This is part of my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate or similar. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.
Fall Raspberries are the focus fruit for October
Fall-fruiting raspberries have the advantage that you won’t need to worry about spring frosts killing the blossoms, so this is a good crop for colder spots in your garden. We used a frost pocket we called the “Arctic Circle”. Avoid areas that have recently grown tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or other nightshades, or strawberries or raspberries, because of the risk of soil-borne diseases.
To get an abundant fall harvest, you can have an easy life, pruning all the canes to the ground in winter or early spring. I used to do this by removing the ropes holding the canes into their corral and then mowing the canes down (very quick work!). I left the pairs of T-posts in place and mowed between them.
After raking out and composting the canes, I could get in and weed thoroughly before the canes started growing. As they grow, thin them out to a two inches (5cm) apart. Over-crowded canes will not grow strong or produce good harvests. Once they reach 3 ft (1m) tall, add ropes to the T-posts, making a corral.
I recommend Caroline red fall raspberries. They are large and flavorful, very productive, and tolerant to yellow rust and root rot. The golden ones, Anne, also sound good, but more people like traditional red raspberries, so we went with those. We planted beds 9 ft (3m) apart, with our purchased plants 28” (about 70cm) apart. (They soon filled out the space). You can grow a perennial clover crop in the aisles, or if you have perennial weeds to conquer, an annual winter rye cover crop, followed by a summer cover crop. Hopefully you will have got rid of perennial weeds before planting raspberries!
Because raspberries don’t do well if it’s hot and dry, pay attention to watering. Drip irrigation works well for raspberries, because once it’s in place for the season, very little work is needed to ensure your plants get enough water. Plus, water is not landing on the leaves, where it could encourage fungal diseases.
Nourse farms supply an online Planting Guide. They say “If you read it, they will grow”. I recommend it. Also see Harvest to Tablefor concise, experienced information on this and many other crops.
Calendar of fall raspberry care
Starting now, for those who have fall raspberry varieties, and proceeding through the winter into next year.
September, October: Weed shallowly. Harvest and enjoy. Water well.
November, December, January: Cut all canes to the ground after the leaves drop. Weed, compost and mulch the beds. (We have used the tops from our November–harvest storage carrots.) Dig up rogue canes from the aisles, maintaining a 12-15” (30-35cm) bed width. Order new plants if needed.
February, March: Prepare future new beds. Plant new canes with compost (not artificial fertilizer, which is too fast-acting), keeping the roots damp as you work. Make the planting holes big enough to allow the roots to spread out. Set the canes an inch (2.5cm) lower in the soil than they were in the nursery or pots. Firm the soil thoroughly around the roots, by stepping on it. Roots will die if they are in air pockets. Water in well. Spread organic mulch around the planted canes to keep the soil damp and deter weeds. Set 5 ft (1.5m) T-posts in pairs across the bed, every 20-25 ft (6-7.5m). Water 2” (5cm) per week as needed. There may be no visible new growth for 4-6 weeks. Existing beds: Weed shallowly. Water. Mow aisles.
April: Weed shallowly. Water. Mow aisles. Set up ropes at heights of 3ft (1m) and 5ft (1.5m). Thin fall raspberry canes to 2” (5cm) apart.
May, June, July, August: Weed shallowly. Water. Mow aisles
Raspberry varieties labelled as “fall-fruiting” are capable of providing two crops each year: a summer crop and then a smaller fall crop. To achieve this, you need to prune them the same way you prune summer-fruiting-only varieties, leaving the newer canes that have not yet fruited, removing only the old fruited canes in late winter or very early spring.
Other small fruits still available in October
Watermelons, Asian melons, Asian pears (must ripen on the tree), blackberries, kiwi berries (Actinidia arguta, aka hardy kiwi, Chinese kiwi), muskmelons, muscadine grapes, rhubarb (light harvest). In some areas, Asian Persimmons, elderberries, Figs, and pawpaws may still be available.
Annual fruits such as Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in early July!
Other small fruits becoming available in October
American persimmons are the ones that grow wild in the Eastern half of the US. They are notorious for making your mouth pucker up. This is, if you eat them before they’re soft and ripe. This can be anywhere between September and February. They may be wrinkled, they may have had a frost. Despite rural myth, they do not need a frost to ripen.
Wintergreen is another native, frequently overlooked. The tiny berries often persist through the winter (I guess they’re not too popular with wildlife. . .)
This is another in my monthly series of posts about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a (loosely-speaking) mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.
Watermelons are the focus fruit for September
Nothing beats a big slice of watermelon during a break from working in the fields. It’s a good cure for dehydration, especially if lightly salted to balance the electrolytes, and helps improve heat tolerance. It’s good to know watermelon are nutritious, but frankly, their main claim to fame is that they are delicious, and just about everyone wants one when the weather is hot.
I’ll start with information on harvesting, and pests and diseases to watch out for, then cycle round to things to think about for next summer’s watermelon crop.
The skill of the harvester in discerning ripeness is a major factor affecting the taste. The first sign we look for is the shriveling and browning of the tendril on the vine directly opposite the little stem of the watermelon. If this tendril is not shriveled we walk on by. Next we slap or knock on them.
According to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, when a watermelon is ripe, it will have a hollow sound when you thump it with your knuckles: it sounds like thumping your chest. If it sounds like knocking your head, it’s not ripe; if it sounds like hitting your belly, it’s over-ripe. There is a 10-14-day period of peak ripeness for each variety. We harvest our Crimson Sweet from around 7/25 (75 days from transplanting) to the end of August. We might be still harvesting in September.
Lastly, we do the “Scrunch Test”: put two hands (heels together) spread out across the melon, press down quite hard, listen and feel for a scrunch – the flesh in the melon is separating under the pressure. Rumor has it that it only works once, so pay attention!
Other growers with other varieties use different ripeness signs, such as the change in color of the “ground spot” (the area touching the ground), or the change in rind texture from glossy to dull.
I like to cut the melon stems with pruners, but some people break them off. Watermelons need gentle handling, as do the vines if you will be returning to harvest again. After harvest, we set the melons out to the side of the row for pickup. This gives time for sap to start to ooze out of the cut stem. If the sap is red or orange, the melon is ripe. If it is straw-colored, the melon was cut too soon. This is useful feedback for new crew.
Post-Harvest Storage of Watermelons
Watermelons can store for a few weeks, but then flavor deteriorates. We store ours outdoors in the shade of a building or a tree. Rotating the stored stock is a good idea. (Consider dating them with a grease pencil/china marker). The ideal storage temperature is 50-60°F (10-15.5°C), with 90% humidity.
Compared to some crops, watermelons are not often challenged by many pests.
