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Berries can be a delicious addition to your backyard

  • Marie Narlock
  • "I found plenty strawberries, ripe and prime; and green summer grapes, and green razberries; and the green blackberries was just beginning to show."

    — Huck Finn, from Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn"

    Berries can be like kids: they need a little training and a fertile place to grow, but the rewards are enduring and great.

    I grow berries because I like how prolific and delicious the fruit is. Sure, it took a little planning, but now I almost take my berry batch for granted. It's neither large nor particularly attractive, but it does crank out blackberries, boysenberries and raspberries by the pint. My blueberry and currant shrubs also are backdrops in my landscape.

    "There's a berry for every gardener, even if the only space you have is in a container," says organic garden instructor Wendy Krupnick.

    In her upcoming talk on Feb. 7 at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross, Krupnick will present the key ingredients to successful berry growing. You're invited to come learn how to select, plant, care and harvest a variety of berries — from the ground-hugging native strawberry to the towering hawthorn berry.

    Here's a quick rundown of berries that are suitable for Marin's climate — and space considerations.

    • Growing strawberries in pots: If your gardening is limited to a deck, or if you like to keep your edibles in containers, then strawberries are your best friends. Krupnick prefers the so-called "day neutral" varieties because they pump out fruit for months at a time. Of all the berries, strawberries need the most water and fertilization. This is especially true when you're growing them in containers. Strawberries love to "dangle," so containers are a natural fit. Just be sure to plant new ones every couple of years to avoid diseases and increase yield.

      California is graced with a low and tasty groundcover called woodland strawberry (Fragaria californica) that sprouts delicate white flowers followed by sweet red berries. You'll need to give it a little water (and beat away the birds), but it will be worth it. The woodland strawberry enjoys a little shade and works well for the cracks between stepping stones.
    • Shrubs for medium-sized gardens: If you're like me, you're always looking for a wee bit more gardening space. That's why edible shrubs are so compelling, since they fill general landscaping needs and crank out healthy fruit. It's hard to beat blueberries, whose snappy blue fruit is unsurpassed for health benefits. They also provide brilliant autumn color.

      "Just be sure to provide consistent irrigation and mulch," reminds Krupnick. "Blueberry roots are fibrous and shallow-rooted. They don't want to dry out."

      Blueberries also appreciate acid soil. I've found the Sunshine Blue variety to be reliable producers.

      A cousin to blueberries is the California native huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum). This is an elegant, tidy shrub with sweet fruit provided you give it a little sun. Its only downside? It grows painfully slowly (especially in the shade). We're talking inch by inch, year by year. Plant one today, enjoy fruit with your grandkids decades later. But hey, gardeners are supposed to be patient. Right?

      Another interesting mid-sized berry plant to consider is a currant. These plants are deciduous, meaning they drop their leaves in winter. The fruit that forms soon after ranges from black to see-through red. Add to salads or eat right off the plant.
    • When you've got something to hide: When you've got a view — or a neighbor — that's better left unseen, an edible hedgerow is a fun way to solve the problem. California's native elderberry (Sambucus Mexicana or Sambucus nigra) is a formidable plant with autumn berries that are good for elderberry wine — as well as pies, jellies and jams. Some good choices for good-tasting fruit are "Adams" for pies or "Johns" for jelly. Elderberries like water, mulch and compost to achieve their maximum size of up to 20 feet tall.

      Another plant with edible berries that makes a good living fence is the hawthorn (Crataegus), of which there are more than 25 species. Most have long, sharp thorns and grow up to 25 feet. They have showy flowers in spring and deep yellow, orange or red in fall.
    • Managing the cane berries: Training, corralling, disentangling. Call it what you want, sometimes what you need is a whip and a chair. That's just life when you're growing blackberries and raspberries. But don't despair. There are numerous strategies for keeping your berry patch in control, starting with selecting the right varieties.

    "There are some wonderful thornless blackberries," says Krupnick.

    These include varieties that are not only free of thorns but which also can be cut to the ground every year and be counted on to pop right back next season. (These are called primo cane varieties. Other types are less forgiving, requiring the gardener know which canes are new and which were last season's. Who has the time?)

    Raspberries are another place where choosing a primo cane variety makes things easier. One good selection is "Autumn Bliss," which starts bearing in July and cranks out the fruit well into fall. Cut to the ground in winter, but do spend some time cutting out the wimpy canes in spring or summer. Allowing the most vigorous canes to grow will make your yields larger and allow for good light and air circulation.

    Be aware: raspberries need serious containment, because their underground runners can travel significant distances and pop up where you don't want them. I dug a trench 6 inches wide and almost 3 feet deep around my raspberries to stop them from invading their neighbors. I placed a thin piece of sheet metal in that trench and backfilled. That was a few years ago and so far so good.

    The alternative? Tear them all out and succumb to the $6 per pack price tag at the grocery store.