Gardening Tips: Isn’t Spring the Berries?

What to do this week

The snow is melting slowly but surely during these sunny days. Many of my small fruit bushes and beds are almost completely uncovered. Small fruit is a term for any fruit not growing on a tree – strawberries, raspberries and the like. Now is the time to prune the bushes back to remove dead and broken branches, as well as to encourage new growth and larger fruit.

The raspberry patch is still a bit snowy, but as soon as it clears, I will be right in there cutting back the second-year canes – the ones that bore fruit last year. These yellow or brownish canes are easy to tell from the first-year canes, which are fresh and green looking. Those older canes will also have little hooking branches on them that held the berries last summer. Berries grow on the second-year canes, which then die back, so this is an important chore. Some beds also produce way more canes than they should, so some of the first-year canes should also be cut. The rule of thumb is that a medium-sized dog should be able to run through the bramble patch. This ensures good air circulation, preventing fungal diseases, as well as producing healthier and larger fruit. Use loppers or a good, sharp knife to cut the canes off right at ground level.

Bohemian Waxwings on a blueberry bush. Juneau, Alaska. Spring 2013. (Photo Gillfoto from Juneau, Alaska, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Bohemian Waxwings perched on a blueberry bush. Juneau, Alaska. Spring 2013. (Photo Gillfoto from Juneau, Alaska, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The black currants are getting a little overgrown. They also do better with an aggressive pruning. They will fruit on older wood, but if they get too crowded the berries will be small and ripen unevenly. Take out the older, blackish canes as well as any branches that broke with the snow load this winter. If this chore has been neglected for a few years, these branches will be thick and hard to cut. Use loppers and don’t be shy.

If the currant bush still looks crowded, cut back some younger wood so that it has an upright, vase-like shape with about a dozen healthy branches. Branches that bend too low to the ground will often root there, which is fine if you want to have more currant plants. You can cut them off at the roots and move them to a new bed or pot. But if you leave them on, the fruit will be impossible to pick and will encourage fruit worms as it rots next to the soil. If you don’t need any more currant bushes, be ruthless and rip them up. Red currants and gooseberries fruit on older wood, so while they need their four-year-old branches pruned to encourage healthy growth and larger fruit, you should not be too aggressive with them. Too much pruning stimulates growth of unwanted, young branches. The same goes for Haskaps. My bushes are too small yet to warrant pruning, but as they get older I am told they should be trimmed lightly to maintain a healthy, open, productive shape.

Saskatoon berries and elderberries should generally be pruned mostly for good health, though there is some work being done at the University of Missouri that suggests elderberries will produce larger, easier-to-pick berry clusters on young wood. They advocate cutting back hard every other year. I can’t quite bring myself to do that, but I notice if I neglect pruning altogether the flower clusters are smaller, as are the berries themselves. Saskatoons also tend to get too tall to pick easily and I take it in turns to cut them back to a more manageable size to stop them from reaching and encourage a bush rather than tree-like habit.

Lowbush blueberries must be mowed or burned every other year as they only produce fruit on second-year wood. Divide your patch in half and take turns. Burning takes a knack and special equipment – I suggest the home gardener or small farmer play it safe and mow instead. It will require some hand weeding to remove grass and wild roses which compete with the blueberries. Highbush blueberries only need to be pruned in their fourth or fifth year, apart from broken or diseased branches. If your bushes are that old, cut out about a quarter of the oldest, least productive wood. Cut some down to the base, and others to a healthy, upright branch.

It is also a good idea, when the weather dries up a bit, to rake up the dead grass and debris from around the base of all of the bushes. Little fruit worms and other pests that overwintered in the soil and on fallen fruit will be brought to the surface and exposed that way. Give the exposed soil some time to dry out before adding compost or mulches. It is too early to add compost anyway – the weather needs to warm up before it becomes active and lets nutrients move through it. Don’t remove the mulch from strawberries yet, though. Their crowns are still vulnerable to frost.

Speaking of composting, only add the branches that are disease-free to the heap. Those that show signs of black knot or anthracnose should be deeply buried or burned. The other pruned branches should be chopped in small pieces or shredded before you add them. Or if that seems too much trouble, you can use them on the bottom of a new pile to encourage good drainage and air circulation.

Next week, we’ll talk more about early spring pest and disease control, amongst other things.

 

Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.

 

 

 

Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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