These days there seems to be such an ever-increasing range of delicious fruit plants for the garden and allotment that it can be a bit bewildering perhaps to the first time gardener – especially if, as is so often the case, space is at a premium – what exactly should you devote your efforts to growing? Breeding stations around the world have been busy developing ever more selections, varieties and types to choose from which of course is a good thing as many of them have distinct and attractive qualities, and may be advancements over older varieties that have gone before; but it can also make choosing even more confusing!
Probably the first thing you should do is draw up a workable plan, a list of which types of fruit you would get the most benefit from. There are some important questions you should ask when determining which fruit plants will bring the most value to you and your family.
Do you have a large freezer? Do you cook and make jam? During years of excess, those banner summers when conditions are perfect and your fruit plants and bushes all yield to their utmost potential, can result in an overload of produce; are you likely to freeze this excess and do you have the facilities? If the answer is no then you might restrict your endeavours to smaller quantities and it’s also worth remembering to avoid those types that are primarily used for cooking purposes and for which freezing is the ideal way of preserving for future use. If you and your family just like eating fresh for tea with cream for example, or eating them outdoors straight from the bush or plant, then you won’t want rows of culinary gooseberries, a nice big rhubarb clump or blackcurrants for that matter.
If you have children that you’d like to enjoy these fruits of your endeavours then make sure to choose extra sweet dessert types that they can enjoy without sugar and without the need to cook and preserve.
What about holidays? This is often an important consideration; if you habitually take your summer break in July then it’s wise to make sure you grow types of fruit, and varieties that come early or late because there’s nothing worse than coming back from your trip to a garden full of spoilt or over-ripe fruit. These days there is plenty of variety so you can easily choose types that fruit outside of your away-dates, and the same is true whether you holiday in June, July, August or September – there’s a good range that crops at different periods during the summer and these are easily selected with the information that we give in the main category sections of our website.
Your soil type matters too, as does the amount of time you are willing or able to devote to them. For example, if you have a heavy soil you might want to avoid raspberries that traditio0nally do not thrive there. Rhubarb, blackcurrants and gooseberries however will thrive, as will blackberries. If the soil is at the other extreme – light and sandy – then your good to go with raspberries and strawberries in particular. Of course, good soil preparation and improvement can help you to grow most things no matter what the soil type but again it depends how much time you can give to your fruit growing endeavours too. Simpler lower maintenance crops such as blackcurrants, blackberries, rhubarb and redcurrants come to the fore for gardeners with limited time as these tend to be lower maintenance and can do well even with a little neglect.
Siting is also of primary importance. If it is an open, sunny site then just about anything can be grown; if it tends to be a bit shadier then avoid sun-lovers like strawberries – concentrate instead on growing fruit plants for shade such as blackcurrants, gooseberry and blackberry or maybe rhubarb. And space too is vitally important. Smaller areas can grow good crops of strawberries and cordon trained currants and gooseberry but raspberries will very quickly swamp smaller areas, or you may be able to plant too few to make it viable. Blackberries too demand much more space than you may be able to afford; that said read on and this article will give you spacer-saving ideas for all.
So, armed with this checklist – that of usage, space, soil type, ease of cultivation and cropping period – you can make the ideal shopping list that meets your criteria and needs.
Strawberries are the smallest of all the fruiting plants you can grow so are easily accommodated even in restricted areas and smaller plots. The plants are semi-herbaceous, meaning that they die back in the winter; this is at odds with virtually all the other soft fruit plants which maintain a woody framework even in winter time. A strawberry plant seldom grows more than about 12” and the same across, different varieties can be a little more or less vigorous than this but that’s a good average. A strawberry plant can be cropped successfully for 3-5 years, after this period it’s a good idea to discard them and start again as disease will start to build up and the plants begin to lack vigour. A strawberry plant bears clusters of white flowers during May and also produces lots of baby plants by way of ‘runners’ – these usually start to appear after the fruits ripen, later in Summer. These runners can be a good source of new plants but can also be a nuisance so if you don’t want to propagate from them, remove them as they appear or the rows will quickly begin to look untidy.
Strawberry plants can crop at any time from late May to the first frosts, so called maincrop varieties cover the traditional summer period and then perpetual or autumn fruiting varieties take over and fruit in flushes to the first frosts. By planting a selection of varieties you can ideally cover this entire period.
Yield Established plants carry 2-3ibs per plant according to variety as long as they are well looked after and not too old. Remember yield deteriorates after 3 years so then it may be necessary to replace them.