Striped cucumber beetles are our worst pest. They eat not only the leaves (which reduces the sweetness of the melons) but also the rind of the melons, leaving an unattractive russeted surface, thinner than it was originally, and easily damaged. Cucumber beetles can also interfere with fruit set by eating the stamens and pistils of the flowers. Don’t worry unless you see two beetles or more per plant.
Aphids (usually green peach aphids) can be a problem to young plants – another reason to use rowcover or fine mesh netting. If needed, use insecticidal soap, or import ladybugs or lacewings.
Spider mites can be a problem in hot dry weather if populations are driven into the patch by mowing of bordering grassy areas. Heavy rain, vigorous spraying with water or overhead irrigation will reduce numbers.
Root knot nematodes can attack roots and produce galls. This leads to loss of vigor and wilting.
Organic growers do not usually get many disease problems with watermelon, provided the soil fertility is well-balanced and the plants are not physically damaged. There are a few diseases to watch for:
Alternaria leaf spot
Cercospora leaf spot
Gummy stem blight
Watermelon fruit blotch/bacterial fruit blotch is a serious seed-borne disease
Bacterial wilt – watermelon is resistant, although young seedlings could succumb.
Fusarium wilt is a persistent soil-borne fungal disease that infects the roots, invading the xylem cells.
Anthracnose is a fungal foliar disease that can cause loss of vigor and fruit spotting.
After trying several varieties, we settled on Crimson Sweet, a 20-25 lb (9-11 kg) striped 10 x 12” (25 x 30 cm) oval OP melon which takes 86 days from transplant to harvest. It has tolerance to some strains of Anthracnose and Fusarium. Its flavor is the best! For many years, I saved the seed, selecting for size, earliness, disease resistance and flavor. This is available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, as Crimson Sweet, Virginia Select.
Charleston Gray is another popular large variety, with a redder color but less sweetness than Crimson Sweet. Black Tail Mountain (OP, 73 days) was made famous by Glenn Drowns, who developed it as a fast-growing, highly productive, rich flavored melon he could grow in a cold climate in northern Idaho. It stores for up to 2 months after harvest. OrangeGlo (85 days) is an outstanding orange-fleshed variety, with large fruits and great tropical flavor.
“Icebox” varieties are 6” (15 cm) round, 8-12.5 lbs (3.6-5.7 kg) melons, perfect for small refrigerators. Some varieties are ready as soon as 64 days after transplanting. Seedless triploid varieties Dark Belle (F1 75d) and Fun Belle are said to be better tasting than traditional Sugar Baby (77d) and orange New Orchid (80d). But triploid seedless watermelon seed is expensive and harder to germinate, and the transplants are very fragile and tricky to establish. Triploid varieties are hybridized from a cross between two plants with incompatible sets of chromosomes. This results in sterility (lack of seeds).
Even smaller than the icebox size are “mini” watermelons, 3-6 lb (1.4-2.7 kg). Golden Midget is an OP seeded mini from Baker Creek 70d, 3 lbs (1.4 kg). There are also triploid seedless varieties. Solitaire (triploid, 88d), is a single serving watermelon from Johnny’s. It has 6” (15 cm) diameter fruit. Harvest can begin 78 days after transplanting.
I’ll do a blogpost on growing watermelons next spring, once you might be sowing the seed, or at least planning your garden layout.
Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in June!
Other small fruits becoming available in September
Kiwiberries (Actinidia arguta, aka hardy kiwi, Chinese kiwi) and elderberries. American persimmons need to be soft before they’re nice to eat. This can be anywhere between September and February. If the wildlife are not going to wait for them to ripen, harvest them early and let them ripen indoors.
Other fruit care in September
Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit (weed blueberries and raspberries shallowly, so as not to damage roots).
Prepare and plant new strawberry beds in early September if not done in late August, using potted runners. If needed, use rooted runners from the paths of an old patch to fill gaps. Renovate strawberries to carry over for next season, if not already done.
This is another post in my monthly series about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a vaguely mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month.
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Grapes are the focus fruit for August
The Cornell2022 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Grapes 2022-org-grapes-NYSIPM.pdf (3.291Mb) is a great resource. It covers soil health, pre-planting and under-vine cover crops, site selection, variety selection, nutrient requirements, integrated pest management, and more in its 90 pages. Be aware that it is written with the Northeast in mind.
If you are planning to grow grapes, late summer is a good time to prepare the site and sow a cover crop to suppress weeds, increase the organic matter in the soil, and if you include legumes, provide some slow-release nitrogen for the new vines.
Types of grapes
Grapes are a long-term perennial crop, so good research into suitable types and varieties is important. Wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) and table grapes do not grow well organically on the east coast, because of fungal diseases. Mars is a table grape that grows relatively well organically. It resembles Concord. Vitis Labrusca grapes (Concord, Niagara, etc) are much less susceptible than Vinifera varieties. Hybrid Grapes (Labrusca x Vinifera), such as Arandell, Cayuga White, Corot Noir, Noiret, and Traminette have better potential for Organic culture than Vinifera types.
We grow Labrusca grapes, mainly Concord, with a few Allred, with a selection of other varieties that we are trialing, including the Planets (Jupiter, Mars, Neptune, Venus) and Edelweiss, Fredonia, Marquis, Niagara, Reliance, Sheridan, Steuben, Vanessa. All these are suitable for juice, jam and jelly. Fredonia, Marquis, Mars, Niagara, Reliance, Steuben, Vanessa and Venus are dessert quality, but mostly they have thick skins, big seeds, and a sour taste. Some of these varieties are susceptible to Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew and/or Black Rot, and I wouldn’t buy those again. Likewise, I would not buy grafted vines, such as the Cynthiana and Niagara, as we are not good at remembering to cover and uncover the graft unions when the seasons change.
In the South, Muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) will grow easily, although Vinifera and Labrusca grapes won’t. See Mark Hoffman, Patrick Conner et al, Muscadine Grape Production Guide for the Southeast. Also see the chapter on muscadines in Blake Cothron, The Berry Grower. (My review coming soon) This less publicized grape type deserve more attention, especially in hot, humid areas.
The aromatic, sweet, large round muscadine grapes are resistant to diseases and pests (perhaps thanks partly to their thick skins), have 4-10 grapes per bunch, mature in 90-120 days, and separating from the vine with a dry scar when ripe.
