Home gardening does not mean only vegetable gardening -- it is also possible in the city to grow a small fruit garden in a limited space. Many people grow small fruits not only for their nutritional value but also for aesthetic reasons -- they love a particular berry for its appearance, color, texture, flavor. Small fruit plants are handsome specimens throughout the year with attractive foliage, delicate, clustered flowers and symmetrical, well-colored fruit borne on durable, sturdy plant bodies. Tending a fruit plant and watching it respond, then harvesting and sharing "the fruits of your own labor" is one of life's real satisfactions.
From the many shrub, vine and herb-like plants that bear relatively small fruits (25 grams or less), those most likely to succeed in the Washington area are strawberries and certain types of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and grapes. These are perennial plants which may be planted at several times of year and may grow in small or odd-shaped spaces or in containers.
These small fruit plants live for many years. Because their root systems are usually broad and shallow, except for the grape, the roots must be planted in well-prepared soil that has been freed of weeds, soil clods and inorganic debris and to which organic matter has been added. Roots of berry plants will not tolerate wet soil; they need thorough drainage and aeration.
Berries and grapes need to grow well for one to several growing seasons to established a sufficient plant body to support successive heavy fruit crops. To do this, they need protection from heavy prevailing winds and extreme variations in soil and air temperature, and they usually need more than adequate moisture. Mulching materials are helpful in conserving moisture, minimizing temperature fluctuations and reducing weeds.
Well-grown and healthy plants will produce buds at specific locations on the plant body which will change from vegetative to reproductive structures (flower buds and inflorescences) with proper light and temperature. Usually plants must be grown in full sunlight to have a maximum number of buds converted (differentiated) in flowering structures. Berries which bear fruit once a year generally differentiate their buds around Washington during the shorter days and cooler nights of late summer (mid-August to late-September). sFlowers produced within buds need winter cold to mature and open properly the following spring. Berry plants, bearing spring and fall fruit ("everbearers") differentiate flower buds in early and late summer. Some varieties even produce some flowers and fruits throughout the entire growing season.
Some berry plants, like certain brambles (raspberries and blackberries) and grapes, produce such long or drooping stems that they must be supported and trained -- either to fences or posts, or on trellises or arbors. Stakes and strings or wires may be used in container-grown berry plants. Plants needing training are often grown on the edges of the garden area, although wide-spaced rows can provide enough space for intercropped vegetables.
Most of the berry plants are light feeders. For home gardens small amounts of complete fertilizer are often added to the soil prior to planting. In commercial plantings relatively insoluble fertilizer materials like lime, phosphorus and potash are added prior to planting, and nitrogen is added after the plants are well established and before the flower buds are formed. For the woody, mature plants, complete fertilizer is applied at or slightly before bloom time followed by more nitrogen as the fruit is ripening. This usually is enough to carry the plant through the next year. Small fruit plants are heavy water users. When carrying a heavy load of fruit or bloom, during a dry fall or before flower bud formation, small fruit plants, especially strawberries, may need more than the usual formula of 1 inch moisture per week.
Pests take many forms, but the most serious are fungus diseases, which attack leaves, stems and fruits; and sucking insects and nematodes, which live on plant juices and carry virus diseases, which may reduce the effective life of your planting. A combination of relatively safe chemicals like captan and malathion -- in dust or liquid formulas -- will control most fungus and sucking insect problems. To controls weeds, specific chemicals for each at preplanting, postplanting and at renewal time. One often minimize weed problems with soil fumigation, mulches and/or frequent shallow tilling or hoeing. It is usually unwise to follow plantings of nightshade family vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers) with small fruit plantings because nightshade vegetables encourage the buildup of damaging soil fungi which may rot the roots of later-planted berry plants. At harvest, birds are a continuing problem -- they love berries and are frequently protected in towns. The most effective bird control has been netting, but a new chemical called Measurol has proved effective in discouraging bird damage by making the birds temporarily ill, but harming neither the birds nor people.
Overwintering fruit plants consists of adjusting the plant population or pruning to young strong canes, shortening and selecting the strongest fruiting shoots for the next season and protecting the plants from extreme cold.
After deciding which small fruit species you want to grow, you still have to decide which varieties to choose and how many plants of each variety to purchase. There are a number of specific questions you should ask. How much fruit or one type do you want? Do you want to just have some fresh fruit in season, or do you want to preserve fruit in solid or juice form for out-of-season use? How much space is needed for these plants? How much care is needed for these plants? Which types and varieties are adapted to our area, are tolerant to most diseases, are productive, are of high quality and can be used either fresh or processed?
Many of these questions are answered in the nursery catalogues of reputable nursery firms. Ask about certified plant varieties that are true-to-name and as free from disease as possible. Plant bargains and claims that seem "too good to be true" usually are. Firms that specialize in small fruit plants generally prepare catalogues that describe varieties in detail and give planting and growing instructions. Such firms have usually been in business for some time and will guarantee the health of their planting stock.
