COVID-19 has created a shift in our thinking and priorities, and more people have become focused on planting their own gardens this spring. In terms of food security, what can we plant in our gardens now, apart from traditional vegetables, and expect a crop this year? Not a two-year-old fruit tree — it would still need a couple more years before it could provide a crop. However, many small fruits, especially larger-sized plants, can give you something tasty to enjoy this season.
Everbearing strawberries, for example, planted now will produce a reasonably good crop this year. I love their versatility to perform well in containers, hanging baskets and gardens. Varieties, like “Albion”, “Quinault”, “Eversweet” and “Seascape” are among the best. Day-neutral varieties, like “Tristar”, are also excellent and produce over a very long period. Most strawberries are started from “runners”, but many growers today are using seed varieties which, when started very early, will also produce nice crops all season long. Varieties, such as “Berri Basket” and “Berries Galore”, will have beautiful pink or red flowers for some added colour.
Everbearing raspberry production has surged in the past few years. While main season varieties, planted now, will produce sucker growth for next season’s harvest, everbearing varieties produce fruit on this year’s shoots that come out of the root system below. Older varieties, like “Heritage”, are now being replaced by newer, more productive varieties with larger berries, such as “Autumn Bliss” and the new hottie “Cascade Delight”. “Fall Gold”, an older yellow variety, remains very popular because of its mild but sweet flavour. These varieties can be planted in the ground or in larger containers. “Raspberry Shortcake” is an attractive container variety that is very compact and produces tasty berries, but it is not as productive as everbearing varieties.
Well-draining soil is a must for raspberries as they hate wet feet. Planting four or five canes in a larger container will get you a fairly good crop this year. Be sure to cut your canes back to about 10 cm (four inches) to encourage new shoots to develop. Adding composted manures to your soil and using slow-release fertilizer will help achieve a more continuous production. In colder areas, mulch them heavily for winter protection.
Blueberries round out the top three favourite small fruits, and there have been some positive changes here as well. I always suggest planting early, mid-season and late varieties together for a more constant supply of berries. Vaccinium “Early Blue” is one of the earliest to produce. The mid-season favourites are “Blue Crop”, “Duke”, “Reka” and “Chandler”, which has the largest berries of all. “Elliot” is the last variety to ripen, giving you fruit well into September. Although the berries are smaller, a newer variety, called “Perpetua”, is amazing. One of the earliest to produce, it keeps going well into fall. For very cold areas, “North Blue” and “North Country” are hardy to Zone 3.
In terms of space, some innovative growers are planting three varieties together, both for good pollination and for extended production times. It’s a great idea and one you can do yourself by picking the varieties you want and growing them together as one plant.
Blueberries grow nicely in containers if they have well-draining soils and have fine fir or hemlock bark mulch worked into the mix. To maintain good health and steady fruit bearing, make sure your blueberries are well fed by applying a slow-release fertilizer, like 14-14-14.
Even though the Lower Mainland, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island have an abundance of “thorny” blackberries growing wild, “thornless” blackberries are the fourth most popular garden fruit. They are not as invasive as their prickly cousins and when grown espaliered on a fence or trellis, they will give you a considerable quantity of fruit the first year, especially if the plants are larger in size. Over the years to come, they will provide a profusion of large, sweet, delicious fruits. “Black Satin” is one of the favourite varieties and for colder areas of the province, “Chester” is the hardiest. If size matters, the “Prime-Ark Traveler” has huge, eye-popping fruits.
A whole range of novelty fruits, such as jostaberries (a black currant and gooseberry cross), tayberries (a blackberry and raspberry cross), “Munger” black raspberries and haskap berries, will produce fruit this year. Elderberries, with their high antioxidant content, will provide berries for preserves and wine. Today, vastly improved varieties of most small fruits are readily available, and they will perform exceedingly well. In these challenging times, if you have a garden or a sunny patio pot, all of these fruits are not only a great food investment, but you’ll also love harvesting your own home-grown bounty.