The muscadine industry is a multimillion-dollar industry in the US, but most people don’t know it. Muscadines are probably the first cultivated native grape in the US. There are at least 100 cultivars of muscadines, including Scuppernong, the one people are most likely to have heard of. Some varieties are more suited to wine-making, others for fresh eating. Some are seedless. Individual plants are either male or female, with a few self-fertile cultivars. Planting a ratio of 3 female to 1 self-fertile vine will ensure pollination. Those in areas experiencing winter temperatures below 10F (zone 7b and colder) should choose a relatively cold-hardy variety. Make a trellis before planting time, allowing 16’ (5m) between vines:
Thomas Munsonin Texas “. . . became one of the leading experts in native American grape species, and his studies were instrumental in saving the European grape and wine industry from disaster during the late nineteenth century.” Free Munson grape cuttings are available from Grayson College, Texas for growers and breeders (request in the fall). These grapes are easier to grow organically under a wider range of conditions
As with many fruit trees, good air drainage is important. This means an open site where cold air can flow away downslope, and not cause a frost pocket. A site that has some protection from cold winds is valuable. Grapes benefit from soil that absorbs rainfall and lets it drain away when excessive. If your soil is compacted, do some deep cultivation before planting grapes. If necessary install drainage. This important site selection and preparation takes time, so start now! Get a soil test in the fall, and perhaps sow cover crops – see the Cornell publication for ideas.
Preparations for planting
Turn under or smother any cover crops in the rows. Build a strong trellis with cross arms and wires to fit your chosen trellising method. We use the Geneva Double Curtain, a cordon method. It has a single lower wire, fastened to the posts, and a higher wire on each side, fastened to the ends of the arms. If the first vine is trained over the lower wire and onto the east upper wire, say, the next vine will be trained over the lower wire and up to the west upper wire. By alternating, each vine can be planted 10 ft (3m) from its neighbors, but have room on the top wires for cordons (arms) of 10 ft (3m) in each direction, until they meet each other.
Install orchard grade drip irrigation (tubing with integral emitters). The tubing can hang on clips on the low wire of the trellis. This prevents accidental mowing or rodent damage.
Be ready by the early spring shipping date. Ours was 24 March.
Dig 16” (40 cm) deep holes for new vines. Put 4” (10cm) loose topsoil in each hole (no compost). When the vines arrive, unpack them and soak the roots in water for 3-24 hours. For own-rooted plants, pruning roots to 6” (15cm) is possible but not needed. Grafted vines need planting with the graft union 2-3” (5-8cm) above the soil surface, the union temporarily covered with soil until the plant starts to grow.
Spread the roots into loose soil. Cover to 4” (10cm) below grade. Position own-rooted vines at the same depth as it was in the nursery. Tread firmly. Fill the last 4” (10cm) with loose soil (don’t tread). Install label and stake (bamboo). Tie the vine to the stake. (Stakes will be removed after 2 years.) Mulch with cardboard and sawdust. You could prune now to 8-10 buds above the crown spur, and prune more later, or leave for now. Label the vines, make a map and logbook to note flowering and fruiting times, and success of new vines.
Annual Grape Calendar
Compost and re-mulch the vines. Check and repair the drip irrigation. Update maps and logs.
Could take dormant wood cuttings, 6-9” (15-23cm) long, cut at the top 1” (2.5cm) above bud at a slope, heel in, label clearly.
Plant any new vines. Prune existing vines. See notes made the previous year, about replacement arms, etc. Be sure to prune vines well back from young vines, as competition is hard on them. Vines pruned after the buds swell will leaf out a little later, and may avoid late frosts. Tie in well to top wire. Remove any wrong side growth.
Weed the rows, particularly around new vines. Remove stakes from any vines planted two years ago. Mow the aisles. Water if in drought, 1” (2.5cm) per week.
Layer branches of existing vines to fill gaps (very effective gap-filling method). Lay a tip with several buds 2-5” (5-12cm) deep in a trench, cover with 3” (7.5cm) of soil. When new growth starts to appear, fill the trench and pack firmly. Separate the plants the following fall. Layering can also be done in the fall.
Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week. Monitor for pests and diseases. Uncover the graft unions of any grafted vines.
New Vines: One week after bloom, remove all fruitlet clusters in the first two years after planting. After hard frosts are past, or once growth starts, prune the new vines to a single stem with 2 or 3 buds above the crown spur. Or if the vine is vigorous, leave two trunks, one for insurance. Remove any suckers growing from the base of the vine.
Mature vines: One week after bloom, thin clusters to one per bud, if the number of clusters exceeds 60 on a mature vine (24 for a 4-year-old, 12 for 3-year-old).
Uncover the graft unions of any grafted vines.
Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week. Monitor for pests and diseases.
New vines: Rub off or prune away all side branches growing on main trunks below chosen cordons, and remove any fruit clusters that appear. Tie in new growth.
Once a month – Remove dead wood. Train to wires. Tie in. Take notes. Keep aisles mowed.
Harvest – early August some years, or late August if the first buds got frosted. New vines will not yield for two years, and full bearing capacity will not be reached until 5th or 6th year. The productive life of a vine is 20-30 years.
Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week.
Weed. Mow. Water, 1” (2.5cm) per week.
Weed. Water if needed. Last mowing early October. Cover the graft unions of any grafted vines with soil.
Pests and diseases of grapes
Monitor for Black Rot, Botrytis, Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew, Phomopsis, Anthracnose, and other fungal diseases. Be on the lookout for grape Berry Moth, leafhoppers, scale insects, spider mites and Japanese beetles. Don’t panic about a few Japanese beetles. Grapes (and many other crops) can take a certain amount of defoliation before suffering a loss of yield.
For full technical details, see the Cornell publication mentioned above.
Other small fruits available in August
Asian melons, Asian pears (must ripen on the tree), blackberries, crabapples, fall raspberries, muskmelons, peaches, and plums are still available. Asian melons and muskmelons will only be available if you made a second sowing in May or June!
Book Review: Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts: 50 Easy-to-Grow Plants for the Organic Home Garden or Landscape, by Allyson Levy and Scott Serrano. Chelsea Green, March 2022, 384 pages, 7” x 10”, 250 color photos, extensive resources, $34.95.
ADDENDUM 7/27/22: Since writing this review I have heard that some of the plants that are not invasive in New York’s Hudson Valley are invasive elsewhere, so if you have any doubt at all, please check with your local Extension Service.
This book is a delight for the landscaper, plantsperson, and fruit connoisseur. Here are profiles of 50 fruits and nuts, almost certainly including at least one or two you haven’t heard of. Che, akebia, medlar, schisandra. . . they are all resilient, low-maintenance cold-hardy plants for growing in temperate zones. And growing trees is, as Eric Toensmeier points out “one of the world’s highest-carbon forms of gardening and farming.”
The authors are the founders of the Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in New York’s Hudson Valley, a garden they created to provide inspiration for their work in visual arts. As the garden grew to 11 acres, their main passion evolved into growing and selling ornamental and edible plant collections with a focus on underutilized species, and sharing their gardens with the public through classes and open days.
Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts does not include apples, peaches, and other popular fruits that are actually a challenge to grow sustainably (although pears are included). This book assumes you will find basic cultivation advice from some other source, and instead focuses on specific details about each plant that you might not have seen anywhere else. The authors’ goal is to increase diversity for reasons of climate resilience and support for insect species.
