There are many things to love about growing berries. They’re compact plants, squeezing against fences, into large tubs or otherwise unused corners. Many tolerate part-shade, which is useful on an urban section, and makes them great companion plants forming the understorey or canopy of a ‘food forest’. Unlike fruit trees, they crop within the first year of planting, and of course, they taste all the more delicious when freshly picked!
‘Feet in the shade, heads in the sun’
Many berries are found naturally in deciduous woodlands, lifting themselves into sunlight to flower and fruit, but spreading their roots in deep, damp leaf litter. They need sun to fruit well, but they dislike dry, baking heat, preferring a coolish root run that never totally dries out. Too much humidity or waterlogging are not good either. Ideal conditions for most berries would be free-draining soil with plenty of compost and leaf mould, deeply mulched with rotting woodchip.
Where can berries grow?
The ultimate garden accessory must be a walk-in netting-covered cage (birds love ripe berries almost as much as children do). Failing that, those with smaller gardens can use a fence or wall to support berry canes, with netting attached to drop down and cover ripening fruit. There’s a berry to suit most niches – even the smallest garden has room for a tub or barrel with strawberries, raspberries or boysenberry canes.
A bowl of fresh-picked strawberries for summer breakfasts is an achievable luxury; as well as being delicious these berries are rich in vitamins and iron. Ancestral strawberries were woodland plants, fruiting early, before the leaf canopy closed over for summer. Modern strawberries are bred for later fruiting, and need lots of sun to fruit well, but still hate to dry out. For a longer season, plant more than one variety. Prepare a bed with plenty of compost; planting along a ridge above a ditch makes for easy watering. A nice deep mulch of pine needles is said to improve the flavour while also deterring snails. Strawberries also do well in large pots, which can be moved into the garden’s sunniest spots as berries are ripening.
Plants might be short-lived, producing their best crops for just a few years, but you can keep propagating runners for an ongoing supply of new plants. Peg the first runner into a pot, to be cut off and replanted once roots have grown. (Those further down the line will never crop as well.) Replanting these runners every winter or spring, while digging out the oldest plants, keeps the bed producing well. Experts recommend six to seven plants per person.
Fragaria vesca has smaller (pea-sized) fruits, not so juicy but very sweet and flavoursome, borne year-round. It can handle more shade and makes a great ground cover under fruit trees or roses, or scrambling along the edges of paths. This is one type of strawberry that propagates itself from seed, but being shallow-rooted it’s easily removed if it starts infringing on other territories.
Raspberries spread by suckering and once planted are difficult to dig out. A good position could be against an east-facing wall that gets morning sun, planted at the feet of deciduous trees such as apples, or as part of a hedgerow with other shrubs and berries. They can happily coexist with annual companions such as borage and calendula. Remove perennial weeds like buttercup or couch before planting, as you won’t be able to do so once the raspberries’ roots have developed. Thick mulching protects the root zone and helps keep weeds away.
About two canes per person is recommended; plant them about 80cm apart. You can plant closer but they will very quickly fill in the gaps, because raspberries sucker prolifically, hence the tradition of growing them in narrow hedges or along wire frames (this also helps with bird netting). Unwanted suckers that push their way into paths can be removed or mown over.
Blackberries and their hybrids
While taking up less space than a fruit tree, these need at least 2m to spread out. Canes can grow on a sunny fence or wall; against a house, shed or garage; along wires strung between posts or waratahs; against a trellis; even up a pillar or into a fruit tree if space is lacking. Blackberries could also grow in a large container such as a halfbarrel, if well fed and watered.
I would always choose thornless types – life’s too short to spend it on picking out splinters. Try ‘Navaho’ or ‘Black Satin’. Loganberries are a cross between blackberries and raspberries. ‘Waimate’ is a thornless one. Boysenberries are hybrids with large, tasty fruits. ‘Thornless Jewel’ is a good variety.
All these have perennial root systems, bearing biennial stems. In the first year, canes grow long and in the second year they bear flowers and fruit on small side-branches (laterals). After fruiting, canes can be cut off at ground level and the new shoots that will bear next year’s fruits can then be tied in. Tip-pruning new canes in spring is said to encourage more lateral growth and hence more fruit the following year.
Good news for those with hot, dry gardens where forest-loving berries won’t thrive: Cape gooseberries, originating in South America, seem to love these conditions. I grow them on dry banks, or at the backs of garden beds in the rain shadow of a north-facing fence, and they also do well in pots. They have a very floppy growth habit and the leaves are burned by frosts, but they’re otherwise very easygoing, needing no attention until harvest time. The orange, round berries grow inside decorative papery husks (hence the American name, husk cherry or sun cherry). The flavour is a little tomatoey, but in a nice way. Some patient souls make them into delicious jam, but I love them raw.
