When the summer fruits start appearing in the farmers’ markets, everyone goes into a frenzy. We love the sweetness of strawberries, raspberries and currants, but many of us are daunted when growing our own. The good news is that it’s not very hard, and you can actually incorporate some of them right into the landscape. Most of them are attractive in their own right, so you get the pleasure of a beautiful yard and garden that pleases the eye and palate.
Most small fruits do well in the home garden and are relatively easy to cultivate. All you need is a sunny site, fairly well-drained soil and good air circulation. Once planted, monitor the moisture levels and mulch with a few inches of good organic matter, such as compost. Soon you will be rewarded with a wondrous bounty.
When choosing plants, be sure to select disease-resistant cultivars and purchase certified disease-free plants. This will go a long way to preventing disease and pest problems.
Strawberries (Fragaria spp.)
These luscious fruits make a superb edging for flower and shrub beds, and they also perform well in containers, hanging baskets and window boxes (as annuals). Strawberries are classified according to the time of harvest, so planting more than one type will ensure you will have berries all summer. In general, it takes about 25 plants to supply fresh fruit for a family of four.
June-bearing strawberries produce all their berries in a two-week period in summer, and they are available in early, mid and late-season varieties. Planting some of each will provide berries for four to six weeks. Everbearing strawberries produce two smaller crops, one in June and one in fall. A third type, called day-neutral, produce fruit all season long, although they have fewer berries in total than June-bearing.
Alpine strawberries taste like SweetTarts and make a beautiful border.
Strawberry season seems so fleeting, but you can stretch it with different varieties.
Alpine strawberries (F. vesca)
This petite type of strawberry is also called “fraise des bois,” which means strawberries of the woods. These bear small, intensely flavored berries with a candy-like flavor. They bear spring to frost, do not produce runners and will reseed themselves in the garden. They make a stunning edge to a flower or vegetable garden and will grow in partial shade.
Currants (Ribes spp.)
There’s nothing quite so pretty as strings of red jewels hanging in the sunlight. Currants make a lovely 3-foot-tall hedge or foundation plant with graceful arching stems and soft yellow fall color. Currants come in red, white and black, with reds being slightly tangy, whites being quite sweet and blacks with a musky, strong flavor. One happy side of growing currants is that they can take some shade. They take little care, except annual pruning, and will produce buckets of fruits for the best jelly in the world.
Red and white currants are self-pollinating, so you only need one variety. Black currants need two varieties planted together for pollination.
Gooseberries (Ribes spp.)
Gooseberries are closely related to currants, although the fruits are larger. They grow on thorny shrubs with arching stems, and the berries can be picked green for traditional gooseberry tart or jam (they need plenty of sugar!), or with a blush of pink for fresh eating. They are self-pollinating and can also be grown in partial shade.
Gooseberries are traditional British fruits that we can add to our landscapes and pies!
Bramble Fruits (Rubus spp.)
Raspberries are often referred to as the food of the kings and for good reason. The taste of a warm raspberry right off the bush will make you cry. Raspberries come in summer-bearing types, which produce their berries all at once in midsummer, and everbearing, which produce a small crop in midsummer and a larger crop in early autumn.
With each type, the canes that bear the fruit die after they’ve finished bearing, and new canes are produced from the crowns. One thing to be aware of with raspberries is that they produce underground rhizomes so they need to be managed in order to keep them in place.
Raspberries come in red, black, purple and gold. All are delicious! Reds are traditionally cultivated, while blacks (also called blackcaps) are native and found wild all over the Midwest. Purple types are a bit more tart and gold berries are soft and sweet and often hard to find in the market.
Blackberries grow wild in the Midwest, and although the wild berries are small, they have extremely intense flavor. Domesticated blackberries have large berries and a milder flavor.
Blackberries produce fruit on second-year canes, so they need pruning to keep them bearing well. When harvesting, make sure that the berries actually fall into your hand to ensure that they are completely ripe and sweet. Otherwise, they may look ripe, but can be quite sour. Also, they tend to lose their high gloss when ready to pick. Blackberries can spread well outside the original planting site, so take care to keep them inbounds.
For a different take on fruits in the landscape, consider adding an elderberry or serviceberry to your yard. These are native plants that have tasty fruits that feed us and wildlife.
Watching birds hang upside down in a serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) will have you laughing and getting out there to taste what is so good to them. Serviceberries are traditionally used as landscape ornamentals, and they produce lovely dark red to purple berries that are delicious when made into pies, jam and fruit leather.
Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis, S. nigra) produce great clouds of white flowers followed by inky-purple berries that make absolutely wonderful syrup, jam and wine.
A version of this article appeared in print in Wisconsin Gardening Volume II Issue VI. Photos by Kate Jerome unless otherwise noted.