Never grown soft fruit before? Not sure what to do with your rapidly growing berry bush? We asked experienced gardener Nic Wilson how she grows such bumper crops. Her generously shared tips make growing some of the most expensive shop-bought produce as easy as pie. Here’s what she told us…
Planting tips for soft fruit
I’m watching a pair of blue tits flitting through the branches in the fruit cage, picking off tiny insects before disappearing through the open roof space and over next door’s fence. The industry of these little birds, cleaning the fruit bushes of overwintering pests, reminds me that there’s work to be done before the weather starts to warm in early spring.
In the early months of the new year, there’s still time to add new soft fruit to the patio, garden or allotment ready for bumper crops in the summer. I remember propagating a gooseberry from one of my plants several years ago and giving it to friends for Christmas – a bare, spiky twig – not the most extravagant looking present! But we all knew, come summer, the bare-rooted plant would look very different. True to form, the gooseberry has provided them with many crumbles since then.
Classic choices for soft fruit include raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, currants and gooseberries. Here are my planting tips for each:
My favourite raspberries, based on taste, are ‘Glen Ample’ (summer) and ‘Joan J’ (autumn). I’ve also added ‘Glen Coe’ this year with its deep purple summer fruits that, I’m told, taste sweet and delicious. For small gardens or patios, try summer fruiting ‘Ruby Beauty’ or ‘Yummy’ – perfect for container growing.
Raspberries prefer slightly acid, fertile, moist soil in a sunny position, although I grow mine in alkaline soil enriched with plenty of organic matter and they crop well. Avoid planting too deeply (no more than 5cm below the surface), and ensure they’re tied into supports – usually posts and wires – as they grow.
If you’re planting a new strawberry bed, a collection of different varieties helps to spread crops across the summer. Favourites of mine (as always, based on flavour) include ‘Just Add Cream’, ‘Honeoye’ and ‘Florence’.
If you don’t have space in the ground for strawberries, try growing them in a hanging basket like we did last year with ‘Just Add Cream’. It saves space, the pink flowers are attractive and the fruits are kept well away from hungry slugs and snails.
Currants and gooseberries
Bare root currants and gooseberries can be planted until March. Although they prefer sunny conditions, they can tolerate partial shade. Plant in fertile, moist, well-drained soil and ensure bare root blackcurrants are planted 5cm deeper than the current soil mark to encourage extra shoots from below ground level.
We grow black, red and white currants, but if you don’t have much space you could try blackcurrant ‘Ebony’ in a large container or pinkcurrant ‘Gloire de Sablon’ in place of redcurrants and whitecurrants.
These days I avoid gooseberries in our small fruit cage after too many painful encounters with sharp spines in the past, but if I had room to grow one, I’d choose a red variety like gooseberry ‘Xenia’ for sweeter fruits and fewer spines.
They need to be planted in ericaceous soil (ours are in pots), watered with rainwater, and given an ericaceous spring top dressing and feeding once a month throughout the summer if they’re in a container. The other essential is to protect the berries from the birds – although our pinkberries were outside the fruit cage last year and nothing seemed to touch them, possibly due to their lighter colour.
Quick pruning tips for soft fruit
- My autumn raspberries (primocane) only stopped cropping a few weeks ago – last year we picked the yellow-berried ‘All Gold’ on Christmas Day – so now’s an ideal time to cut the canes to the ground and check the new growth at the base of each plant that will become the fruiting canes for this year.
- Summer fruiting raspberry plants (floricane) should already have been pruned last year after fruiting. Check that this year’s canes are tied in for support in windy conditions.
- Established blackcurrants need a quarter to a third of their old branches removing now, starting with any dead, diseased, weak or crossing branches. Make the cuts as low down as possible to encourage strong, new growth.
- Other berry fruit such as redcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries only need light winter pruning. As with blackcurrants, first remove any dead, diseased or weak branches, then reduce new growth by half to encourage branching.
- Blueberries also need little winter pruning: simply remove a quarter of the old wood at the base.
Unusual soft fruit to try
Although I love the classics, I wouldn’t be without some more unusual soft fruits like honeyberries (ours cropped for the first time last year), tayberries and Chilean guava. I find it fascinating to experiment with new varieties and flavours – summer puddings are never the same in our house from one year to the next!
Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2018). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at www.dogwooddays.net