Berry Enticing

Berries are making it harder to get things done around here. Not because they are so much trouble to grow, but because I’ve planted them here, there, and everywhere. Wherever I walk I seem to come upon a berry bush. Who can resist stopping to graze? This year is a particular bountiful year for berries.

I can’t even walk to my mailbox without being confronted. First, there are lowbush blueberries hanging ripe for the picking over the stone wall bordering the path from the front door. Lowbush blueberries along pathThe wall supports the bed of them planted along with lingonberries, mountain laurels, and rhododendrons. These plants are grouped together because they are in the Heath Family, Ericaceae, all of which demand similar and rather unique soil conditions. That is, high acidity (pH 4 to 5.5), consistent moisture, good aeration, low fertility, and an abundance of soil organic matter. The small blueberries send me back to many summers ago in Maine when a very young me hiked in the White Mountains and picked these berries from plants growing amongst sun-drenched boulders. Care needed: mulching in autumn, and cutting a portion of the planting to the ground with a hedge trimmer every second or third winter.

A few feet further the path ends and I come to the driveway, and here’s a 50 foot long hedge of Nanking cherries (berry size, but a drupe fruit, not a berry), whose season is almost over. For the past few weeks the stems were so solidly clothed in cherries that you could hardly see the branches. The cherries have a very refreshing flavor on the spectrum between that of sweet and tart cherries. Care needed: winter pruning — very nonexacting — to keep the bushes from growing too large.
Nanking cherry fruits
Perhaps later, once back in the house, I’ve got to walk out the back door to the compost pile. Hmmm. Gooseberry plants are enticing me with their stems that are arching to the ground under their weight of berries. Can’t pick a little from just one plant. I’ve got to eat a few of each of the over dozen varieties. My favorites? Hinnonmaki Yellow, Poorman, Black Satin, Red Jacket, and Captivator. 

Poorman gooseberry

Poorman gooseberry

It’s a funny thing about gooseberries. If I pick a bowl of the berries and then bring them indoors to eat, they don’t taste as good as the one’s eaten bushside. It’s not just me; Edward Bunyard, in his 1929 book The Anatomy Of Dessert, wrote that the “Gooseberry is of course the fruit par excellence for ambulant consumption.”

Care needed: winter pruning to get rid of the very oldest stems and make way for younger ones; and to reduce the number of newest stems if they are overly abundant.

Okay, I finally made it to the compost pile. Now to check what’s going on in the greenhouse. Uh oh, I have to walk past black currants, one of my favorite fruits and now at their peak flavor. Their flavor is intense, intensely delicious to me. I grow mostly the variety Belaruskaja, which has just the right amount of sweetness to balance its almost resin-y flavor. Care needed: annual winter lopping to the ground of all two-year-old and some one-year-old stems.
Belaruskaja black currants
And right next to the black currants are black raspberries, also now at their peak flavor. The heavy crop of berries are arching some of the longest stems within reach of our ducks. I can share a few berries with them. Black raspberries grow wild all over the place in much of this part of the country. Wild ones are good. I prefer the named variety, Niwot, that I planted because it is one of two varieties that can bear two crops each season. For fruit size, flavor, and abundance, it’s worth growing even for just its summer crop. Care needed: summer pinching of tips of new stems to induce branching; winter pruning to cut away all two-year-old stems and thin out one-year-old stems, and to shorten branches to 18 inches; and tying stems to posts to hold them up.
Black raspberry fruit
Finally, I make it to the greenhouse. Leaving it, I’m confronted with two mulberry trees, the variety Illinois Everbearing and the variety Oscar (what a funny name for a fruit tree). No danger of the mulberries delaying my progress because I know that the birds are taking all of them. Illinois Everbearing, true to its name, will continue to bear into August. Perhaps by then the birds will tire of them or move on to other fruits, leaving some for me.

One more enticement, one of the best, before going back indoors — Fallgold raspberry. Fallgold raspberryThis variety, carrying genes of some species of Asian raspberry, has a sweet, delicate flavor unlike any other variety. Physically, the berries are similarly sweet and delicate, a pale, pinkish yellow. Their fragility makes them a poor commercial fruit so you won’t see them for sale. Grow them.

Asparagus Cutting?

Seems like last week’s blog post about my method for reducing weeds in the asparagus patch caused a lot of confusion. I wrote that I cut down all the spears before applying compost and wood chips, and many people thought that was not supposed to be done until autumn.

During the harvest season, which here is from the time the spears first show until the end of June, the spears are constantly being cut down for eating. All are regularly cut, even those too spindly for eating. Doing so helps starve out asparagus beetles, which are gone by July.