The plant profiles include taste ratings, recommended cultivars, propagation methods, requirements for soil, sun, shade and fertilization, and notes on harvesting and eating; also a Growth Difficulty Rating alerting readers to the level of attention (low, lower and lowest!) that the plants will require once established. The crops in this book are disease-resistant and pest-resistant. Many of the plants have a photo page with bark, blossom, leaves and fruit at various stages of development. The fascinating plant descriptions and natural histories will keep you entranced on rainy days. I found myself wishing for a calendar of fruiting dates, to plan year-round fruit. Although not presented in that format, the information is in each Taste Profile and Uses section.
The first fruit is akebia, also known as chocolate vine. It is an attractive ornamental, and if you want fruit, you need two genetically different plants. Akebia is easy to grow and thrives on neglect. It could be invasive, although the authors have not found it so. The 3-5” (7.5-13cm) fruit look like purple sausages with a waxy bloom. When ripe, the fruits split open showing white pulp enclosing tiny black seeds. The taste is like coconut-flavored tapioca pudding.
The second plant is the familiar almond. If you have disease problems with peaches, plums or cherries, think twice. If you have room for a few large trees, consider growing a few Dunstan blight-resistant chestnuts, and helping the restoration of the great American chestnut. Or plant pecans, choosing varieties suited to your location. Wait up to ten years for nuts.
Walnuts (black and English, as well as hybrids like heartnuts butternuts, buartnuts) need a long-term plan. All walnut trees produce the compound juglone in all parts of the tree. This compound is allelopathic – it inhibits the growth of nearby plants, both edible and ornamental – so give them a space of their own. Hazelnuts grow more shrub-like if American, more of a small tree if European. Eastern filbert blight can be a problem with European hazelnuts, but not American ones.
The Korean Stone Pine or Chinese Pine Nut thrives on steep slopes and thin soils. The trees do grow tall, looking from a distance like American White Pines. Although self-fertile, they provide higher yields if two trees are planted. The cones take two years to mature, and are covered with a very sticky resin. Store them in bags until the scales separate. The seeds in their shells look like small pistachios.
Asian pears are easy to grow and the usual pear disease and pest problems (fire blight and codling moth) affect them less. Shipova is a hybrid of the European pear with the whitebeam mountain ash, propagated by grafts. The fruits are 1.5-2” (4-5 cm) and stay green for a long time before ripening to a blushing yellow. It can take ten years before any fruit is available. Usually the flavor is sweet, delicate and fragrant.
Quinces are tree fruits closely related to pears, and were more popular in the past. The Pilgrims brought quince seeds from northern Europe, and it was the only source of fruit pectin until the end of the nineteenth century. Watch out for fire blight and cedar apple rust. The fruit is hard and downy, and cannot be eaten raw. The easiest way to cook them is to bake them whole, when they become fragrant and delicious. The authors didn’t have this information, and instruct on peeling and de-seeding before cooking, which is slow work. Cooking whole and making jelly is another option. Older varieties of flowering quince also produce fruit, but in modern varieties that feature has been bred out and double-flowering has been bred in! A few of the fruiting varieties include Crimson and Gold, Jet Trail, Tanechka, and Toyo-Nishiki which all grow as shrubs, not trees.
Medlars are another ancient old world fruit, with not much modern-day interest. The fruits are not edible until “bletted” by a hard frost or by waiting beyond normal ripeness, when they get very close to rotting. The small trees have beautiful spring blossoms, and if you don’t harvest the fruit, they remain on the twigs during the winter, giving added interest then. They can also be eaten frozen during winter walks through the orchard.
American Persimmons really must ripen on the tree to be good eating. They don’t need a frost, but they do need to be soft, with a golden-orange to red-orange skin. Harvest the fallen ones each morning from late September until the end of November.
Beach plums grow wild on the east coast from North Carolina upwards, and while they are easy to grow, the quality of the small stony fruits varies. Nanking cherry is a short shrub producing small bright red (or white) cherries that can be used for pies. They fall from the bush when ripe, and need to be gathered and used soon, as they do not have a shelf life. The flowering shrub is very attractive.
There are some (relatively) hardy citrus, such as the trifoliate orange, a very thorny tree with small sour fruits, useful for marmalade and fruit sauces. The trees are very good for hedges and Flying Dragon makes a spectacular winter sight with snow on the twisted branches.
Jujubes are also known as Chinese dates or red dates. They are easy-care trees once established, ripening in mid-late fall if in full sun. If left to dry, the fruit gains a date-like texture. Two trees are required for cross-pollination, choosing varieties that have flowers opening at the same time of day. They can survive cold winters, provided the summer is long and hot.
Pawpaws have earned themselves several books of their own in recent years. Although tropical flavored, this fruit is adapted to temperate zones, and needs 400 chilling hours below freezing in order to flower. They are slow to reach fruiting age, but then are easy to maintain. The large oblong fruit contain several large seeds and a soft custard-like flesh. They can be eaten out of the skin with a spoon, or they can be frozen to eat later, like ice cream. Don’t eat the skins, and don’t eat cooked pawpaws. Two different trees are needed together for cross-pollination. There are myths about which insects pollinate pawpaws, but the authors attest to seeing many species of flies and beetles at work in their pawpaw flowers.
Black raspberries are a delicious wild fruit you can cultivate, although they are susceptible to disease and can spread the plagues to red and gold raspberries. Blackberries can be managed by thinning the canes, providing a trellis, shortening the canes or settling for a semi-wild, semi-constrained patch. Boysenberries are the result of complex crossing of blackberries, raspberries, and loganberries. The trailing canes are hard to manage, and the thin-skinned berries are best used very soon after harvest, without any need to travel.
Mulberries grow on trees, not canes, ripening in late June or early July. Everbearing types produce a second flush of fruit, into August. If you have large harvests of these delicious fruits, spread a tarp or sheet under the tree and shake the ripe fruit loose. There are black mulberries for southern areas, as well as the cold-hardy white and red mulberries. The Illinois Everbearing cultivar produces plentiful large fruit on a shorter tree than the wild types. The structure of the tree is a bit fragile, so you may need props under the branches.
Che berries look like dogwood fruit, but are not related. They are a kind of mulberry, and they are also related to figs. Their flavor is like both. They are now classified as a type of Osage orange. Aronia berries (chokeberry), Cornelian cherries, and goumi berries are all small berries that grow on shrubs or small trees that can make an attractive addition to a landscape. Goumi is an Eleagnus, related to the invasive autumn olive. Because goumi is not invasive (and the berries are bigger), it makes a good alternative. Also, goumi roots capture nitrogen from the air in the soil, improving its nutritional profile, and making it possible to grow them in salty soils.