SOIL PREPARATION & PLANTING Is explained in our previous article.
Planting distance for strawberry plants You will need 12-15” between plants and about 36” between rows.
When to plant Actually you can plant at almost any time of year – pot grown plants can usually be acquired from Spring through to the Autumn and specialist nurseries will supply bare rooted runners from October to March. Our preference is always for a pot grown plant and if these are planted during the summer – July to September ideally – then you can rely on virtually a full crop the following summer! But bare root runners are easy to plant and need little watering then, plus they coincide with the dormant season planting of all the other soft fruit plants such as raspberry, currant, rhubarb etc so it is often convenient to plant everything at once and have it delivered at the same time. Runners planted over winter will produce a crop the next Summer although it won’t be as heavy as with the pot grown summer planted ones.
Growing strawberries in pots Is easy! Strawberries are probably the most accommodating of all our delicious fruiting plants for container growing, they’re naturally smaller growth lends them to all sorts of container, be it a good 12” pot, a hanging basket, a trough, growbags, or you can buy proprietary strawberry planter which will have several holes in a tower system. The key is to not overcrowd – I’d recommend no more than 5 plants in a 12 “ pot or 4n in a 24” windowbox. Peat-based compost is much the best and I know that’s a dirty word these days, you can for coir but it will need more watering and more regular feeding. All varieties of strawberry can be grown in pots but it makes sense to go for the more compact kinds and also those with a longer season – autumn fruiting and perpetual varieties are the obvious choice in both those respects. Diamante, a very compact long fruiting selection from California does particularly well, as does Flamenco, Calypso and Rabunda, this latter variety is an oldie I have a soft spot for! Strawberries in pots should only be cropped for one season and then discarded or planted out in the garden. You can keep them on the patio, the cold greenhouse or set them amongst the flowers in the border, just make sure they never go short of water otherwise the fruits will be small and tough. It’s surprising just how much water they can get through and it’s wise to get into a routine whereby you water at the same time each morning or evening. Feeding – I like to use Seaweed extract as a foliar feed, it’s fast acting and gives the plants a good colour too but there are lots of other general purpose feeds out there that wortk well too.
Propagation Strawberries are very simple to increase, they obligingly produce these little runners from the parent plant, small immature juvenile plants that appear on long leafless stems in late Summer. If left to their own devices they will root into the soil wherever they lay; you can then go along and lift them with a trowel in late Autumn, when they have established a good root system, and re-plant them where needed. You should never take runners from plants older than 3-4 years, nor from any that lack vigour or show signs of disease. You can also take immature runners and root them in pots in a cloche or greenhouseeven if they have no roots of their own, snip off the end with the plant with about an inch of stem attached and insrert into pots of multi purpose compost; no rooting agent is necessary but you should cover the pots with polythene to stop dehydration. Even the ‘tips’ [as they are known in the trade] will produce roots even if they have none, as long as they have developed a heal or kink in the stem just before the plant; if the stem is flat and hasn’t developed a heal then they won’t root.
Some perpetual, Autumn fruiting, and day-neutral varieties produce much fewer runners than maincrop varieties, sometimes none at all so it can be difficult finding runners to increase or replace your stock. In this case there is a second method of reproduction and that is careful division of the parent plant. This isn’t a well known technique but it can work well when performed carefully after fruiting is finished, in Autumn or even a little earlier as long as you don’t mind sacrificing the last of the crop. 2 year old plants best suit this purpose. Gently lift the parent plant with as much root as possible, shake off the soil and then wash it under the garden tap so you can see the crown of the plant properly. Cut back the foliage to just five or six inches from the crown of the plant. You should then see the established mother plant is actually made up with several smaller plants all joined together at the base. Trim back all roots to about three or four inches, and, taking a sharp knife divide it up into small individual plants, cutting through the woody material where necessary. These new plants should be set into individual pots of general purpose compost at a depth so the soil is level with the base of the crown. Firm and water in well, they will root through in a sheltered place outdoors but for faster establishment keep them in a cloche or cold frame or cold greenhouse. Plant out in their final positions next Spring.
Some strains of seed raised Strawberry have come on to the market, they are definitely inferior to traditional varieties raised vegetatively and the seed is quite expensive and very tiny which makes it tricky to raise in the early stages. But this method can yield useful plants that will crop the second summer after sowing. Saving seed from your own strawberries will not result in plants identical to the source, and they will be of variable quality yet it can be an enjoyable experiment if you don’t mind the lottery of an unpredictable result! The fruits intended for seed production should first be dried out on kitchen towelling on a sunny windowsill; after 2-3 weeks rub the skin through a sieve of extract the seeds individually with a needle. Sow on the surface of moist compost and germinate in a propagator, out of the sunshine, at a temperature of about 70 degrees. Prick out into individual pots 3-4 weeks later.