So consider my final, early July lopping back of any and all spears just like a final harvest. From then on, spears are left grow to their heart’s content, fueling the roots for next year’s spring and early summer harvest. The bed gets its final cutting down in autumn, when the ferns yellow to indicate that they’re no longer feeding the roots.
Asparagus growing through mulch
I was a little nervous about the compost plus wood chip smothering asparagus plants in addition to weeds. Not to worry. It’s a few days after the treatment and some fronds are already a few feet high. And so far, no weeds.

More details about growing and use of berry (and other) fruit plants can be found in my books Grow Fruit Naturally and Landscaping with Fruit.

Pruning Gets Hectic

Easiest to Prune Plants

Most of the pruning I do is “dormant pruning,” that is, pruning while plants are leafless. A few weeks ago, pruning was a relaxed affair with still-cold temperatures keeping the buds only slowly swelling in anticipation of upcoming growth. Then a few warm days kicked them into gear, making pruning more hectic.

Berries of July

Berries, later

Hecticness is little problem with those plants that are the easiest to prune because the work can be quick; other plants require my standing back with arms folded for some study before every few cuts.

Here on my farmden, easiest to prune plants include mature ornamental trees, shrubs, and vines, and even some fruits. Those fruits are American persimmon, pawpaw, and mulberry. They’re so easy because they can get by with little or no pruning.

Mostly what I do with the three fruit trees, every year or so, is to take a lopper or a saw and hack back . . . whoops, I mean “prune” . . . a tall limb back to a weaker growing, usually more horizontal, side branch. That’s to keep fruit within safe reach or not falling so far of its own accord that it splatters upon the ground. It also doesn’t leave a tree looking like a victim; done correctly and you hardly know that steel has been taken to the tree.

Easy, but Need Annual Pruning

Then there are easy-to-prune plants that do need annual pruning, but pruning them is as easy as following a recipe. Brambles — blackberries and raspberries — are counted in here. They all have perennial roots but their canes are biennial. That is, canes just grow the first year, then fruit and then die their second year.

The first step in pruning these plants, then, is to get down near ground level and cut all the two-year-old canes to the ground. These canes broadcast their age with peeling bark and an old and dead, or dying, appearance.

Gardeners telling tell me about their raspberry or blackberry patches make me cringe. “Patch” does conjure up an image of a cozy, cottage-y planting, but isn’t the way to grow these fruits if you want to make picking easy and limit disease problems. All of which leads to step two of this recipe.

Red or yellow raspberries spread to create a patch by sending up shoots via underground runners; black raspberries and blackberries do so by arching their long canes to the ground where they take root and make new plants. Too many new plants, in either case.

Red raspberry bed, pruned

Red raspberry bed, pruned

So I limit my red or yellow raspberries to a swath only a foot wide, and then within that swath remove enough plants so those that remain are a few inches apart.

With black raspberries and blackberries, I remove any plants closer than 3 to 5 feet apart (depending on their vigor) and then thin out remaining canes in each remaining clump to the fattest and healthiest-looking half-dozen.

One more step for these berries is to shorten red or yellow canes enough to keep them from flopping around. How much depends on how tall they are and how they are trellised, if at all. Black raspberries and blackberries fruit on side shoots; these need to be shortened to about 18 inches long.

(So-called everbearing — aka “fallbearing” — red or yellow raspberries can be pruned as described above. Or, just lop the whole planting to the ground late each fall, sacrificing midsummer harvest but still offering late summer and early fall berries.)

Also Easy

Two more fruits also fall into this easy-to-prune category. 

Lowbush blueberries, like brambles, bear on two-year-old (and, to a lesser extent, three-year-old stems). But they grow too many stems to selectively prune them.

So I take my hedge trimmer and every other year, or every third year, cut all stems to the ground.

Shearing lowbush blueberries

Shearing lowbush blueberries

There’s no crop the year they are pruned but dividing a planting in halves or thirds and pruning a different half or third every year circumvents that drawback.

Lowbush blueberries, flower buds

Lowbush blueberries, flower buds

Blackcurrants bear in a similar manner to lowbush blueberries but their stems are few enough for selective pruning. I cut to the ground any 3-year-old stems as well as anything more than the best half-dozen 1-year-old stems.

Blackcurrant, before & after pruning

Blackcurrant, before & after pruning

Just a Wee Bit More Difficult

From here, I move on to shrubs — only slightly more difficult to prune — that bear fruit on older wood, which determines which stems I cut out. 

Most gooseberries and redcurrants, for example, bear best on stems 2 and 3 years old. So the strategy here is the same as for brambles, except that the stems that I cut away are those that are 4-years-old. After that I remove excess new stems arising from ground level. When pruning is finished, the shrubs are left with about six each of one-, two-, and three-year-old stems.

