Gardening Tips: Berry Busy

Editor’s Note: The Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it first appeared on 7 August 2019.


What to do this week

There are so many garden projects vying for my attention these days. The red currants and gooseberries are at their peak so I am busy picking and cleaning for the freezer. I discovered that gooseberries get sweet enough to eat out of hand if they are picked when pink and slightly soft. Now I just have to race the birds for them.

Black currants and saskatoon berries are colouring up and will follow them into the freezer shortly. If you are a jam maker, it helps to package the berries up in the quantity required for one batch to make measuring easier later. I make my jams when the work slows down — and the kitchen is cooler — in late fall.

Black currants. (Photo by Paolo Neo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Some people have been asking me whether or not to prune their tomatoes. The definitive answer to this old controversy is – it depends. By pruning the plants to a single vine, taking out all the suckers growing in the interstices, you will get bigger tomatoes, but you will get fewer pounds per plant. The fruit will also be more susceptible to sunscald and cracking.

For me, the choice is obvious – less work pruning with healthier and more abundant tomatoes. But if you are working on that big county-fair-prize-winning fruit, prune away and monitor your moisture levels. If you are bothered by green shoulder in tomatoes, try watering with an Epsom salt solution to boost the magnesium. If you are experiencing blossom end rot, you have a calcium deficiency. Oyster or egg shells can help in mild cases but with that and green shoulder you may have to try other varieties next year that are better nutrient scavengers.

It also needs mentioning that potato bugs, if deprived of enough potato plants to ravage, will happily move on to munching on tomato plants instead. Squish them, drown them, vacuum them off with a battery-powered shop vac, try to keep on top of these pests. The best time to go hunting is in the afternoon as the larvae spend the night at ground level and then climb up the stalks during the day. If you only go out in the morning, you’re going to miss a lot that haven’t reached the upper level yet.

Another pest that gardeners work to discourage is the corn borer. Some cut back the silk and about one inch of husk once pollination is complete and the silks start to dry. Others apply three or four drops of mineral oil to the silks and husk tip when the silks start to dry, repeating twice more at five- to six-day intervals. Borers overwinter in the soil so be sure to remove all stalks and leaves right away after harvest.

If soil moisture allows, and you are not overwhelmed by the harvest, it is now time to seed your fall crops. Wait another week or two to sow the brassicas to avoid the second generation of cabbage worms. Chard, lettuces, kales, Asian greens, even small carrots and beets will all have time to produce a crop before winter and are all frost tolerant to varying degrees. When the weather gets really cool, they may stop growing but can still be harvested. You can even extend the harvest period until late in the fall with row covers and low tunnels. I have too much wind in Inverness county to do much of that, but I pick kale well into December as long as we don’t have four feet of snow.

European corn borer moth. (Photo by Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

European corn borer moth. (Photo by Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s also time to do some selecting and roguing out if you have some seed-saving projects. It’s too late to eliminate plants that frequently cross-pollinate, but for those that are largely self-fertile, like peas, beans and lettuces, you should walk your rows with an eye to pulling out off-types or sickly specimens.

By the same token, if you have some that seem to be particularly healthy or disease resistant, you might want to flag them for special attention when collecting seed. Be sure not to go below the total number of plants recommended to preserve genetic diversity and prevent in-breeding depression. A good seed handbook (I like the Seeds of Diversity publication) will give you the numbers for each species. You can select hard for three to four generations if you are working on improving a desired trait. I worked on improving resistance to leaf blights in Black Valentine beans, for example. But don’t push your population harder than that or you will reduce the genetic diversity that is the strength of this method.

Garlic should be starting to dry down now. It is time to dig it when two thirds of the stalk turns yellow. If you wait longer than that you run the risk of breaking the stalk and leaving the bulb in the ground. The cloves also separate a little which means they don’t keep as well. If the soil is hard or dry, dig them gently with a fork rather than pull them. Loosely bunch them, stalk and all, and dry them in a shed or barn out of direct sunlight. This cures them and improves their storability. You can cut off the stalks and roots later.

If that isn’t enough to keep you busy and out of trouble, now is the time to take semi-hardwood cuttings to propagate things like currants and other fruiting shrubs. Take 6- to 8-inch cuttings from this year’s growth. It often helps to have a little heel of the older wood at the base. Strip the leaves from the bottom of the shoot. Fill a pot with a moist rooting medium like peat moss or vermiculite. Dip the bottom of the shoots with #2 rooting hormone and bury them up to the top little tuft of leaves. Bottom heat can be helpful, but keep them out of direct sunlight and mist them occasionally to keep them moist.

After two to four weeks, if rooting has occurred (give them a gentle tug to check) you can gradually get them used to cooler and drier conditions. It is an easy and inexpensive way to multiply your plants for larger landscaping projects. My goal is to mow less and less lawn and surround myself with beautiful (and tasty) shrubbery.

Featured image: Red currants by ojonsson from Göteborg, Sweden, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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.