Space saving options for strawberry plants
They’re pretty easy to tuck into odd spare places and can grow anywhere there is some decent soil and sunshine for at least 4 hours a day. As they are quick to come into bearing they can also be used as a catch crop in a fallow area awaiting something else, or you can grow them in rows between newly planted raspberry canes, as long as they are discarded the second year once the raspberries start to get going. They are, as previously described, ideal for container gardening – why not try some hanging baskets, they look lovely – just as attractive in their own way as more traditional fare, and yet productive too! Strawberries can also be grown at the base of rose bushes or shrubs in the border, as long as they can get some sunshine they will perform well.
Raspberries grow from stout individual canes which can grow 4-7’ in height, and they spread beneath the ground from the roots which send up new canes a few inches away from the parent cane, creating in time stands of several canes from one plant [known as a ‘stool’] Raspberries are entirely deciduous, in that they will lose their leaves in winter. Most canes have spines or bristles, some newer types have smooth canes. Flowering takes place in late May and June with greenish white flowers produced in clusters from short side laterals set along the top half of the cane. The canes will have a good productive life of around ten years; after this point they should be dug up and replaced with fresh disease free canes in anew area. The site of the old raspberry bed can safely be a home to unrelated fruits such as currants, strawberries or rhubarb as long as it has been improved and fed well beforehand.
Cropping period You can have raspberries in fruit from late June to August from what is known as floricane or maincrop varieties, that fruit on second year canes. Autumn fruiting varieties, now known as Primocane, fruit from August to October and bear their fruits on new canes of the current year. So with a considered range of varieties you can harvest fresh raspberries from late June to mid-October or sometimes even later if the weather stays warm.
EXPECTED YIELD You can get about 1ib of fruit from one cane and it’s parents, when established, from an older variety. The best modern types can yield almost double this.
Planting distance Allow 1’ [30cm’s] between canes, but you will need six times that between rows as the canes spread out, making dense stands, and you need to allow room to walk between the rows for maintenance and harvesting.
SOIL PREPARATION & PLANTING Is explained in our previous article
When to plant Raspberries October to March is definitely the best time, even during the depths of winter is fine as long as the soil is open and workable; frost does not harm the canes once they are in the ground. Many folk like to plant in Autumn when the soil still holds some warmth, so that the canes are settled and partly established before winter sets in. Later planting in March and April can necessitate the need for watering the first Spring if it is a dry one until the new growths are established. You can buy raspberry plants in plugs or small pots and these can be planted through the Summer, if for some reason this is more convenient to you then ok, but results are generally less satisfactory than planting a bare root cane during the dormant season. Prices are usually roughly the same whichever form you buy them in.
Space saving option for growing Raspberries Raspberries can take a lot of room it has to be said; they are tall and they do tend to spread around, yet curbing the new canes results in loss of crop. One thing you can do is to plant 3 or 5 canes close together and tie the new growths together ‘wigwam’ style in the second season. This forms a nice self contained clump that can happily yield in an area of about 24” x 24” and it won’t need support as the canes will support one another. When new canes start to stray away from the areas hoe them up carefully. Some more compact varieties that don’t grow so tall and are a little less enthusiastic in their growth are Malling Jewel, Lloyd George, Zeva, Malling Admiral and September. These mostly older varieties can also be grown as self-supporting, without the need for posts and wires and they have a really good taste too.
Container growing raspberries You might get some initial success planting raspberries in buckets of well drained fertile compost but long term they don’t do well and I would view this either as an experiment or a short term project only. The parent cane’s ability to produce productive new canes is compromised by lack of space and as the older canes die out or are cut away you are left with a lack of young productive growth and it’s difficult to rejuvenate.
Propagation This is done entirely by lifting of new canes which are produced naturally by the parent. Established new canes can be carefully lifted from the parent at any time October-March and re planted straight away. The thickness of the cane is not too important as long as there is a reasonable root. The canes should be cut right back after planting. Only take the canes from vigorously growing healthy stocks. Cuttings from raspberries are difficult although shoot tips have been rooted successfully under cover with mist and bottom heat but generally require a specialist propagation unit.
