Keep your berries healthy all summer

Keep your berries healthy all summer

Berry plants tend to be fairly low maintenance plants, put them in the right place, keep them watered and they will grow stronger, bigger and more productive every year (until they threaten to fill your whole garden and you have to start restricting them). Even so, there are a couple of things you can do to help your plants and increase the harvest for years to come.

In most places the most important thing you need to do for your berry plants is protect them from birds. Birds love berries just as much as you do (after all, berries were created to be eaten by birds as a way of transporting the seed). If given the opportunity they will strip the bushes of every edible fruit. You could try various ways to scare them away — shiny tape, inflatable predators, scarecrows — but birds will soon figure out that these aren’t a problem, so they don’t usually work for long. The only foolproof way to foil the birds is by carefully covering the plants with netting (this has to be done thoroughly because they will look for any openings). Applying and removing netting is a real pain because it snags on everything it touches (be careful it doesn’t tear) and is one of the few garden jobs I really dislike. If you have to do this every year, you might think about putting your berries inside a permanent fruit cage (the simplest of these is made from PVC pipe).

The other important maintenance activity is removing old stems to encourage vigorous new fruiting growth. Blackberry and raspberry canes usually die after their second year and can create a dense thicket if not removed (these can be removed after they have finished fruiting). Blueberries and currants fruit more vigorously on younger wood, so every year some older ones are removed to encourage new growth.

To keep the plants growing as vigorously as possible, you also need to keep them well watered. Keep the soil moist, but not wet. If the plants are bearing heavily then some fertilization may also be needed to keep them producing well. The best way to do this is to apply some mulch, which will also keep down weeds and conserve moisture. Just be sure to use an acidic mulch such as pine needles for blueberries, since they need a bit more acid.

How to mulch

How to mulch

I consider mulch to be an indispensable part of the summer vegetable garden.

  • reduces evaporation of water from the soil
  • prevents weeds (many weeds need bare soil)
  • supplies nutrients to the soil (when it breaks down)
  • protects the soil from damage by sun and air
  • reduces disease (by preventing soil splashing on leaves)

 

If a genetically engineered commercial product did as much, it would be patented, hailed as a miracle of science, promoted in all of the garden magazines and sold for a hefty price. Yet mulch does all of these things and more and costs next to nothing (or nothing).

The best all around material for mulching the annual vegetable garden is straw (avoid the similar looking hay at all costs, as it is full of weed seeds and can turn your soil into a weedy nightmare). Straw comes neatly compacted into a convenient (if rather heavy) bale, is clean and easy to use and looks quite attractive on the bed. If you are growing transplants, you spread a 2 to 3 inch layer around the newly planted plants (it will settle as you water). If you are direct sowing you have to wait until the seeds have germinated and the plants are a few inches high before you can apply it.

If you don’t have access to straw, you can use grass clippings or chopped tree leaves (run these over with a lawnmower to chop them, or put them in a metal bin with a string trimmer). Compost can be used as mulch too, if you have enough of it. You can also buy the hulls of cocoa bean, cottonseed and buckwheat for use as mulch, but they are expensive when compared to straw.

The only time I don’t recommend mulch if you have lots of slugs (it provides the perfect hiding places for them) or when you want the soil to warm up rapidly (it insulates it from the warming rays of the sun). Otherwise, it’s probably the most important thing you can do for your garden.