Pruning blueberry bushes also follows the same strategy, except that since the bushes bear well on stems up to six-years-old, I prune away stems older than this and cut to the ground all except the healthiest 4 new stems.

Blueberry before & after pruning

Blueberry before & after pruning

Now on to the fruit trees. Wait, I can’t do it now! I’ve got to run outside, grab my hand shears, lopper, and pocket saw, and do some pruning. Stay tuned next week for fruit tree pruning.

Redcurrant espalier

Redcurrant espalier. How to prune it? Some other time.

For more pruning detail, more plants, and more techniques, see my book The Pruning Book.

Berries Begin

Green Thumb Not Necessary

Every day, for some time now, my strawberry bed has yielded about five cups, or almost 2 pounds of strawberries daily. And that from a bed only ten feet long and three feet wide, with a double row of plants set a foot apart in the row.Strawberry harvest
Good yield from a strawberry bed has nothing to do with green thumbs. I just did what’s required to keep the plants happy and healthy. To whit . . .

I planted the bed last spring to replace my five-year-old bed. About five years is about how long it takes for a strawberry bed to peter out due to inroads of weeds and diseases, including some viruses whose symptoms are not all that evident.

To keep my new plants removed from any problems lurking in the old soil, I located the new bed in a different place from the old one. Further forestalling problems, plants came not from a generous neighbor and not from my old bed, but from a nursery selling “certified disease-free” plants.

I chose to grow them in a “spaced plant” system (which does not involve getting plants high, ha, ha) but allows each plant a square foot of space. Throughout the growing season, I clipped off any runners and daughter plants attempting to establish themselves and crowd into the mother plant’s space.

Other growing systems allow for runners, which makes for more economical planting of a bed but reduced initial yield. Given free rein, though, new plants eventually become the worst weed in any strawberry bed; they must be dealt with in some way.

Did I mention that the new bed, like the old one, was in the vegetable garden, where the soil is rich in nutrients and organic matter, with plants’ thirst quenched daily via drip irrigation? 

In late December, when the ground had frozen about an inch deep, plants were snuggled beneath mulch as protection from winter cold. Straw, pine needles, wood shavings — any loose organic material will do.

Come spring, just as soon as plants began to awaken, I pulled back new growth beneath the mulch and tucked it under the plants’ leaves. I also trimmed off any dead leaves. The new job for the mulch was then to keep the soil moist and the soon-to-form ripening berries clean of soil.

That’s it, for all those berries, fresh picked every morning. Every morning for a little while longer, that is. I planted a “junebearing” variety of strawberry, Earliglow, known for earliness and good flavor, but bearing only for a few weeks in June. Other varieties, so called “everbearing” and ”day neutral” varieties, bear repeatedly through the season.
Netted strawberriesOnce Earliglow stops bearing for the season, the bed will need renovation and, through the season, its runners pinched off weekly to keep each plant “spacey.”

Better Berries

You might wonder: Why such a relatively small planting of strawberries, and why only junebearers? This admission may be sacrilege: I’m not a big fan of strawberries. I like the fruit well enough, but mostly because they are the first fresh fruit of the season.

(One other fruit does beat out strawberries as the first fruit of the season. They are honey berries, a kind of edible honeysuckle. Their flavor, thus far, has not impressed me. Breeding and cultivating honeyberries is in its infancy. They’re perhaps where apple was 2000 years ago, and the future might bring more flavorful ones.)

Back to strawberries . . . another of their deficiencies, in my view, is that you have to crawl for the fruit. And, as mentioned previously, although technically perennial, beds should replanted in a new location every 5 years or so.

The Best Berries

The fresh strawberries came on the scene on the tails of last year’s frozen blueberries, one of my favorite fruits. Perfect. (The loss of frozen blueberries is softened by the freshness of the strawberries.)

Last frozen blueberries, fresh picked strawberries

Last frozen blueberries, fresh picked strawberries

And just as the fresh strawberries fade out for the season, fresh blueberries will begin yielding this season’s bounty. Also, at the same time, black currants and red currants. And then black raspberries, and then  . . . and on and on.

All You Need To Know About Blueberries

Interested in growing your own blueberries? It’s easy, if you meet their basic needs, all of which, including varieties, harvest, and other pressing questions about growing blueberries, will be covered at my upcoming BLUEBERRY GROWING WORKSHOP. The workshop will take place on my New Paltz farmden on July 22, 2018 from 9:30-11:30am, at a cost of $48. Registration is a must. For more information and registration, go to


Imperfect Lawn

I’m no devotee of the perfect lawn, but I did recently suggest, for the bare palette of ground on which W wanted to plan for a variety of fruits, a patch of lawn. W protested that she hated mowing and wanted a “permaculture planting” that would take little care.