In strawberries, the most practical home-garden kind for the Washington area are red-stele root-rot-resistant Junebearers. Recommended varieties are Earliglow (early), Redchief (midseason), Guardian or Scott (late). These are all well adapted to our area and can be used either fresh or processed. They are usually planted in the spring with a hand trowel or floral spade at the same depth they grew in the nursery. They should be planted on a gentle mound 3 to 6 inches high at eigther 1 foot apart or 2 feet apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart. The soil should have been well prepared in the fall and covered with mulch to preserve moisture. Uncovering the soil and stirring gently should precede planting. Plants set at 1 foot apart should have all runners removed and be grown as single plants. Plants set at 2 feet or longer distances should be permitted to set a few daughter plants each at 4 to 6 inches apart to form a narrow matted row. Further runners should then be removed. Blossoms emerging from the plant crowns (body) should also be removed during the first growing season.
Water should be applied right after planting and frequently throughout the season. Sparingly spread about 1/4 pound of a 10-10 fertilizer over 100 feet of row two to three weeks after planting and brush it off the leaves. Repeat the fertilization in mid-August at the same rate or up to 6 ounces per 100 feet if your soil is sandy. Spray for fungus and insects periodically through the season.
Cover your strawberry plants with 2 to 3 inches of straw just after Thanksgiving or when nightime temperatures reach about 20 degrees. Remove some of the straw when the plants start to grow in the spring. Be prepared to throw it back over the row on frosty nights to protect the blossoms and to remove it the following day.
These strawberries should yeild 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of fruit per foot of row. They can be fruited for three to five seasons. After fruiting, it is necessary to mow off the tops to 2 inches above the ground, till the middle of the row and fertilize, control weeds and water to rejuvenate the row. Then 1/4 to 1 inch of loose, fresh soil is thrown up over the bed to provide a new rooting area for the old plant crowns.
Everbearing strawberries do not have enough vigor to produce full plant rows in our area, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon be releasing a variety of everbearer strawberry which should succeed here.
For blueberries, secure two-year nursery plants of the highbrush blueberry varieties Bluetta or Earliblue, Collins or Patriot or Spartan, Bluecrop or Blueray, Berkeley or lateblue, one variety in each ripening season. For each plant dig a hole 18 inches deep and 18 inches wide. Mix 1 cubic foot of peat moss into the planting hole. Plant slightly deeper than the plant was in the nursery. Water and apply mulch if possible. Cut the plant to three or four stems 8 to 10 inches tall. Apply 1 ounces of fertilizer per bush per years of age, usually split between time and six weeks later. During the first year apply the fertilizer only after the bush is well established. During the winter thin out the canes to six or eight of the strongest. Permit the plant to bear lightly during the third year and up to capacity from the fifth year on. Blueberries should bear 6 to 10 pints per bush at maturity and bear for 15 years. Each year the fruiting wood will have to be lightly thinned to leave the strongest shoots. The older canes should be thinned out starting at the fifth or sixth year. The bushes should be planted 4 feet apart in the row and 8 to 9 feet between rows. A grass sod can be grown between the mulched rows.
In selecting the brambles, secure virus-free rooted nursery plants of the following varieties: red raspberry -- Reville or Southland (early), Latham, Sentry or Citadel (midseason), Heritage (late and fall bearing); black raspberry -- Logan (early), Bristol or Cumberland (midseason), Allen (new and promising); purple raspberry -- Brandywine; thorny blackberry --Darrow (early), or Raven, Ranger, Comanche, Cherokee or Cheyenne (midseason); thornless blackberry (in ripening order) -- Dirksen Thornless, Black Satin, Thornfree, Smoothstem.
Set plants in the early spring about 2 inches deeper than in the nursery row at the following plant spacings: raspberries -- 2 feet, except purples at 4 feet; thorny blackberries -- 4 feet; thornless blackberries -- 6 feet (on a 2-wired trellis). The distance between rows will be determined by your tillage and plant-care needs. Black and purple raspberries and thorny blackberries are usually pruned during the summer at 30 to 36 inches high to encourage side branching. During the dormant season several canes per plant are chosen and their lateral branches pruned to 6 to 12 inches. These canes will fruit the following spring and should be removed after fruiting to make room for the new canes which will bear the next year's fruit. Weed control during the first growing seasong is critical. Apply 1 to 2 ounces fertilizer per plant depending on plant size and variety in a band no closer than 6 inches to the plant. Raspberries and thorny blackberries will bear 1 1/2 pounds of fruit per row foot for your to six years. Thornless and trailing blackberries hear 8 to 10 pounds per plant for eight to 12 years.
For table grapes, choose one-year rooted vines of one or more of the following varieties: seedless -- Interlaken , himrod, Suffolk Red or Glenora; white -- Seneca, Nigara or Golden Muscal; red -- Delaware or Catawba; black -- Concord, Steuben of Fredonia.
Set plants at 8 feet by 9 feet, till around plant and establish sod in row middles. Train trunk up to the top wire. During the dormant season, at maturity, each arm is pruned back to 10 to 12 buds and two-bud renewal spur is left near the trunk from which the next year's arm will grow. Fertilization varies from a quarter to a little over three quarters of a pound per vine depending on vine age. A well grown grapevine sprayed and protected from pests will fruit for 10 years and bear 8 to 16 pounds of fruit per vine.