Juneberries are also known as Saskatoon, Serviceberry, Shadblow and Shadbush. There are 20-25 species in North America, one for almost every climate area. Poor soil is sufficient, but full sun is better than partial shade. There is no sourness to the flavor, and the authors suggest that the mild flavor is enhanced if you chew the seeds too. They do make good pies, but because birds are fond of them, you may need to snack as they do, or harvest under-ripe.
Blackcurrants were once widely prohibited in the US, blamed for killing pine trees by spreading white pine blister rust. In most places it is no longer illegal to grow blackcurrants, and there are some disease-resistant blackcurrant varieties. They don’t do well in hot places, but the flavor is worth pursuing. The authors report that over a 14-year period, their pine trees have not been affected by the neighboring blackcurrants. Gooseberries are another European fruit once under the same ban as blackcurrants. Not all the European varieties do well in the humid mid-Atlantic, although there are still a hundred that do! Invicta, Poorman and Jahn’s Prairie are recommended as successful sweet types.
Blueberries are native to North America, and do best in acid soils containing a specific beneficial mycorrhizal fungus around the roots to make soil nutrients absorbable. There are Northern Highbush, Southern Highbush, Rabbiteye and low bush types. See the book for recommended varieties. Huckleberries look like lowbush blueberries but have larger, crunchy seeds. Lingonberries, another blueberry relative, are Sweden’s national fruit and develop on low-growing spreading evergreen shrubs. They do best with acid soils, whether shady or sunny. In hot areas choose spots with afternoon shade. The plants make an attractive year-round ground cover, with the flowers and berries providing extra seasonal interest.
Seaberry (Sea buckthorn – but it’s not a buckthorn), produces shiny orange fruits in late summer, with high levels of several vitamins and many health benefits. The bushy plants have an aggressive growth pattern, and the thorns can be off-putting. But if you persist you can enjoy these tart berries cooked and sweetened.
Grapes are a well-known vine crop. Muscadines, the native American grapes, found in the Southeast and South central US, are not found in New York, and are therefore not in this book. Muscadines do better with high heat and humidity, being more resistant to fungal diseases. The fox grape, native in the northeastern US, lead to the development of the Concord variety. If growing grapes, cover each developing bunch soon after pollination with a paper bag stapled closed around the stem.
Arctic kiwis are related to the large fuzzy tropical ones, but are hardier, smaller – about 1” (2.5cm) long – and smooth. The large vines are easy to grow, but do need a strong trellis. Hardy kiwis or Chinese kiwis have vines that are much bigger – up to 100’ (30.5m) long, and can take years longer to start producing. Their fruits are a little bit bigger than Arctic kiwis, with a more complex flavor, and, again, no fuzz, so no need to peel. Unlike Arctic kiwis, they do not fall from the vine when ripe.
Here’s a rare one: Himalayan Chocolate Berry. This very ornamental member of the honeysuckle family naturalizes rapidly (invasive in warmer areas?). It feeds many birds, and provides small nibbles for passing humans. It will never be a commercial success, because the sporadic ripening reduces the size of any one harvest, and the berries tend to split once ripe. Honeyberry is another honeysuckle type that is edible (most honeysuckles are slightly poisonous.) Honeyberries are a very cold-hardy early-harvesting berry, a long-shaped, blue-purple fruit, ripe when no longer at all green inside. Aurora, Berry Blue and Borealis are recommended varieties. Birds love them.
Schisandra is another less-known vine, producing tangy red berries, hanging down in generous clusters. You will need to trellis this vigorous vine, and maybe search the foliage for the hidden fruit. Most people will want to sweeten the fruit or juice it with sweeter fruits. Schisandra is not invasive, and you will need to plant several to be sure of having at least one male and one female. Goji is a berry growing on a “vine disguised as a bush”.
Cranberries are well known, although not that many people construct a bog to grow their own. Instructions for creating a “bowl bog” are in this book. Elderberries are a relatively well-known fruit. Note that all green parts of the plant are toxic (I didn’t know). I am more familiar with European elderberries, which we happily eat raw, and juice. American elderberry is apparently slightly toxic, and to most tastes, not pleasant if eaten raw. This shrub is very tough and adaptable, and has many medicinal as well as culinary uses. York seems to be particularly sturdy. European varieties may grow for several years but then decline.
Spikenard is a native herbaceous perennial found in cool shaded woodlands, and growing to 5’ (1.5m) tall in a single season. The tiny berries are not poisonous as some sources claim, but if you are nervous, cook them. They look a little like elderberries.
Wintergreen is a distinctive flavor familiar from some American candy, toothpaste and chewing gum. The shade-loving vines hug the ground, thriving in acid soils. The scarlet berries ripen in fall, persist on the plants all winter, and actually become sweeter after some cold weather. They don’t taste good at the end of the winter, though, so harvest while they are good eating. There are some modern cultivars selected for larger berries, although this plant is mostly grown as a ground cover or used for winter wreaths. The leaves can be used as tea. Those allergic to aspirin should avoid wintergreen because all parts of the plant contain methyl salicylate, an aspirin-like compound.
Mayapples are found in the understorey of Eastern woodlands, pushing up through the leaf-litter in early spring and unfurling large palmate leaves. All parts of the plant except ripe fruits are poisonous, and too many fruits can have a laxative effect. The roots have been used to relieve indigestion, and cancer drugs are derived from them. The fruits are lemon-shaped, up to 2” (5cm) long. Wait for them to soften and start to wrinkle in the summer. Discard the skin and seeds (slightly toxic). The pulp of the ripe fruits has a tropical flavor.
Maypops grow on the very ornamental passionflower vine. The egg-size fruits don’t provide a lot of food, but have an interesting mildly sweet, mildly acid flavor, once the fruits start to wrinkle. The seed are surrounded by tasty edible arils (like pomegranates).
After all the profiles, there are two pages of further reading, two of plant nurseries, about 20 pages of extra notes about the crops, and 20 pages of index. A very well-researched book!
This is another post in my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I cover planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. We have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.
Melons are the focus fruit for July
July is the month in our climate, to start harvesting muskmelons (often called cantaloupes), Asian melons, and canary melons. Next month I’ll talk about watermelons, which are slower to ripen.
Melons love warm, sunny days and need 80-100 days from seed sowing to harvest. For good production, melons warm weather, along with a steady supply of water. Melon plants also need good air circulation, so leaves and fruit can dry fairly quickly after dew or rainfall. To help prevent the spread of diseases, rotate crops and avoid growing them where other cucurbits were planted in the previous year or two.
Melons thrive in well-drained soil, sandy loam, or in clay soils that have been good levels of organic matter. Soil pH should be 6-6.5 for healthy melons and a good yields. Encourage drought-resilient crops by using drip irrigation, so that roots grow deep.