Visitors to my garden have occasionally complimented me on my lawn. The only care I give it is mowing with a mulching mower that lets clippings rain back down. By not cutting the lawn I avoid “mining” the soil for nutrients by repeated harvest of clippings. The clippings also enrich the ground with humus.

Pawpaw tree in my cousin's lawn

Pawpaw tree in my cousin’s lawn

Still, I’d rather grow trees, shrubs, vines, especially fruiting ones, and vegetables and flowers, than lawngrass. But I have plenty of ground devoted to these plants. And the easiest way to care for a plot of ground, short of sealing it in asphalt or just letting weeds grow (some of which would undoubtedly be edible or attractive) is by mowing. Visually, lawngrass also provide a calm backdrop for the scene out my back and front door. Plus, it’s nice to walk and play on.

A lawn need not be the environmental disaster inadvertently promoted by purveyors of fertilizers, and pesticides. As stated above, by letting clippings fall where they may, ground is not drained of its fertility, so fertilizer may not be needed. Especially if you let a little clover invade the lawn to add nitrogen, the most evanescent of plant nutrients.

That nitrogen highlights another approach to an easier lawn: Not striving for the uniform look of artificial turf. My lawn has its share of dandelions and clover and, later in the season, crabgrass, especially if the weather turns dry. I tolerate all this, with a refocussing of my aesthetic lens to celebrate a certain amount of diversity in the lawn.

Lawn care is even more environmentally sound these days with cordless electric lawnmowers not spewing noise, carbon dioxide, and other byproducts of gasoline consumption into the air. Periodic scything is a very pleasant way to get by with less mowing and sheep may be a way to get by with no mowing (but you do have to fence and do whatever else is necessary to care for the sheep).


Eco-mowers: Fiskars push, Stihl battery, and Scythe Supply Co. mowers

Fruits To (And Not To) Grow

Now for W’s permaculture fruit trees, shrubs, and vines — with some lawn, of course. (I think I convinced her.) For starters, I suggested steering clear of apples, peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines, and apricots. All are relatively high maintenance and, even with all that maintenance, still are iffy crops in this part of the world because of our extreme and variable climate and the plants’ susceptibilities to insects and diseases.

Nanking cherry hedge

Nanking cherry hedge

So what’s there left to grow??!! Berries, for one. Most berries don’t stand up well to commercial handling so are picked underripe even though they don’t ripen at all once harvested — all the more reason to grow berries in the backyard where the best tasting varieties can be planted and the harvest need not be shipped much further than arms’ length.

Redcurrant espalier

Redcurrant espalier

Summer's berries

Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries are all easy to grow without much care beyond pruning, which is very important for keeping the plants disease free and convenient to harvest.

And no need to restrict the berry bowl to these most common berries. Also easy to grow are seaberries, elderberries, lingonberries, mulberries, and hardy kiwifruit (which are, botanically, berries). An added plus for these latter berries, as well as the aforementioned blueberries, is that the plants are also ornamental.

There is one common tree fruit that’s easy to grow: pears.  And even easier than European pears, such as Bartlett, Anjou, and Bosc, are Asian pears, such as Chojuro, Yoinashi, Hosui, and scores of other varieties. Asian pears also bear more quickly and prolifically, and are a little more decorative than the also decorative European pears.

Asian pear, comfrey, and lawn

Asian pear, comfrey, and lawn

Avoiding Nightmares

The main problem that I’ve seen with many permaculture plantings is that they look great on paper as well as when first planted. Mouths water at the prospects of all those ornamental, fruiting plants cozied together, fruit on creeping plants beneath trees whose branches strain downward with their weight of fruit. And perhaps a nearby grape or kiwifruit plant insinuating its berried vines in among the trees’ branches.

I’ve seen such plans and such plantings. What a nightmare of management they are or will be, mostly because of the need for relentless, extensive, judicious pruning to keep some plants from overtaking the landscape and starving others for nutrients or light. The result is less fruit of lower quality and difficulty in finding the fruit and getting to it.

A little lawn is good to give the fruiting plants some elbow room and to make them easier to care for.


Don’t wait for dry weather to learn about an easy and better (for you and plants) way to water. On June 24, 1-4:30 pm, I’ll be holding DRIP IRRIGATION WORKSHOP at the garden of Margaret Roach in Copake Falls, NY.  Learn how to design a system, and participate in a hands-on installation. For more information and registration,