MAKING 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
The 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.
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
- Visit Lee’s website
- Blueberries 101 with Lee Reich
- Native fruit trees (paw paws and persimmons) with 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:
- For a variety of fruit, especially uncommon ones, Raintree Nursery (which has Nanking cherries) and One Green World
- For common tree fruits, Cummins Nursery, and Adams County Nursery
- For berries, Nourse Farms and Indiana Berry
- Especially for blueberries, Hartmann Plant Company
- For nuts, Burnt Ridge Nursery and Nolin Nursery
how to enter to win the book
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.)