Berries are some of the easiest fruits to grow in the UK. They require very little attention, produce abundant masses of fruit each year, and the only pests you’re likely to encounter are birds.
Berries can be classified into two sub-categories: cane fruit, and bush fruit. Cane fruit includes blackberries and raspberries. They are incredibly easy to grow, and if you prune them once a year, they’ll grow masses of fruit for you for decades to come. Bush fruit include blueberries and gooseberries.
Blackberries and Raspberries
Blackberries will grow almost anywhere and are often found colonising vast areas of uncultivated land. Choose a sunny site and dig in plenty of rich, organic matter and remove perennial weed roots that will compete with your crop if left to grow. Buy plants from a respected nursery and ensure they are disease-free. Blackberry plants bought from a nursery are much tamer and safe to plant in your garden.
Plant them in early spring in moist, well-prepared soil, about 1.5m apart. Cut the plants down to a height of just 15cm and water well. Apply a good, organic mulch such as straw or compost, and top-dress each spring with well-rotted animal manure.
Raspberries prefer to grow in a sunny spot in well-drained, sandy soils packed with plenty of rich, organic matter. Prepare the soil by digging in plenty of organic mater such as garden compost, and removing any perennial weed roots.
Most raspberry plants are sold as one-year-old canes. If you have the space, consider growing both summer and autumn varieties as this will prolong the season.
Plant them in the ground and space them 50cm-1m apart. Cut the canes down to ground level and water well. When they start to show signs of new growth, support them with sturdy posts and tie them in. Prune them yearly to encourage heavy cropping.
Blueberries require a very acid soil that is well-drained and crammed full of rich, organic matter. To tell if your soil is acid you can look to see if there are any acid loving plants thriving in your neighbours’ gardens. These plants include rhododendrons and camellias. You can also use a soil ph testing kit, which you can buy in most garden centres. If the ph ranges from 4.0 to 5.2, you have an ideal soil for blueberries. Most soils come with a ph of between 5.0 and 7.0 however, and are not suitable for growing them.
If grown in a soil, which has too much lime (with a ph of 5.0 and above), blueberries can’t absorb iron. This leads to an iron deficiency in the plant, which means they won’t grow properly, will produce very little, if any fruit, and could die. An old gardeners’ trick of dealing with this is to place the plants over a pile of nails to increase the amount of iron available to the roots. Most gardeners, however, feed their acid-loving plants with a sequestered iron liquid feed, or grow them in pots filled with ericaceous compost.
Blueberries grow well in pots due to their fussy soil requirements, though they should always be fed with rain water, as tap water contains lime. They enjoy full sun or partial shade, and you should grow two plants so they cross-fertilise and produce bigger yields.
Plant the bushes in pots at any time of the year, and in autumn or spring if you’re putting them straight into the ground. Prepare the soil by digging in plenty of rich, organic matter, and include chipped bark or sawdust as these usually contain high levels of acid. If the plant has any flower buds or signs of new growth, remove these so it focuses its energy on generating a healthy root system, place in a hole 50cm deep and wide, an firm the soil around the stem gently. Space plants 1.5m apart. Keep the plant well watered and never let the plant grow out (if you’re short on rain water, mix a little vinegar in some tap water and use that as a substitute).
Organic feeds are best as they don’t impair the flavour of the berries or lower their nutritional value as chemical-based fertilisers do. They also help the plants grow at the rate they are supposed to, which leads to less risk of attack from pests such as aphids. Use a pelleted organic chicken manure or seaweed feed during the growing season, and mulch with an acidic dressing such as bark, sawdust or leaf mould.
Pick the fruit as it ripens, and cover with netting to protect from birds if necessary. Once you have started growing your own berries, you won’t want to stop. They produce masses of fruit that you can eat raw, cook in desserts or add to ice creams. And the health benefits of eating berries regularly are immense.