Types of melons
Fastest to produce a crop are the 65-day Asian melons such as Torpedo (replaced Sun Jewel), or Early Silver Line. These 1-2lb (0.5-1kg) oblong melons have refreshing crisp white flesh and are mildly sweet. Some people disparage them as “cucumber melons,” but their good points are earliness, tolerance of chilly weather, being easy to grow and having a pleasant flavor.
Muskmelon (Cucumis melo reticulatus, commonly, but inaccurately called cantaloupe) is the melon type I have most experience with. They have a yellowish-buff skin with a raised netting, and sometimes lengthwise sutures (ribbing). The flesh is orange with a complex sweet aromatic flavor, and the 3–7 lbs (1.5–3 kg) fruits take 75-84 days to mature. We have enjoyed Pike, Kansas, Delicious 51, Edisto 47 and Hales Best. My long-time favorite was Ambrosia from Seminis Seeds, but when Seminis was bought by Monsanto, I stopped growing it, as I don’t want to support Monsanto in producing GMOs. For Downy mildew resistance and tolerance to cucumber beetles, grow Trifecta from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
True cantaloupes, Cucumis melo cantalupensis, are rarer in the US. They are rough and warty rather than netted. Prescott Fond Blanc and Petit Gris de Rennes are true cantaloupes, as are charentais melons. Charentais melons are smaller, round, good-flavored orange-fleshed melons. I have successfully grown 78-day Savor, a 2lb (0.9kg) melon with a green-grey skin and deep orange flesh.
Canary melons are smooth yellow 4lb (1.8kg) fruits with white flesh and are quite sweet.75 days to maturity. We have had good success with Mayor.
Crenshaw melons are large oblong 78-day melons with light yellow skin and very aromatic pale creamy orange flesh.
Galia tropical melons have green flesh, yellow-tan skins and a round shape. Honeydew melons are fast-maturing, smooth skinned oval melons, usually with pale-green flesh, although Honey Orange is salmon-colored. 3lbs (1.4kg), 74 days.
We tried some smaller (individual serving) melons, Tasty Bites. personal-size melons (they top out at 3lbs/1.4kg) and Sugar Cube 2–2 1/2 lb (1kg). The advantage of having a smaller fruit was not more than the disadvantage of harvesting smaller fruits.
Sowing melon seeds
Melons are a bit finicky in their youth, but given a strong start, they can do very well. You can sow melon seeds directly in the garden, but the seeds need soil temperatures of 59°F (15°C) minimum to germinate, and their best temperature is 86°F (30°C). At that temperature they only take 3 days to emerge. More and earlier success comes with sowing melon seeds indoors, where the right temperatures can happen earlier in the year. Maximum germination temperature is 100°F (38°C).
Up to three weeks before your average last frost date, sow 2 or 3 melon seeds in potting compost at a depth of ½” (1cm) in 3” (7.6cm) pots or plug flats. We are in zone 7a, with an approximate last frost date of April 25 – we sow April 15 for May 6 transplanting (21 days after sowing). After germination, the temperature should be reduced to 75°F (24°C). We always ensure our melons get a spot in the greenhouse with very good light and no drafts.
Keep the soil moist and when seedlings have reached 2” (5cm) in height, snip off the weakest ones at soil level, leaving one strong seedling per pot or cell. When the first true leaves appear, lower the temperature to 65°F (18°C) and reduce watering a little.
Harden off the transplants for a week before you set them into the garden. Set them outside in a shady area on warm days, gradually increasing the time outside each day from one hour to two hours, to three, and so on. Alternatively, use shadecloth and increase the sun exposure by an hour a day. Reduce watering a bit, to slow plant growth. Check your local weather forecast to ensure that your melon plants will not be subjected to chilly, windy conditions when they are young.
Before starting transplanting, check the soil temperature: garden soil should be at least 70°F (21°C) for melon survival. Melon plants exposed to temperatures cooler than recommended might not set fruit later on. One way to speed up soil warming is to cover the area with black plastic mulch for 1-3 weeks prior. Cut an x-shaped slit where for each plant and hold the edges of the plastic down with rocks. We space our melons at 2’ (60cm) apart in the row, with rows 6’ (2m) apart.
Melons are admittedly delicate to transplant. When outdoor conditions, soil temperature, and timing are right for transplanting melons, take great care in handling the plants. To help reduce transplant shock, water the flat (or pots) well before transplanting and avoid disturbing the roots when transplanting into the garden. Plant the entire stem in the ground, leaving only the seed leaves upwards exposed. The stems are fragile, and will do better protected in the ground. Water the soil thoroughly. If you are not using black plastic, spread organic mulch (straw, spoiled hay or dry tree leaves) around the melon vines. You might rather hoe and wait until hot weather to spread organic mulch, as this will keep the soil cool, and as I stressed already, melons like heat. Depending on soil fertility, you may want to add fish emulsion to encourage growth.
If the weather is less warm than you hoped, use hoops and thick rowcover until you are more confidant in the temperatures, then switch to netting. We hoop and net our melons immediately after transplanting, to keep the bugs off. We keep the netting on until we see female flowers (they have miniature melons between the flower and the plant). Melons require pollination, so it is necessary to remove the netting.
Care of melon plants
If weeds emerge through the mulch, pull them slowly, while stepping next to the melon stem. Melon roots near the surface can easily be injured. As melons ripen, put a piece of cardboard under the fruit to help prevent rot. With the late summer planting, you can pinch off new flowers to steer the plant’s energy into fruit that has already set. Keep the soil around melons watered with 1-2” (2-5 cm) per week, up until the last week or two before harvest. Holding back on water during this time leads to sweeter melons.
Succession crops of melons
In our climate we can sow melons three times, a month apart. The first row is from transplants, set outside May 3-6. We direct sow the second bed on May 25, then June 25 and once, on July 15 for a “Last Chance” crop.
Pests and diseases of melons
Like most cucurbits, melons are vulnerable to striped cucumber beetles. These pests chew on plants and spread diseases, such as bacterial wilt and mosaic virus. Protect against cucumber beetles with rowcover or insect netting applied at transplanting, or hunt them every morning on leaves and inside flowers, when beetles are more slow-moving. Watch for aphids in the garden, as they can also spread viruses. You can usually hose off leaves or apply an insecticidal soap to kill aphids before they inflict too much damage. In warm, humid climates like ours, melons are subject to powdery mildew, which can wipe out a melon crop if not caught in time. Look for melon varieties that are disease resistant.
Sudden wilt is caused by cold weather in late summer when the plants are loaded with ripening melons.
I recommend harvesting daily, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases.
With muskmelons, when the background-color of the skin beneath the “netting” changes from gray-green to buff or a yellowish color, the melon is almost ripe. A honeydew melon will turn a light yellow-white color when it’s ripe.
