Local Berries

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, June 26, 1998

In terms of flavor returned for effort expended, it's hard to beat local berries. This is especially true for those which are more or less native to this region. Strawberries, blackberries, and dewberries, as well as several kinds of blueberries and raspberries, were growing widely in New England when the Europeans invaded almost 400 years ago. Each of these berries ripens in its turn to produce a nearly continuous supply from June to October. Not only are these small fruits delicious, many of them contain cancer-fighting compounds. They have lots of Vitamin C, potassium and fiber, too. And when we grow and pick these berries near home, we save energy, and connect directly to their seasonal nature.

We've been picking our strawberries over the past three weeks and have enjoyed wonderful shortcakes and a scrumptious strawberry/rhubarb pie. Although there are some tiny, very tasty wild strawberries here, we cultivate the more well-known types developed in Europe by crossing wild strawberries that grew in North America with those that were native to South America. Strawberries require more work than other small fruits because they are short-lived, are less able to compete with weeds and need replanting every two or three years. The harvest season can be extended by planting several different varieties. Sparkle, for example, is highly recommended.

Now that strawberries are waning, blackcap raspberries are beginning to ripen here. These are the easiest to grow. The only effort required really is to pick them. Each year, about this time, we find a bountiful crop of these firm, flavorful berries. They'll be around for several weeks. The birds like them, too. Fortunately, they spread blackcap raspberry seeds everywhere along with their manure. Blackcaps are likely to grow under trees, anywhere there is bare or disturbed ground. They thrive in a bit of shade. These raspberries are easy to recognize because of their gracefully-arching, purple canes. When their tips touch the ground, they take root, which eventually creates a large patch dense enough to discourage most weeds. I haven't yet found anything that improves the yield of these plants other than just picking them. Every few years we discover a new patch, just as an old one is dying out.

Wineberries are less common in my experience, but they too, mostly grow wild. Ours just appeared in the garden. Wineberries are very sturdy, extremely bristly, and have stems with a reddish hue. The berries start out with a furry covering which opens to reveal a bright red, very sweet berry which ripens over a shorter period than some of the other kinds.

Although it is fairly common to find red raspberries, blackberries and blueberries growing wild, or escaped from a garden, the fruits from cultivated varieties are often bigger and/or sweeter, so they're definitely worth planting and caring for.

We've found that berries grow very well with just three kinds of care: a thick mulch to keep the weeds down and build fertility; an annual pruning to prevent too much growth; and of course, picking. We use leaves, compost or straw to mulch all of these small fruits, except the blueberries which prefer a thick layer of wood chips to create the required acidity.

Blueberries can be planted singly as attractive landscape plants and to feed the birds, or arranged in groups for serious picking. Wild blueberries grow on thin, rocky soils over much of this region. Cultivated blueberries, developed early in this century, come in a number of varieties which ripen from July to September. Blueberry patches should be protected from the birds by netting.

Red raspberries are ripening now, too. The Heritage variety we started with decades ago still produces berries in early summer and again for much of the fall. We also enjoy a closely-related golden raspberry, which is even sweeter than the red kind.

Blackberries are rampant growers. There are eight-foot-tall canes which produce nearly one inch berries growing on our farm. I like to pick blackberries when they are ripe enough that they begin to heat up in August's sun. They're oh so sweet.

Raspberries and blackberries may benefit from growing along a fence or trellis. They also make good barriers or hedges.

Look for these delicious berries in the wild and get ready to plant some next spring. There's nothing quite like fresh, fully-ripe organic berries.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.