Growing raspberries, strawberries and berries
The strawberry, you will be reminded by its professional admirers, is not even a berry. Neither, for that matter, is the raspberry, the boysenberry or any of the quite delicious, mildly decorative edibles I will shortly exhort you to plunge into your winter ground. The growth and maintenance of these non-berry berries – equally useful in sweet preserves and in sour conversation with non-gardeners who taste summer only in its mean supermarket form – is quite easy and does not depend on us knowing anything at all about their botanical families. Still, I find I am a more persuasive farmer if I can stand before my strawberry patch and tell it, “You’re not berries, you know. A coconut is more of a berry than you.” It is my experience that this summer fruit responds as well to cold authority as it does to dry mulch.
A berry, you may wish to tell your garden, is a fleshy fruit that is formed by a single flower that bears a single ovary. Bananas, eggplants and tomatoes are all berries and one of the very few berry-bearing plants that bears a berry name is blueberry. I have long resisted blueberry cultivation due, in part, to the myth that they are disease-prone. Many balcony gardeners tell me this hooey is derived from the regular appearance of post-harvest rot on supermarket fruit. Blueberries don’t travel well but they do grow well, especially in pots, where they are safer from predators. So, if you would like to try your hand at raising this specimen, which rarely grows to more than two metres, you should buy a bare-rooted plant and place it in a container filled with good potting medium no less than half a metre in height. And do it now. However, you will not see a blueberry until three summers have passed, and my own aching need for easy reward has prompted me to partner with more promiscuous, if less legitimately “berry”, fruit.
A few years ago, I started on the strawberry, which, as you will soon remind it, is not a berry and possibly not even a fruit, as not all of its flesh is produced by its several ovaries. It is, in fact, sometimes classified as a “spurious fruit”, which is why I renamed my varieties – Melba and Lowanna for eating, and Red Gauntlet and Alpine, which I will give to a preserve-making friend – for the straight actors who played gay men in Dallas Buyers Club. This is not helpful growing information. What is, however, is my urging to plant right now. If you care to enjoy, as with a little care you can, many months of strawberry harvest, you must start your planting immediately. In fact, you ought to have started weeks ago, but I was far too busy with my compost to remind you and, in any case, I am reliably told by grower and jam-maker Katrine Juleff of Victoria’s Pennyroyal Raspberry Farm that “if you get ’em in now, there is still great hope!”
In pots or in beds, strawberries can be easily grown right around the nation. Different varieties suit different climate zones and different culinary applications, so for a productive result by Christmas you could consult the Strawberry Growers Association in your state to help you make a first-rate decision. For my Melbourne garden, I selected the aforementioned varieties and chose online delivery of very young bare-root plants. You can, of course, take the advice of your local garden centre, but I have found that the quite mature plants they tend to sell can suffer initial transplant shock and take longer to truly settle in. But at this time of year, a nursery is your most abundant bet and you may find some plants whose biodegradable containers will help ease the transition into a bed or a pot. If they don’t grow well for a few weeks, resist the urge to overwater or fix the problem of grumpy-looking leaves with promising potions. Generally speaking, no newly transplanted plant wants to be doused in nutrients. And no strawberry wants a grave. “Don’t bury the berry,” says Juleff, who notes that first-time home growers tend to entomb their plants. “Plant them,” she says, “with just a little of their crown poking above the soil.” As with brambles, like raspberries or blackberries, now widely available in thornless form, don’t suppose the strawberry root needs to go very deep at all.
And don’t suppose you need to limit yourself to just one kind of strawberry. You can grow a late-fruiting variety to extend your season and you can have one for cooking. Seascape or Lowanna are just some of the not-so-sweet strawbs you can macerate in sugar or use for jam and they are both drought-tolerant and “day neutral” – that is, less greedy for sunshine and water. “Just remember to label them,” Juleff says. Your only problem with a diverse patch will be misidentification, as strawberries are commonly propagated from their own runners – a feat I am yet to successfully manage. And so, every three or four years, when the strawberries are done, I simply buy new plants.
You may be, as I am, the kind of tormented braggart who likes to grow from seed, but in the case of strawberries, and of brambles, which we will soon explore, you must buy plants. The exception here is the very pretty, very tiny Alpine, which is, depending on which horticulturist you ask, a wild and ancient strawberry or a bastard hybrid, and, depending on which cook you ask, either the very best thing for Parisian custard tarts or a useless, sour paleo blob. Either way, it’s a lovely ground cover. And it has more or less the same requirements as the sweet cultivars that even fussy children can’t resist, which like to be watered gently at the root and fed, according to Juleff, once every three weeks with, in her case, an organic mix of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. You can just use a “complete fertiliser” if you’re lazy or if, like me, you’ve something “natural” to prove, a combo of worm castings, seaweed and fish emulsion.
If you’re growing in a pot, just be careful not to overwater. Do as Juleff advises and spurn the fairly impractical strawberry containers – tall cylindrical things with tiny holes in the side – and “make your own little cascading Babylon”. Don’t bother with the water-thieving terracotta on your balcony and just, she says, get a large rectangular plastic job. Fill it with (good) potting mix and then place a smaller version of the pot on top, which you will also fill with potting mix. You can even have three tiers, with the two lower levels of strawberries growing in the recess between lip and pot and the top group as a crowning achievement. It’s a cheap, practical and very pretty means to bring this Spurious Fruit to life. It’s not going to look marvellous in winter and nor is a strawberry patch, as both of these garden plots must be given over only to that plant. But the quality of the fruit, in my view, more than justifies this dedicated use of space.
You may not need to mulch container strawberries, but certainly use a dry mulch in the garden, such as sugarcane or lucerne hay, leaving a circle of soil around the root in order to water it. And, for the sake of tilth, please make sure your drainage is good. If you can grab a handful of soil and it stubbornly keeps its shape, then you’ll need to improve it. Don’t add sand to the clay – unless, of course, you just want to make bricks. Add well-rotted organic matter.
Much of this advice holds true, says Juleff, for the raspberries and other brambles she grows in immense volume. They like routine fertilisation, well-drained soil, pitiless pruning – Juleff’s husband takes a whipper-snipper to strawberries in the winter – sun and gentle and very regular irrigation. The container garden, unfortunately, can really not sustain these large plants. “People give it a go,” says Juleff and, by all means, if you have a sunny aspect, an enormous pot and a wall against which your bramble can rise, go nuts with these non-berries. But do remember that you’ll have to wait a season for it to fruit and, for the most part, you’ll be staring at a little stub of wood, as old canes need to be removed in winter.
Ideally, raspberries, loganberries, blackberries, marionberries and many of the edible, cookable Rubus brambles will sit before a fence with a northerly aspect. They will generally prosper with two levels of wire, one at 50 centimetres and another at a metre. As with strawberries, you can extend the season by planting later varieties and you can still acquire some late summer or autumn fruiting raspberry canes online and in stores for just a few bucks. Raspberries, which can easily produce for more than a decade, are hardy mothers that, despite their fondness for cold, are even grown to life in Brisbane. You can, of course, tinker with a tay berry or something obscure and posh if you prefer, but for my bramble dollar there is nothing so sweetly dependable as a raspberry.
And there is little from the garden so rewarding as a Spurious Fruit. Gardeners claim, of course, that their tomatoes or their cucumbers (both of which you may wish to start raising as seeds now) are better than anything that can be bought in shops, but this is generally a vegetal lie. These true berries travel from farm to table perfectly well. The non-berry, however, travels best straight from the plant into your gob.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2015 as "Berried treasure". Subscribe here.