The frosty months of January and February mark the arrival of annual seed catalogs where we can dream about harvests to be and growing aspirations while snow flurries dart around outside.
I remember as a child receiving bulky catalogs from Burpee and Park Seed company and thinking about the many exotic vegetables I’d end up growing. The point I missed in my childhood (aside from many of these seeds being hybrids bred for specific pest tolerance) was that all these seeds were for annual plants.
One of the main points of permaculture is to replace this annual rite of seed purchase, planting, harvesting, and eventual plant death with something that emulates nature more closely and in turn reduces the amount of effort we have to put into the system to get healthy nutritious food for our tables.
In short, the more perennial edibles we have, the less work for us.
In this blog, I’m going to be covering growing berries as one of the easiest ways to get perennial harvests that come back year after year in your backyard. There are many advantages to growing berries as a herbaceous layer in our suburban and urban gardens.
1. Easy to Grow
First, berries are naturally adapted to grow vigorously in the wild, so we don’t have to coddle them like we do with so many of our annual plants to get great growth.
2. Productive at Year 1
Secondly, unlike fruit-bearing trees, berries will often start producing in the first year after planting so we’ll be immediately motivated by the yields we get to encourage us in our garden-to-table quests.
Finally, organic berries command a king’s ransom at the supermarkets, sometimes going for upwards of $7-20/lb, so it’s a good high value crop to use in our limited growing space.
Over many thousands of years, humans have figured out which berries were poisonous (quite often I’m sure through trial and error) and which were nutritional powerhouse additions to the hunter-gatherer diet. Berries are generally categorized by their growing habits, as this will influence how we take care of them and prepare them for harvest.
1. Groundcover Berries
Ground cover berries like strawberries, cranberries, and lowbush blueberries are plants that don’t grow more than a foot in height, but gradually fill up spaces by spreading through stolons (runners) and having fairly shallow roots.
2. “Caning” (not canning) Berries
Brambles or caning berries like raspberries and blackberries have a perennial root system that shoots up long fruiting branches each year; berries are usually produced on one-year old branches but then stops being productive after that.
3. Bush Berries
Berry shrubs like gooseberry, goumi, and seaberry are like mini fruit trees, possessing all the growth characteristics of larger fruit trees but only growing 6-10 feet in height.
The merry year is born Like the bright berry from the naked thorn.Hartley Coleridge
In permaculture, we talk about “stacking functions” in one element. So for instance, one plant, can serve several purposes. Berries are such plants: They are practically brimming over with functions!
Because of their different growing characteristics, you not only stack functions, but can even physically stack different berry plants in the same space.
For example having a thorny gooseberry protecting strawberries as an understory, where the strawberries provide a ground cover to protect the gooseberry roots.
Below is an example of how physical space is efficiently occupied in a food forest garden. Graphic Courtesy of: Temperate Climate Permaculture
There are a large number of diverse options for berries and I highly recommend growing many different types in your garden (I’ll cover growing seasons in a bit more detail below).
I’ve discovered that berries are pretty good at figuring out their niche in your growing landscape and with a bit of design about preferred growing environment can be seamlessly integrated next to your annual crops. In the following section, I explain some of the better options for cultivating in backyards.
Strawberries are by far the most popular berry fruit in the world, largely because of their ease of cultivation. Only lasting about 3 years per plant, strawberry plants will send out runners that can be snipped off and replanted (the strawberry will do the replanting if you don’t), so will constantly renew themselves by creating new plants. There are 2 main varieties, everbearing and june-bearing types. Everbearing will start bearing around late May and continue producing small amounts of strawberries continuously throughout the year. June-bearing only produce a single crop, but the crop is larger and the strawberries tend to be a large size (this is good if you want to make strawberry jam). There are also wild, alpine varieties that produce extremely small, but tasty strawberries. Strawberries can be planted quite densely; I recommend at least 25 plants in a standard 4’x4′ raised bed, growing alongside other plants in a guild.
A thorny brambly plant that produces aggregate berry clusters connected by tiny hairs; the difference between a raspberry and blackberry are that the raspberry doesn’t have a core, while the blackberry has a soft core. There are huge number of variations and mixes of these two, including loganberries, boysenberries, tayberries and dewberries, as well as variations that are thornless. The colors can be confusing as well, with unripe blackberries being red and unripe raspberries being black. Most varieties will only produce a single crop in mid-summer, although a few varieties (like golden raspberries) will produce an early harvest following by a smaller harvest in mid-fall. All brambles are caning, so new growth starts from the ground each year and fruiting occurs on one-year old branches. It’s important to prune the caning growth to maximize production, especially since second-year growth doesn’t bear any more fruit.
A bush-like caning plant, highbush blueberries will produce clusters of small green berries that ripen and fatten into bluish-green berries. A vigorous plant with shallow roots, blueberries require acidic soil to flourish and need a minimum number of chill hours to produce. An established blueberry bush can last up to 20 years. Blueberries like the sun but require a lot of moisture, so it’s best to heavily mulch with something like peat moss or pine mulch (for the acidity) or grow alongside with a groundcover like strawberries or yarrow to establish.
Also known as wolf-berry in China, these is one of the latest nutritional fads, where dried goji berries in the stores easily run $10-$20 per pound. Goji is a thorny caning plant that produces huge long canes (up to 12ft. long), covered with dense green growth. Small purple/bluish flowers will sprout along the cane and turn into small elongated red berries. Goji tends to take a few years to establish and fruit, but then will take over so it make sense to aggresively prune cross branches and train existing canes in an orderly way.
Very popular in Europe, gooseberries and currants are small round berries growing on thorny, caning-style bush. The berries are traditionally green with a pleasant tart flavor, but recent hybrids have produced sweeter red versions. Currants are very similar to goosberries, although they tend to be a bit smaller and a bit more tart. Currants can also range in color from white through red to black. Gooseberries were restricted for a long time in the U.S. because of their ability to be a carrier of white pine blister rust, which doesn’t affect them but does affect commercial pine plantings, so it’s best to check in your state whether there are still restrictions on them. An easy plant to take care of (just requiring regular pruning to promote an open branch structure for maximum production), gooseberries and currants are a lesser known berry that’s definitely worth growing in many people’s backyards.
Extremely interesting shrubs that fix nitrogen at the same time as providing tasty berries (goumi berries taste much better than autumn olives though). Goumi is one of the few non-legumous plants that fixes nitrogen, working in symbiosis with Frankia bacteria in its root system. Goumi are fast-growing and can produce up to 30lb of fruit per bush. The berries are elongated, red berries with a single seed that easily drops off the bush when fully ripe.
Known as a traditional medicine to reduce coughing and assist with breathing with flus, elderberry produces dense clusters of small black berries. Elderberries can grow up to 12ft, so usually require quite a lot of pruning. Their root system is supposed to encourage soil microbial activity, so they are quite often planted near compost bins. Elderberries are poisonous when raw, but cooking removes their mild toxicity.
Another berry that has caught recent attention for its very high antioxidants, sea buckthorn, also known as sea berry, is a hardy tree-like shrub that is heavily cultivated in Germany and Eastern Europe for it’s juice. Producing tart, bright-orange berries, sea buckthorn berries are typically sweetend and processed for juice. Sea buckthorn is considered invasive in some places and is extremely vigorous, but does prefer full sun to reach full production. Trees are male or female, so a male pollinator tree is required to provide pollination for up to 8 surrounding female trees.
I’m Berry Interested! Tell me how to get startedHopefully by now I’ve convinced you that berries should have some place in your garden.
In part 2, I’ll get into details about the best places to source berries as well how to integrate them into your current garden for maximum production.
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