Blackberries are easy to grow on most soil types and produce long, arching stems which generally require the support of a fence, wall or post and wire system. There are a few more compact varieties that can be grown largely self supporting and have a slightly more shrubby habit. Many of the older varieties have ample thorns but there are plenty of smooth varieties that are free of prickles as well. The flowers are white or pinkish white and appear in June. The fruit is very versatile, ideal for eating fresh straight from the plant, or served in a bowl with cream for tea, but also a wonderful thing for the kitchen cook used in jams, crumbles, pies and pastries or used for juicing in smoothies; freezes very well.
SPACING For traditional varieties you need at least 10’ for one plant. Intermediate growers such as Helen and Loch Tay etc 6-8’ is sufficient. Compact growers – Loch Ness and Waldo primarily – 4-6’ is enough.
YIELD This is a question with a variable answer! Some of the more boisterous growers like Bedford Giant or Himalayan Giant can give up to 30ibs per plant – that’s a lot of blackberries! Most will give up to 20ibs when fully established; the smaller types 10-12ib is usual. Blackberries do not reach full potential for about 4 years and usually start to crop from year two.
The blackberry season Starts at the end of July with Helen and other early varieties, usually, peaks throughout August with the main run of cultivars, and can continue well into September with the addition of later varieties like Chester.
SOIL PERPARATION & PLANTING can be read about in our earlier post here.
SITING Although the largest, sweetest berries will come from those plants growing in a sunny spot, this is one fruiting plant that can cope with some shade as long as the soil is good. They can be used to utlize a North or East wall which is a good aspect for little else! Wherever they are grown they will need some support otherwise the long arching canes will be difficult to handle and pick and the fruit will be on the floor. If they aren’t kept regularly tied and pruned they can quickly become an unruly mess.
THE BEST TIME TO PLANT Blackberries are mostly supplied in containers so there isn’t really a planting season as such, as long as they are in pots you can put them in at any time but the most popular time remains in the Autumn and winter, the benefit being that little or no watering is needed and the plants establish with little stress, growing away in the Spring. When planting during the growing season make sure provision is made for regular watering until established. Planting during this period does have advantages in colder areas in that the plants will be largely established before their first winter.
SPACE SAVING OPTIONS FOR BLACKBERRIES As previously mentioned, there are some good compact growers like Waldo and Loch Ness. It has been suggested that these two varieties can be tucked into a row of raspberries, or grown on one end, just 4’ is enough for them to grow. They can even be cultivated in large containers using a good hearty compost and a regular feed such as vitax or maxicrop seaweed extract. You could grow them at the back of the shrubbery since no support is required and they can take a bit of shade. Another option with the more vigorous traditional varieties is to restrain their growth to one stout post; limit the number of new canes that are produced and tie them in to the post.
Remember the more vigorous varieties can be grown over or through a hedge as they would in the wild. Varieties like Bedford Giant or Ashton Cross are well suited to this use. The Himalayan Giant – as the name would suggest, the biggest, most rampant of all, can be grown through a large tree or over an unsightly outbuilding.
PROPAGATION The easiest way to propagate a Blackberry is by rooting the tips of strong new canes during late Summer. Select the strongest and peg the tip down onto the floor with a wire hoop and scoop some soil onto it. Water it gently in and, if the weather is dry, water again each week until a new shoot emerges from the soil in the Autumn. At this point it will have rooted so the old stem can be cut away and the new plant will grow away on it’s own; it can be dug up and re planted where required that winter or the following early spring. You may find seedling popping up around the parent plant from time to time – or anywhere in the garden for thast matter, and although it might be tempting to utilize them, it’s a bit of a fools errand. They are invariably thorny [even if the parent plant is thornless] and super-vigorous and nine out of ten of them will produce fruits of poor quality so they are best ruthlessly dealt with and hoed.
Another propagation method, and the one used by commercial nurseries, is to take tip cuttings or leaf bud cuttings, which contain simply the leaf and a short length of stem about half an inch in length each side of the leaf – taken from the middle third of strongly growing shoots in July or August. They must be rooted under plastic with adequate humidity, bottom heat helps. Rooting usually takes place in three to four weeks but the plants must be grown on until the following summer before being planted out properly.
A real old traditional fruit if ever there was and the one most likely to conjure up nostalgic memories! Fortunately, many of those old varieties still exist so you can still grow that old treasured heirloom from your childhood days! Modern varieties are better, of course, and often have resistance to mildew which can be the scourge of many gooseberry crops
Gooseberries grow as upright to semi spreading twiggy dense bushes, they tend to have quite small root systems and are deciduous. The very small bell flowers appear early, at the start of May and maybe even before, and the bushes come into leaf sooner than just about anything else does in a mass of vibrant green. Unfortunately, the attraction ends their because these densely thorny ugly bushes are quite unsightly! The berries are mature in June and as soon as they have finished fruiting the leaves tend to go copper or discoloured and often the bush is bald completely by the end of summer; this isn’t something to worry about and they invariably leaf again, eager to get going next March!