These seem to do best for South Island gardeners. If you live in a warmer climate, try them against an east-facing wall to avoid the drying afternoon sun. If space is short they can be trained against walls, espaliered, or even grown in containers as long as they don’t dry out. Each plant needs about 1-1.5m. As with their close relations the currants, plenty of compost or manure keeps plants strong. A regular dressing of wood ash or potash ensures good fruiting, and a deep layer of mulch keeps roots cool and moist and helps avoid weeds (gooseberry plants are prickly, so the less weeding needed the better). Prune out the oldest wood from the centre of the bush to make a vase-like shape.
Part-shade is OK for these forest-fringe dwellers, naturally found in deciduous woodland. That’s not to say currants enjoy full shade – more sun always means more fruit, but they do surprisingly well in shade, preferring part-shade to full baking sun that would dry out their roots. This makes them very useful around the garden; redcurrant bushes in particular don’t need prime sunny spots, but can be tucked in under fruit trees, or in the dryish, shady corners found in many urban gardens. Redcurrants make the most of spring sunshine and crop around the longest day – a great addition to a Christmas summer pudding. Redcurrants are naturally found further south in Europe than their black cousins, who are native to northern Eurasia where they experience winter snow, and fruit later in the summer.
Though they both have suckering habits, red and black currants need different pruning. Start with either by pruning out dead, diseased or damaged wood, opening up the middle of the bush in a vase shape. After that, blackcurrants fruit on new wood, so prune out anything older than three years – usually done by removing one third of the oldest canes each year. Redcurrants fruit on spurs on the old wood, so prune out the oldest wood in winter, and tip back new growth by about a third after fruit has set to keep the bush compact.
Blueberries are quite particular about their growing conditions, but get those right and they can do well across the country. Part of the trick is choosing the right variety, and this depends on which part of the country you are in. Some are deciduous and need winter chilling – just to be confusing, these are called ‘northern’ types (from the northern, cooler states of America) while rabbiteye and ‘southern’ types, bred for warmer climates, suit northern parts of New Zealand better (from Waikato northwards). Most varieties also do best with a different sort nearby to crosspollinate them.
In their native habitat blueberries grow on riverbanks and on islands in peat bogs, with plenty of sun, and constant access to water without being actually waterlogged. If you don’t happen to have a peat bog with an island in your backyard, try to keep the soil moist but not soggy. If you are gardening on sand or clay, the best bet may be to grow blueberry plants in a large tub or barrel filled with compost-rich, acid soil and well mulched with woodchip to keep the shallow roots from drying out.
Blueberries don’t need a lot of feeding; compost and mulch will generally supply their needs. The only pruning needed is in winter to cut out some of the oldest, twiggy growth to encourage new branches to sprout.
Walter Knott named the boysenberry after Rudolph Boysen. Exactly how Rudolf Boysen came across the boysenberry remains a mystery, but it is said to have been cultivated by crosspollinating the flowers of three other berries: raspberry, loganberry and blackberry. Propagate boysenberries by cuttings, or by layering. The fruit don’t have a long shelf life, but it’s not difficult to ensure they are consumed quickly. Boysenberries enjoy having some support, so give them a trellis fence to grow along.
The cranberry is native to North America and can be found in sandy bogs in the USA and Canada. These bogs were created by glacial deposits. German and Dutch settlers began calling it ‘crane berry’, because the flower looks like a crane’s head and bill. Cranberries are very tart raw, so they’re mostly used in drinks and sauces, or sweetened and dried. The cranberry looks very similar to the Chilean guava (or NZ cranberry), but they are not the same. Cranberries like sandy acidic soil with added peat.
James Harvey Logan discovered this berry in California, back in 1880. It’s a cross between the blackberry and the raspberry. The loganberry has been used to produce hybrids such as the tayberry, boysenberry and ‘Kotata’ blackberry.
The tayberry is yet another hybrid berry, but one for which we have the Scots to thank. A cross of the ‘Aurora’ blackberry and raspberry, it was named after the Tay River in Scotland (where it was bred). It is a good berry for jam making. Give tayberries a good mix of compost and manure when planting. Continue to mulch them with manure and compost every year afterwards and they’ll thank you with luscious-tasting berries.
What is a berry?
Botanically speaking, a berry is “a fleshy fruit without a stone produced from a single flower containing one ovary”. This means grapes, tomatoes, avocados, watermelon and bananas are ‘berries’, but blackberries and raspberries are not – botanically, they are ‘aggregate fruits’. Commonly, however, a berry is any small, edible fruit – usually small, round, juicy and brightly coloured.