d love Lee’s book!

  11. Tim says:

    Many apple trees planted decades ago along all the fields’ borders, many blueberry bushes, on the wild-side, a heritage breed, but very tasty/flavor-concentrated!

    I’d like to try apricots and pears, maybe some Gala or Fuji apples if we’re in the right zone, commercial berries especially blue, ……..and this article just got me thinking about nuts!

  12. Mika says:

    Currants – all colours – black, red, champagne, white, pink. Planted a new berry last year called a Josta berry, which is supposed to be a mix between a currant and a gooseberry and very tasty. Should be getting some berries this year. Also kiwi and grape which are still too young to produce, two Pear trees and two Chums( mix of cherry and plum) which the rabbits bonsaied last winter despite the trunk guards (snow line was perfect to chew everything above it). I also planted a Mirabelle and Greengage plum and am planning on adding a hazelnut, raspberries and Nankings this year. Love the idea of a Nanking hedge!
    Oh, and I garden in Montreal, Quebec – zone 5b here, but I think its equivalent to your zone 4.
    Really appreciate you fantastic blog and podcasts! Have gotten SO many great ideas from you. Developed a whole new list of plants to add to the garden. Thank you so much!!!

  13. Susan Benn says:

    I grow blueberries, have a cherry tree, and rhubarb. The cherry tree is a fast feast for the birds. I am adding a strawberry patch this year and now will consider a blueberry hedge or paw paw hedge!

  14. Deborah says:

    I grow raspberries, rhubarb and also have a little success with apples and peaches – good to hear how difficult apples are (I am in SE Michigan) I thought it was just me! Inspired buy your post to try some gooseberries and how about blackberries – are they easy for the home gardener?

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