This is a two-part series. We cover strawberries and blueberries in this article, and raspberries and blackberries in Part II.
There is nothing more rewarding than to go out to your garden and pick berries that can be consumed fresh. All berries are herbaceous perennials; therefore it is important to choose a good location, as that is where they will most likely remain.
Buy dormant strawberry stock that consists of a crown and root, which will send up shoots, leaves and, eventually, runners. Most varieties last three to four years and then need to be replaced.
Planting: Do not plant where potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants or peppers were previously planted due to verticillium wilt transfer. The location chosen needs six hours of direct sun; plant in well-drained, loamy, sandy soil. It is best to prepare the bed in the fall with composted steer manure and organic matter. Have the pH tested; it’s best at pH 6.5, so you may need to incorporate sulfur or ammonium sulfate in the soil to arrive at that pH.
Plant March or April if bare root and May if potted plants. Loosen the soil, plant 6 inches deep, spreading the roots in a fan shape, and leave the crown at soil level, 8 inches apart. It is best to mulch to help retain moisture and to keep soil acid.
Even watering is important, especially before and during harvest. Fertilize with 5-10-5, especially before fruit set and during harvest. Always pinch back runners to send energy to the plant and berry production.
Bird control is important as the berries ripen, so it is best to put hoops and netting over the plants or use floating row cover. Shade cloth can be applied in July and August to protect ever bearing plants that produce in the late summer.
Harvest early morning, leave on the calyxes, refrigerate, and wash only before consuming. After harvest, remove the leaves but don’t damage crown. Cover with mulch (straw) over the winter for protection.
There are three types of strawberry plants.
- June bearing is the most productive with one heavy crop. They form flowers in the fall and produce fruit in June. They produce runners, so matted rows are encouraged so plant runners fill in the spaces. When finished producing, cut or mow all leaves to stimulate vigorous new growth but don’t damage the crown. Examples: Rainier, Chandler, Shuksan.
- Ever bearing bear fruit twice — once in spring and once in late summer, but in small numbers. Examples: Quinault, Ozark beauty.
- Day neutral set fruit spring and fall and produce few runners, so the hill system is best. They are sensitive to heat, so fruit production will go down in July and August. Examples: Tristar, Tribute.
Blueberries have their growing challenges, but many rewards (80 calories/cup packed with antioxidants). When established, they are long-lived and provide fresh berries each year.
It is important to precondition the soil, especially in Eastern Washington, which has alkaline soils (6.5-7.5). Blueberries demand acid soil (4.0-5.5); if you do not provide that, it triggers iron deficiency, which results in yellow foliage and then dead plants.
The year before, start treating the soil by mixing sulfur powder into the top 8 inches of the soil. Test the pH and you will need to repeat the process. Improve the soil by adding organic matter, rotted manure, sawdust or peat moss (an acidifier).
Plant in full sun, but afternoon shade is desirable in Eastern Washington with its hot summers.
Plant at least two varieties, which will result in better pollination and bigger, earlier fruit. Two or more different ripening times also extends the season for your enjoyment.
Buy container plants that are 3-4 years old, or you can get two-year bare root stock. The first year, remove all blossoms to encourage strong roots and stems.
Dig a hole 14-18″ deep but backfill with organic matter. Blueberries have shallow roots, so spread out roots on top of the soil, then fill the hole and leave a slight depression for water to sink to roots. Avoid fertilizing the first year so roots are not burnt. Spacing depends on variety, but the average is 4 to 5 feet.
Water should be constant, with even watering of shallow roots. It is best to not let them dry out, so mulching is required. A drip system on a timer is best. Drought symptoms include reddened foliage; weak, thin shoots; and reduced fruit set.
Use a balanced 5-10-10 fertilizer in the early spring or before fruit set. Follow up in May annually with ammonium sulfate at leaf bud break to keep the soil acidic.
Netting over the plants before and during production is best to protect berries from being eaten by robins, starlings and finches.
After four or five years, you will need to prune in early spring to vase shape, opening the center for air circulation. Remove low-spreading branches near the ground. Remove broken, diseased branches and any canes over 1” in diameter at ground level. Cut branch tips if twiggy with hand sheers. Flower buds are nearer the tip and are fatter and less pointed than leaf buds.
Pick when ripe; not all ripen at the same time, so you need to pick every three to five days throughout the season. Harvest is best in the early morning. They have a two-week refrigerator shelf life and also freeze well.
There are five main types of
- High bush Northern, East coast, 5-9 feet tall but also common in Pacific Northwest. Examples: Duke, Bluegold, Bluecrop, Blueray, Chandler and Legacy.
- High bush Southern, Florida and California, 6-8 feet tall; need dormant period of 32-45 degrees. Not recommended for home growers.
- Low bush, Northeast US, Minnesota to Virginia, 2 feet tall. Examples: Blomidon, Burgundy and Brunswick.
- Rabbit Eye, Southeast US, 6-10 feet tall, likes long hot summers, sensitive to winter cold. Examples: Pink Lemonade, Tifblue and Powderblue.
- Half High, a cross between tall and low varieties, 3-4 feet tall. These do not require the pruning necessary for high bushes. Examples: Legacy, Ozark blue, Northland, Chippewa and Northblue.
Enjoy the “fruits of your labor,” and if you have any questions, feel free to call or email the Master Gardener clinic. We are here to help you succeed.