Berry Different

A fruit farmer in New York state shares her knowledge of growing some of the best berries you've never tasted.

June 29, 2012

Red, purple, black, gold: There’s a rainbow of sweet berries just ripe for the picking.

Katie Creeger grew up with apple trees. But when she decided to go into farming, she knew she’d have to grow fruit on a smaller scale. “I’m a small person, and trees are just too big,” she jokes. So she decided to grow berries. All kinds of berries.
Kestrel Perch Berries, Creeger’s farm in Ithaca, New York, is named for the birds flying overhead. It’s small, as farms go—just under 5 acres. But it’s big enough to serve Creeger’s dream: a place where children and their parents can connect with the food they eat. The farm is a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation with a twist. Instead of simply picking up a box of fruit each week, members come to the farm with their families and pick their own berries in the fresh air and sunlight. CSA members also commit to 3 hours of work over the season: moving a few wheelbarrows of mulch or pulling weeds. 
Although the farm is not certified organic, organic methods are followed, so that children can eat berries right off the vine, cane, or bush. Creeger grows strawberries, red raspberries, and blueberries, but to introduce people to new flavors, she’s planted black raspberries, currants, gooseberries, and elderberries. Here are her tips to help gardeners get started with a backyard berry patch.
Photos by Sean McCormick

Establishing Roots


Black raspberries were among the first crops Creeger planted when she started the farm 8 years ago. Not to be confused with blackberries, black raspberry fruits are smaller and less shiny than blackberries. All raspberries (Rubus) like sunny spots and well-drained soils. They don’t tolerate soggy soil, which Creeger learned: Last year, root rot claimed the black raspberries in the wettest part of her garden. She replanted elsewhere, but gardeners with wet soil should plant brambles in 10-inch-high raised beds.

“They also need enough space,” says Creeger. Black raspberries and purple raspberries (a disease-resistant cross between black and red raspberries) don’t spread as much as the reds, so most planting guides suggest planting them about 30 inches apart. Creeger planted her rows of canes 5 feet apart and will give future brambles more room. Raspberries grow better when trellised. They can be trained on T-bars with wires strung 18 inches apart, but “I use a simpler/cheaper method,” says Creeger. “I put in a single row of straight posts and contain the plants between two rows of twine wrapped around the posts.”

Pruning is essential. Most berry growers prune and thin canes early in their second season. Only second-year canes bear fruit, so further cane management consists of removing old canes and thinning to leave three or four younger, greener canes per foot of row. Creeger also cuts back the growing tips about 4 inches when they’re just short of the desired picking height. Tip pruning encourages branching, which results in more fruit and makes the berries easier to pick.

Before putting in raspberries, gardeners should get weeds under control and check their garden plans from previous years. Brambles (the term for raspberries and blackberries) are vulnerable to verticillium wilt, so avoid planting them in sites where plants in the tomato family (peppers, potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes) or strawberries have ever grown.

Instead of cultivating between rows, Creeger lets the grass grow and mows the paths. That doesn’t get all the weeds, so when she’s walking the rows she’ll rip up large dandelions and clover and use their leaves to mulch the berries. The worst weeds on the farm are goldenrod and other perennials, especially those that spread underground.

Both black and purple raspberries can tolerate a wide range of climatic conditions, from the extreme heat of California’s Central Valley to the cool and wet Northwest to the Midwest and eastern states. Creeger is planting ‘Royalty’, a purple raspberry, for the first time this year; black ‘Munger’ is another disease-resistant variety.


Branching Out

After the brambles, Creeger planted red and black currants and two kinds of gooseberries. Now her customers enjoy a wider variety of fruit and an extended picking season.

Currants and gooseberries are both members of Ribes, a diverse genus with many species and varieties that range in color, size, shape, and even hairiness. The one thing all ribes have in common is that they’re cold-hardy and fairly easy to grow. And they’re heavy nitrogen feeders—a craving easily satisfied by mulching with grass clippings around the canes.

Currants like rich soil that can hold water. For gardeners with sandy soil, that means incorporating organic matter well ahead of planting. On the plus side, currants require less maintenance than brambles. Annual pruning in late winter or early spring is sufficient. For the first 3 years, that means thinning each plant to leave three or four each of 1-, 2-, and 3-year canes. By year 4, remove the oldest canes and thin the new growth.

Pruning is important for air circulation, too, says Marvin Pritts, Ph.D., chairman of Cornell University’s department of horticulture. Currants are susceptible to mildew, he says, and good site selection and pruning are essential for plant health. On the other hand, they don’t have special pH requirements and will fruit in partial shade, making them an easy-to-grow crop for most backyard gardens.

Creeger’s picks for currants are ‘Ben Sarek’ and ‘Titania’, disease-resistant black varieties, and ‘Rovada’, a red that produces up to 7 quarts of berries per plant.

While her currants are relatively pest-free, Creeger hasn’t been as lucky with the gooseberries. Two years ago, sawflies discovered the berry patch. Insecticidal soap controls the chewing larvae, but it has to be applied every 10 days. So last summer, Creeger switched tactics and sprayed Surround, a kaolin clay barrier.

Though she must reapply the clay after rain, it works pretty well as a feeding deterrent, she says. Given the damage sawflies inflict, Creeger is debating the merits of gooseberries as a commercial crop. But they are a good choice for the backyard garden. Creeger chose ‘Hinnonmaki Red’ and the larger ‘Tixia’ for flavor and color. Gooseberries are pruned in the same way as currants.

Ribes, adapted to cool climates, don’t do well in warmer areas and tend to drop fruit in hot and humid weather. They’re also alternate hosts for white pine blister rust, a fungus that must have both white pines and ribes in close proximity to complete its life cycle. For this reason, some states, among them Maine, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, prohibit black currants. In New York state, regulations vary by county, says Creeger, so it is best to check with the local Cooperative Extension office before planting black currants. There are fewer restrictions on red currants and gooseberries, but check with your state agriculture department or Cooperative Extension office before planting.


Reaching Up

Wanting to offer her CSA members a diverse range of berries, Creeger put in a few rows of elderberries (Sambucus canadensis). Elderberries tolerate a wide range of soils—as long as those soils are not too wet or too dry—and have few pests. Being shrubs, they need a bit more space, about 6 to 10 feet between plants, and require more than one variety to ensure adequate cross-pollination for fruit development.

Elderberries send up new stems, also called canes, each year, which branch out during their second year. The wood weakens with age, so a good pruning strategy is to remove canes older than 3 years, leaving equal numbers of 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old canes. Elderberries also have shallow roots, so they shouldn’t be cultivated any deeper than a couple of inches. A combination of hand weeding, mowing, and mulching works well

Creeger grows ‘Adams’, ‘York’, and ‘Johns’ varieties that extend her berry season into September.

Creeger warns that the entire elderberry plant, including underripe and uncooked fruit, is mildly toxic, so elderberries are best used cooked. Their distinctive flavor is enhanced by the addition of sweetener and lemon juice, making them perfect for jellies, jams, and pies. Their flowers, too, are edible and are turned into elderflower wine or fried in fritters—although harvesting the flowers means there won’t be berries. Elderberries are also reputed to have antiviral properties. 

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