The berries can be a traditional green, which are the kind used for culinary purposes, such as jams, crumbles, pies, freezing, stewing and bottling, or yellow or red. These two latter types are sweeter and can be used for eating fresh, even straight from the bush when fully ripe. The dessert kinds seem to be increasing in popularity every year but you can’t really beat a wonderful gooseberry pie or a jar of emerald green gooseberry jam and for that you need a true cooking variety like Careless, or Greenfinch and Invicta.
Although the majority of Gooseberries are stoutly thorned mention must be made of a small number of thornfree or nearly thornfree varieties all of which are red fruited at present. Captivator, a continental variety was the first of these to come to prominence in the 1970,s, Pax came along quite recently and is a better variety with an excellent flavour and with some mildew resistance but needs protection in colder areas. Freedonia is another newer one that shows promise.
Gooseberries are in the main very frost hardy and the flowers seldom get frosted either, ensuring a reliable crop each year. They can even cope with some shade and still do well, or be grown against an East wall. Mildew is the one scourge to be aware of, grow mildew resistant varieties such as Invocta [green] Greenfinch, Jubilee [yellow] the continental ‘Hino’ prefix varieties, or Martlet [red] and Rokula [red] These are all superb varieties. The older types will mostly need help in remaining free of Mildew with a comprehensive fungicidal spray programme.
Spacing Bush Gooseberries should eb set about 5’ apart – vigour does vary with variety, some of the very old ones seem reluctant to grow much but others, especially newer varieties or tried and tested commercial ones, grow with more vigour. Cordon gooseberries should be planted 15-18” apart.
Soil preparation, planting and pruning are described in an earlier article which you can read here.
Yield So, how much to expect from your Gooseberry bush? They are generally quite precocious and will generally give a few fruits even the first Summer following planting; when at their peak a good variety can give 10ibs of fruit from one bush, older heirloom varieties less. Cordons can give 1-2ibs but take up much less room.
When to harvest June is Gooseberry time; if you are cooking with them you can pick them as soon as they have reached a decent size and ripeness isn’t so much of an issue. However if you want to eat them fresh don’t be tempted to pick them too soon as they colour up for a few days before attaining full ripeness. The first fallen berries on the floor, and a little ‘give’ when gently squeezed are signs that the crop is ripe, although also remember that all the berries might not ripen evenly over the bush so it’s often necessary to go over it two or even three times. Cordon and wall trained Gooseberries will ripen earlier than bushes.
Gooseberries in pots They can do well in a container of about 5 litres – as mentioned before they tend to have small roots so it’s no use offering them something more generous as the compost will just stagnate. Use a hearty loam based compost with some added perlite. They can yield well for up to 5 years, after that plant out in the garden and start again. Be prepared for especially early dormancy with Gooseberries grown in containers, this doesn’t particularly signify a problem.
SPACE SAVING OPTIONS There are a couple of ways in which you can incorporate Gooseberries into smaller spaces. The cordon is the most obvious way and it’s quite easy too. The plants are restricted to just one [single] or two [double] stems and the berries appear directly from these growths all along the stem. They can be spaced only 15” apart and must be supported – either with a post and wire system if you want to grow several, which is easy enough given the limited requirement of space, or you can plant against a wall – even an East facing wall is suitable – or sole cordons can be adequately supported with a stout bamboo cane.
The second way in which you can grow Gooseberries in a restricted space is as a standard. With a standard the gooseberry ‘bush’ has been grafted onto a clear standard stem, a bit like a standard rose. This allows for planting beneath with annuals or herb maybe, nothing too big and boisterous but smaller growing plants are fine. They are easier to harvest as the berries are roughly at eye level and they take up less room. You can grow all the types this way although you will have to go to a specialist fruit growing nursery to buy one. They can also be grown in containers. A standard gooseberry will need it’s main stem supporting with a good stout bamboo cane. m
Propagation Gooseberries are simply propagated by hardwood cuttings taken during the winter; there is no other reliable method. Mature growths from the previous season, about 6” long are inserted into friable soil, buried up to a third their length any time from October to February. These invariably root and are ready for transplanting as year old plants to their final positions the following Autumn or Winter.