The Island Garden
At this time of the year most gardens are looking ragged and after last weekend’s storm, they are looking very ragged indeed. But that’s no reason not to put off planning a soft fruit garden for next season. Soft fruits are strawberries, raspberries, red and black currants, gooseberries, and blueberries. Some folks consider rhubarb to be a soft fruit while others think it is the worst curse bestowed on mankind. I love to grow it in the garden and greenhouse.
The soft fruits are called soft fruits because they are easy to squash. Because they are so easy to crush, they can be difficult to transport, and apart from strawberries, are only seen in stores during our season or the South American season. They are also easy to eat, but that’s a whole other story.
To grow soft fruits, you need a rich soil. If your soil is not rich, you might have to put some effort into digging in compost, wellrotted manure, and other organic supplements. But once it is in place and the fruits are planted all you need do is wait for harvest time.
Strawberries are so named because they were grown on a bed of straw to keep the slugs off them. Today this is still true. Slugs will decimate your strawberry bed faster than a cat can run across a hot tin roof. But not only do slugs love strawberries, but sow bugs and other insects seem to think that my strawberries are grown just for them.
My solution is to grow strawberries in plastic gutters. I put plants in potting soil about 6 to 8 inches apart in a sloping 10-footlong gutter. As each plant usually grows about five strawberries, the yields can be quite high. Fertilize them during the growing season and you will be rewarded with a huge pile of fresh strawberries. Strawberries need to be kept moist for best results and as soon as they have flowered, they put out runners with new plants at intervals along the runners. At the end of summer you should snip off these runners with their young plants and use them to expand your growing bed.
Raspberries are also fairly easy to grow provided you observe a few basic rules. Raspberries grow on canes set last year so in any year after the first you will have new and old canes in your raspberry patch. During winter, you need to prune out the old silvery canes leaving the new brown ones. Raspberries also spread fast and you will have a job to keep them contained in one area. Old time gardeners rototilled between the rows to keep the raspberries from spreading, but you can easily take a spade and chop the invading roots out. Mulch between the rows to make sure you can control their spread and in spring apply a layer of compost around each plant. The compost helps to control weeds, retain moisture, gives the roots nutrients, and helps to increase your yields. Another way to increase yields is to cut the top of the canes off, which will leave each cane about 3 feet tall. The plant puts out extra shoots at the tip of the cane and raspberries grow on the shoots.
What can be more rewarding on a summer morning then going out to the blueberry patch and picking fresh blueberries for breakfast? If you plan on growing blueberries, plan on buying at least three high bush types. You want early-, midand late-season types to ensure that you do not get all your blueberries at once. With these three types you can extend your harvest about six weeks.
Blueberries like acidic soil so you can supplement it with pine needles, oak leaves or other sources of acidic fertilizer. Some people toss their coffee grounds around the plants. In spring, sidedress the bushes with compost and wait until harvest time. As long as you can keep the birds off your crops you will have a lot of blueberries for the freezer and for breakfast. In general I find that each plant gives a gallon to two gallons of tasty fruit.
Currants and gooseberries
Your mother or grandmother was probably quite familiar with these plants and used them in fruit pies and jams all the time. Red and black currants are quite astringent if eaten raw, but gooseberries can be eaten raw when ripe. If you get an unripe gooseberry it can be very sour. The currant bushes need pruning in winter when old growth is removed. You can also prune gooseberries, but the bushes are prickly and you will need to wear heavy gloves. In spring, side-dress with compost and wait for the harvest.
Rhubarb grows from crowns. When beginning a rhubarb crown, make sure your soil is very rich, side-dress it with compost in spring, and pick the stalks as you need them. As long as you keep the crowns moist, rhubarb will continue to grow until frost stops it. If you let it dry out, it will stop growing. It is one of the easier pie or jam fruits to grow and should, in my opinion, be in every garden.
So that’s soft fruit. Next year instead of buying $5 punnets of fruit at the store, plant a few bushes and harvest your own for many years.