For some varieties (but not all), if gentle pressure is applied to the base of the stem, and the stem separates from the vine, the melon is ready. This is called the “full slip” stage. (The half-slip stage requires a bigger nudge.) Crenshaw and Canary melons require a good tug (“forced slip”). Honeydew, Charentais, and Piel de Sapo must be cut from the vine – don’t wait for them to slip!
Storage time for melon depends on the type. Relative humidity should be 85-95% for best results. Muskmelons will last a couple weeks at 40°F (4°C); honeydew can be stored up to three weeks at 50°F (10°C). Store other melons at 45-50°F (7-10°C) for 7-14 days.
Other small fruits available in July
Blackberries, blueberries, crabapples, elderberries, gooseberries, goumi berries, mulberries, peaches, black and red raspberries.
Water all fruit crops. Pack away blueberry netting after fruiting. Mow aisles, weed and water all fruit.
In late June/early July (after fruiting): Renovate one-year-old strawberry beds to carry over for another year, by mowing or shearing/clipping the plants, weeding and mulching, but don’t compost them at this stage. Dismantle two-year-old strawberry beds after gathering any propagation material.
If preparing to plant new plug-strawberries, till an area in late June or very early July and sow buckwheat by July 4. After three weeks, till in the buckwheat and prepare the beds.
If preparing to plant bare-root strawberries, (perhaps rooted runners in the paths of older beds), till the area by the beginning of July and prepare new beds with compost, driptape, and landscape fabric.
In early July, or at least by mid-July, plant new bare-root strawberry transplants.
July 6-14: To propagate from your own plants, pot up pencil-thick crowns, with 2 or 3 leaves, 4” (10cm) petioles. Use Round-50 plug trays. Or use runner tips. Set up a shadecloth propagation tent in a cold frame, or other protected area Set up a misting system and timer. Also handwater once or twice a day, to keep the soil damp.
This is another post in my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I’ll talk about planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. I’ll have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.
Blueberries are the focus fruit for June
June is the month in our climate, to harvest blueberries. Blueberries are a great crop to grow, as they are not troubled by many pests or diseases (apart from birds). While you are harvesting take notes (or photos) of the various varieties you have, and when and how well they are producing, so that you will know which ones to propagate from in the winter, if you want more.
See ATTRA Blueberries: Organic Production available free online, for a wealth of information from choosing varieties, planting, details on pests and diseases you might encounter. Updated 2022. Also search the ATTRA site for other info on blueberries, such as soil management (blueberries need acid soil), living clover mulches, and honeybees and alternative pollinators.
I recommend harvesting two days a week, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases. Blueberries don’t deteriorate or over-ripen as quickly as softer fruit, so if you can only find time once a week, that will be OK. Or if you are selling blueberries, once a week may work better for your sales. Blueberries don’t crush as easily as strawberries or raspberries, so if you have lots you can put them in buckets or crates. We usually harvest into homemade berry buckets with long rope handles, that we can hang around our necks, freeing up both hands for picking berries. Our berry buckets are made by cutting plastic gallon jugs and adding rope through holes we punch near the top. Full berry buckets get emptied into a bigger bucket.
Only pick the berries that are purple-black all over. Check the back of each each ripe-looking blueberry to make sure it’s ripe all over. The area around the stem is the last to change color. Really ripe blueberries will “tickle” from the bush into your hand
Do not wash fruit before refrigerating, as this leads to rot.
Types of blueberries
We grow Northern Highbush blueberries here in winter-hardiness zone 7a (suitable for zones 3-7) and we like to have a crop we can harvest standing up! There are also lowbush blueberries, which are popular in cooler climates, such as Maine. Rabbiteye varieties are better to the South, in the region roughly south of Interstate 40 (mostly zones 6-9). Rabbiteyes are taller plants, with smaller berries than highbush types. A new hybrid type, Southern highbush, is adapted to the southern rabbiteye zone and the coastal South (zones 6-10). Look into these if you are in the right area: they have a lower chilling-hours requirement, and flower and fruit earlier than highbush or rabbiteye varieties. As the climate changes, fruit growers are challenged by traditional crops no longer getting enough winter chilling hours to fruit. (Chilling is the number of accumulated hours at temperatures below 45°F/7°C in the dormant season.) Balance this with your changing frost dates, as earlier flowering will not be an advantage if your last frost is going to cancel the fruit. Remember that all blueberries are self-fertile but will produce better crops if you plant several compatible cross-pollinating varieties.
At our farm, Duke has been a very reliable early fruiting highbush variety, whereas Spartan has not worked out. We like to have several varieties with different ripening dates, to extend the harvest. Blue Crop, Blue Jay, Elliott and Chandler also do well here. If I was starting over, I’d also try some Southern Highbush varieties.
We have bought good plants from Finch Blueberry Nursery in Bailey, North Carolina, as well as from a more local source in SW Virginia (now retired). If you only want a few plants, buy potted blueberry plants locally. Otherwise, order bareroot plants shipped to you. In Virginia Edible Landscaping offers a wide choice.
When to plant blueberries
If you are planning to plant blueberries, here are some considerations. Generally you will want o buy young bushes and plant them in the dormant season. In warm areas, plant in late fall so the plants get roots established before your early spring thrusts them into opening buds. In cooler zones, plant in early spring, so that winter does not kill them.
As with all perennials, clear the area of perennial weeds the previous year, and reduce annual weeds, for instance by growing a good cover crop, which will smother emerging annual weeds and also feed the soil. Get a soil test, and follow the recommendations to amend the pH to 4.8-5.5 using sulfur in spring or fall before planting. I like the pelleted sulfur, that looks like lentils, because it is easy to spread, and no dust gets in your lungs. Depending on your soil type, you might need 430-1750 pounds of S per acre, or 1-4 pounds per 100 sq ft. Work in some good compost before planting.
Plan space between the rows that will let you walk, mow or whatever you need to do even once the bushes have reached full size. 8-12ft is recommended. Ours are a bit closer than that. In the row you can either plan for a hedge effect, or leave yourself access space. You can plant blueberries on raised beds or wide ridges. You can move bushes later in life, if you find they are competing too much.
Plan how you will cover the soil. I recommend landscape fabric topped by bark mulch or woodchips. This combination works well to keep perennial weeds at bay (wiregrass!). If you are avoiding plastic, you can use double layers of overlapping cardboard topped by 3” of organic mulch: chips, sawdust, straw or spoiled hay. Blueberries don’t do well with plastic mulch that is impervious to water, as it encourages the roots to grow just under the plastic, where they can easily get overheated and die. Some people like to grow a living mulch, perhaps mowing it to mulch closer around the plants once it dries. A hybrid model has mulch in the rows and a cover crop between the rows.
Blueberries have shallow roots, so you will likely need some irrigation method. I like drip irrigation, but overhead sprinklers work too.
You will, of course, have some annual care to provide. Each spring, expect to provide some source of nitrogen and potassium, as needed. I’ll cover that another time. Each winter, prune for strong branches and good levels of production, and remove any perennial weeds.
