Small fruits are so named because they produce small edible fruits on relatively small perennial plants.
Despite their size, small fruits provide big rewards and offer the following advantages to home gardeners over tree fruits:
• By definition, small fruits require less garden space than fruit trees. In addition, unlike many tree fruits, most small fruits are self-fruitful (meaning they do not require a cross-pollinating variety that takes up additional garden space).
• Small fruits are well-suited to our climate, especially our moderate summers. They tend to suffer from fewer diseases and pests and rarely require the repeated pest control sprays needed by many tree fruits.
• Small fruits bear fruit more quickly than fruit trees. Many small fruits produce a small crop a year or two after planting whereas fruit trees can take 5 years or longer before the first harvest.
• Small fruits tend to be attractive plants. If there is insufficient space for a designated berry patch, small fruits can easily be incorporated into the ornamental landscape.
Which small fruits are right for your garden?
Small fruits include the ever popular strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. They also include currants, gooseberries and a host of lesser known fruits.
Berry enthusiasts will suggest that you grow them all, an approach that provides a succession of fresh fruit through the growing season. Most home gardeners, however, have limited time and resources and will need to pick and choose what they plant.
So how do you decide? Family taste preferences and planned uses of the harvest (such as preserves or eating fresh) will be major determinants. The size of a particular small fruit plant compared to available garden space, its growth requirements and potential uses in the ornamental landscape will also be important factors.
A brief overview of selected small fruits can help you decide which are right for you. This article will focus on the most popular small fruits. A few less commonly grown small fruits will be covered next week.
Strawberries are one of the first fruits of the season and probably the quickest to produce a crop after planting.
The plants are small, herbaceous and low-growing. They remain productive for only about 3 to 5 years, after which they will need to be replaced.
Three major types of strawberries are available to home growers:
June-bearing (varieties that produce one large crop in late spring/early summer),
Everbearing (varieties that produce two moderate-sized crops, one in late spring and one in early fall), and
Day-neutral (varieties that produce a modest number of berries throughout the growing season).
Berries from June-bearing varieties are superior in size and taste compared to the other types; its large crop produced in a short amount of time is ideal for gardeners wanting to preserve large amounts of fruit.
Landscape uses: Given their small size, strawberries fit into most garden plans. In the landscape, strawberries can perform as a ground cover or edging; they also grow well in containers. Day-neutral varieties are the best choice when growing strawberries in containers.
Blueberries (when happy) are one of the most long-lived and productive of small fruits. The plants provide year-round interest in the ornamental landscape — white blossoms in spring and luscious blueberries in summer followed by orange and red foliage in fall and red twigs in winter.
Blueberries are not grown as widely as might be expected because of their mature plant size and need for an acidic soil (pH of 4-5.5). Northern highbush varieties, the type of blueberry recommended for good berry production in the northwest, can easily reach 6 or more feet in height and almost as wide.
Landscape uses: Blueberries can provide a focal point or, when grown more closely together, act as a hedge. Smaller varieties (called dwarf and half-highs) can be used as a mixed border or in containers.
In the landscape, it is best to plant blueberries close to plants with similar soil requirements; you will save time and obtain better results if you prepare an entire bed at once, rather than digging holes for individual plants and acidifying the soil to fill the holes.
Blueberries should not be planted close to concrete structures (such as sidewalks and building foundations) because they can cause nearby soil to become too alkaline.
Raspberries, often considered the pinnacle of summertime flavor, come in a variety of colors: red, golden, black and purple. Red varieties are the most productive and long-lived.
Raspberries produce arching canes that can reach 6-8 feet in height and need to be trellised. Most have thorns, although a few spine-free raspberry varieties are available.
Red and yellow raspberries put out suckers from their roots and easily spread from their original planting site. Black and purple raspberries produce canes only from the crown and remain more confined.
Raspberries are susceptible to root diseases and need well-drained soil. They should not be planted at a site that is water-logged for more than a few days at a time during the winter.
Most raspberry varieties produce only one crop in mid-summer. Selected varieties (often called “everbearing” or “fall bearing”), however, produce one crop in mid-summer and another in late summer. Two crops of berries extend fresh fruit production, but the fruit from everbearing varieties is often considered to be of a lower quality than fruit from single-cropping varieties.
Landscape uses: In the landscape, raspberries can be used as living fences (in the case of red or yellow raspberries) or focal points (in the case of black or purple raspberries). Dwarf varieties can be grown in large pots, but produce only a limited number of berries.
Because raspberries tend to be invasive plants, it is important to use in-ground barriers (metal, fiberglass, or tarp buried at least 1 foot below ground level) to confine their roots when planting them in the ornamental landscape and remove canes arising away from crown.
Blackberries (and blackberry-raspberry hybrids) are in the same genus as raspberries (Rubus) but are less finicky plants, and more likely to do better in less than ideal growing conditions. Due to their high tannin content, however, blackberries often taste sour or bitter making them less popular than raspberries among home gardeners.
There are three types of blackberries with very different growth patterns.
• Erect and semi-erect blackberries produce robust, upright canes and shiny black fruit with large seeds; they need summer pruning and can benefit from trellising.
• Trailing blackberries (and blackberry-raspberry hybrids) produce lengthy canes (20 or more feet in length) that must be trellised. Their berries are considered sweeter than erect and semi-erect blackberries and have smaller seeds. They do not require summer pruning.
Like raspberries, some blackberry varieties put out canes from their roots and can become invasive. Although some blackberries have fierce thorns, some varieties are thornless.
Landscape uses: Blackberries have landscape uses similar to raspberries and also need to be confined to prevent invasiveness. A blackberry hedge can block unpleasant views, create a privacy screen and act as a barrier to pets and other creatures.
Next week we will cover a few less well known small fruits that grow well in our climate and provide general advice on growing all small fruits.
Jeanette Stehr-Green is a WSU-certified Clallam County Master Gardener.