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GARDENING : Juicy Ideas to Give Fruit to a Berry Good Back Yard


When I was a kid growing up on the East Coast, my sisters and I spent hot summer days in the woods eating blueberries and blackberries right off the vine. At the end of the day, to our mother's dismay, we'd come home with spoiled appetites and blue-black hands and mouths. But we didn't mind. What bothered us was the coming of fall and no more berries.

Today I have berry vines in my own back yard that I planted several years ago, not only for myself, but for my daughter. I believe that children should be able to pick a fresh berry--or two or three or four--whenever the urge strikes.

If you haven't had a home-grown berry, you're definitely missing something. Store-bought berries have been picked when still firm, and at that point they are generally tart, tasteless or only mildly sweet. When allowed to ripen on the vine, there is probably no fruit sweeter and more juicy than a berry.

Raspberries, blackberries and boysenberries are all vining plants that tend to sprawl and do best when trained on a trellis or wall. Blueberries are the only berries in the group that grow on a bush. All berry plants produce well for a long time--for at least 10 to 12 years, says Marc Hall, assistant manager of Armstrong Garden Center in Santa Ana.

While most people know what raspberries and blueberries look like, they often have a hard time distinguishing between blackberries and their cousins, boysenberries. "Boysenberries are slightly larger than blackberries and are more of a ruby red, rather than black. They also come in a thornless variety," Hall says. "Blackberries are medium-sized and more numerous."

Now is the time to plant berries, which are planted bare-root. You can find bare-root plants in the nursery now until about the end of February, Hall says.

Before planting your berries, it's important to pick the right home for them and properly prepare the soil.

"Berries only need a half day of sun to fruit well," Hall says. "A location with morning sun and afternoon shade is the best, especially for raspberries and blueberries, which will scorch and shrivel in the summer if they get too much sun."

To plant your bare-root raspberries, boysenberries and blackberries, dig a hole twice as big as the plant's existing root system. Then mix half of the soil you removed from the ground with the same amount of homemade compost or bagged mulch. Hall also suggests adding some fertilizer such as blood meal and bone meal, according to package directions.

Next, put most of the soil back in the hole, creating a mound. Spread the roots of the berry plant over the mound and add the rest of the soil. Pack the soil down firmly and make a water well around the plant for watering.

Blueberries should be planted in the same manner as the other berries; they just require a more acid soil. "Mix one-third garden soil, one-third coarse Irish peat moss and one-third planter mix," Hall says. "If the soil is clayey and compacted, you should also add some sharp sand, which will improve drainage." In addition to blood meal and bone meal, blueberries also benefit from a handful of aluminum sulfate per hole, Hall says.

For best fruiting, blueberries require cross-pollination. Planting three or more bushes ensures maximum production.

Berries also do well when planted in containers, says Hall, who suggests using a container that is at least 15 gallons or a 2-foot by 24-inch oak barrel. Also make sure to provide the berries with a rich soil. Half topsoil and half azalea mix works well for containerized berries, along with blood meal and bone meal.

Because blueberries require a more acid soil, when planting them in containers you can use straight peat moss or half potting soil and half peat moss, says Santa Ana gardener Marie Bouse, past president of the Orange County chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers. She grows a great deal of fruits and vegetables in containers, including blueberries.

"When growing blueberries and other berries in containers, just make sure to water and fertilize them more frequently," Bouse says. "And never let containers dry out."

If you'd like an adequate supply of berries for each member of the family, try planting six to eight plants for a family of four or about two plants per person, says gardener Ed Fishburn of Tustin, who at one time had 50 raspberry, blackberry and boysenberry plants.

When planted bare-root, berry plants should show signs of growth within a month. If planted in the winter or early spring, they will usually produce a small crop the first summer, but won't produce a full crop until the following year.

Berries ripen at different times, depending on the variety. Expect early varieties to ripen in May or June, mid-season in June or July and late season in July, August and sometimes September. No matter what the variety, berries tend not to ripen all at once, which means you can enjoy them for many weeks.

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