Pests to watch out for include big ones like deer, groundhogs, birds and uninvited humans. We have a triple fence, with wire netting in the ground against burrowing animals, 7’ tall Tenax deer fencing, and seasonally, Avigard flexible bird netting over the top. For our newer blueberry planting we make a temporary hooped structureand cover just with the bird netting, held down to the ground with 6” soil staples. This planting is nearer our buildings than the older one, and is not visited by deer or groundhogs.
Smaller pests include blueberry maggots, blueberry stem borers, cranberry fruitworms, cherry fruitworms, Japanese beetles, leafrollers, leafhoppers, and aphids. Our perhaps, like us, you will not be troubled by any of these.
Diseases include mummy berry, Botrytis grey mold, Anthracnose, stem blight, stem canker, rust, phytopthora root rot, Phomopsis twig blight, blueberry stunt and several viruses. A Cornell University blueberry diagnostic tool offers a step-by-step exercise to help figure out what diseases may be affecting your crop.
Grapes: Mow, weed, water in drought. If you have young vines, remove side branches from the trunks, and fruitlets. Your goal is to first grow strong plants, then produce grapes after that.
Strawberries: Prepare for new strawberries in early June: Disk or till the area for new strawberries if using bare-root plants, and prepare the beds with compost, driptape, and landscape fabric.
June 16-July 16: If using bare-root transplants, plant new strawberry beds.
Late June/early July (after fruiting): Dismantle two-year-old beds. Renovate carry-over strawberries by mowing or shearing/clipping weed and mulch, but don’t compost them. . Plant new strawberries if using bare-root transplants, perhaps rooted runners in the paths of older beds.
All fruit: Water all fruit crops. Weed, mow aisles as needed. Weed and mulch rhubarb, lop flowers. Record condition and fruiting dates of new grapes, blueberries. Note best varieties.
This is the first of my new monthly series, about small fruits that can be grown sustainably in a mid-Atlantic climate. I’ll talk about planting, pruning, harvesting and care of the plants, according to the season. I’ll give links to useful publications. I’ll have a focus fruit, and then more about others that need attention during the month. We do grow apples and pears, and some other tree fruit, but I’m not writing about those as I don’t have much recent experience.
Strawberries are the focus fruit for May
May is the month in our climate, to harvest and weed strawberries. Actually weeding strawberries in bare soil is a job that needs doing once a month from February to November here! We don’t have any strawberries in our gardens this year. Once upon a time, we grew matted rows, where you keep the same bed in production for multiple years, removing the oldest plants to make space for younger more vigorous plants. Weeds were our downfall. Once you let weeds seed in a strawberry bed, you have lost the battle. In our climate, we have cold-weather weeds and warm weather weeds. Semi-permanent strawberry beds get them all. I wouldn’t choose this method again.
I recommend harvesting three days a week, in the mornings, once the dew has dried, to avoid spreading fungal diseases. Use shallow containers, although strawberries don’t crush as easily as raspberries. Turn each ripe-looking strawberry over to make sure it’s ripe underneath too. We will harvest with white tips, but not green. Commercial strawberries that will travel long distance are harvested ¼ green and arrive very red, but with not much flavor.
Nip through the stem of the fruit with your nails and set the fruit in the container. Also, now or preferably separately, collect up any moldy or bird-bitten fruits to compost. It’s better not to handle healthy plants after moldy fruit, but if you have dry weather and not many moldy ones, it’s very tempting to remove them as you go. When “Mouseberry”, our nickname for Botrytis grey mold, is only a minor problem, we just hurl each one as far from the strawberry bed as we can, rather than collect them up.
Unblemished strawberries can be stored for several days in the refrigerator. Do not wash before refrigerating, as this leads to rot. If you are planning to process lots of strawberries for drying, jam, juice or other value-added products, I recommend finding a simple little tool, a pair of round-ended tweezers about 2” (5 cm) long and ½” (1 cm) across. You can twist our the green tops quickly with minimal wastage.
When to plant strawberries
In case you don’t yet have strawberries, and now wish you did, here are some considerations about when to plant. Many gardening books are written in more northerly climates, where bare-root transplants are set out in early spring. But then it is necessary to pinch off the flowers the first year. And still weed once a month! We found it better here to plan for September planting of runners we had potted up in July, leaving them attached to their mother plants until time to make the new bed. They are less likely to die if still attached to the well-rooted mother plant. Fall-planted strawberries do not need to have the flowers removed in their first spring. It is not easy to find bare-root transplants to buy in the fall.
In Virginia, many commercial growers plant new strawberries on plastic mulch every year, buying in plugs. The costs are covered by the high price that strawberries bring in when sold. We were not selling, but feeding our intentional community. This means that produce that would get high prices doesn’t repay us for the time spent. We need nutrients for a well-balanced diet, not fancy stuff. This issue also came up for us when we grew ginger in our hoophouse. Tasty and enjoyable, but not lots of food for the space and time.
As a balance, we settled on keeping two beds (one early variety, one late) for two years each, using landscape fabric with holes melted in it. Each year we would make 1 new patch, till in the older one after 2 harvests. Some years we bought plants, and we also figured out a good propagation method, which gave us plants when we needed them, without too much money or labor. We had backup plans in case we failed to propagate enough replacements.
In early June we’d prepare new beds if going for bare-root plants; after fruiting we’d dismantle the two-year-old bed, renovate the one-year-old bed, and in early July prepare the new bed if using plugs. We did the propagation of our own plugs during July, setting up a misting tent. We planted the new plugs in early August. I’ll go into detail about these tasks when we get to that time of year.
Some varieties are patented and it is illegal to propagate your own without permission from the patent holder. It’s most illegal to sell plants you have propagated from a patented variety. Technically, it is also illegal to propagate for you own use, and even to let strawberry runners root themselves beside a mother plant. Not all varieties are patented. Cornell has a page Patent Status of Select Strawberry Varieties with info for varieties that do well in NY State. It includes when patents expire. StrawberryPlants.org has a lot of information, including an interactive variety list. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include info on which are patented.
Climate change, challenges and options
Our climate is variable, and is changing to more of all extremes, so we need to change our systems to meet the challenges. It always helps to have a plan B.
Fruit still available in May
Rhubarb can be harvested until the stems get too thin. April is its main month here in central Virginia. Weed and water. Lop off any flower heads or buds, to concentrate energy into the stems.
Other fruit care in May
Install blueberry netting before the fruit sets, so the birds will have no reason to be interested. Weed, water, top up mulch, as needed. Check periodically to ensure the netting has no holes.
Grapes: Mow, weed, water in drought. Mow aisles as needed. New vines: remove side branches from trunks, and fruitlets. I like to walk through in May to record the condition of the grape vines.