We’ve been talking about reorganising the soft fruit on our main plot for a couple of growing seasons now. This year we’ve rolled up our sleeves and made a start.
First up: our raspberry patch has been a reasonably productive one for three or four years, but we’ve decided it’s time for a change.
All the raspberry plants in this section are ones that we moved from elsewhere on the plot when we first took it on five years ago. We have no idea what cultivars they are, all we know is that they’re pretty much all Autumn fruiting primocanes and some of them are unpleasantly spiny.
They’ve also been doing the usual raspberry thing for two or three years: putting out runners, setting up colonies, choking the space. So they’re all coming out – finding new homes with plot neighbours who don’t mind so much which raspberries they grow – and we’re replacing them with fresh stock that we’ve ordered from Pomona Fruits.
We’ve opted for three cultivars, all Autumn primocane (we already have plenty of early-season soft fruit to eat from our plot): Glen Coe, Joan J and Allgold. All three cultivars are recommended in James Wong‘s rather excellent book Grow For Flavour, and two of them – Glen Coe and Allgold – carry the personal recommendation of my good friend Ian P, who grows them both on his allotment and rates them highly.
I’ll post again in more detail when the crowns arrive and we’ve completed the setup of the new planting bed. We’re setting up a short-term support structure to test out a growing method that we’ve seen in action in various walled and/or botanic gardens on our travels.
Next: lift and dispose of our old, tired, strawberry plants. They’re easily three, maybe four years old, so they’re past the recommended replacement age.
When we planted these rows out – back in our novice days – I hit on the bright idea of growing them on weed membrane-covered soil ridges. Cut a hole every 12 inches (30cm) and plant through the membrane. It was something I’d seen in passing on Beechgrove Garden and I thought it would help keep the fruit off the soil and stop it spoiling.
We encountered two major problems with that concept:
1) A couple of summers ago we had a run of soggy, grey humidity and discovered that our 12″/30cm spacing was far too compact. The plants put on masses of dense foliage that held onto the moisture, providing a perfect environment for grey mould to take hold and run rampant. Net result: mushy, mouldy fruit everywhere, very little of it salvageable and fit to eat. Half the plants (every other one) came out the following winter in an effort to improve air-flow around them.
2) As anyone who grows anything in a raised bed of any sort knows, a raised bed drains and dries out much more quickly than flat ground. Good for plants that hate wet roots, not so good for shallow-rooted strawberries. In last summer’s drought it was almost impossible to keep the plants well-watered, especially trying to aim the water through the mass of foliage and into the stem-choked holes in the membrane. Net result: far fewer strawberries than we should have had for the number of plants.
So the plants are out and we’ve ordered a dozen ‘Malwina’ – another James Wong recommended-for-flavour cultivar – as runners, from Pomona. The ridges have been flattened and we’re planning on growing our new strawbs in long, deep plastic trays. Yes, trays will also dry out in hot weather, but they’re easier to irrigate. Water will at least be contained within the trays for long enough to soak the soil and be of some use to the plants. And we can more easily control the amount of fertiliser they get as well.
I know, technically a vegetable, but it’s growing in the soft fruit section of the plot, so I’m including it in this round-up.
Our rhubarb patch is pretty impressive when it’s in full growth, if we do say so ourselves. Again, the eight crowns were all gathered from elsewhere on the plot, and they’ve been in-situ for three or four years now, so they’re well-established and produce kilos and kilos of stems that in the height of the season can be as thick as your wrist. But they’ve got to the stage now where they need to be divided and replanted to stop them becoming dead and woody in the centre.
We’re going to do it in stages: take up half of them, divide and re-plant three good, healthy chunks of root with a crown bud attached, further down the fruit section. Then we’ll add an earlier cultivar (ours all come in late Spring through Summer) and call it a day at four plants instead of eight (too many for us). The other four will be left to do their thing for this year and then next winter they’ll be lifted, divided and either given away or donated to work.
Also in that order from Pomona, we’ll be taking delivery of three lingonberry plants. These tart cranberry-relatives are staples of Scandinavian and Baltic cuisine, where they’re made into sauces and condiments to serve with meat and fish. They’re acid-lovers, so we’ll need to make sure we have plenty of ericaceous compost in before we plant them out.
I’m not sure yet whether to grow them in containers or to dig a trench and back-fill with ericaceous compost. If anyone out there is growing lingonberries already and can offer any advice, it would be gratefully received, via the comments.
We already have a pair of six or seven year old blueberry bushes growing in large tubs in the back garden at home. As far as I can remember though, they’re the same cultivar, and introducing a pollination partner is meant to help improve productivity. I can’t for the life of me remember what the original two are, but I know they’re not ‘Spartan’, so that’s what we’ve ordered from Pomona. It’s another James Wong recommendation and has an AGM from the RHS as well, so hopefully a good choice.
How about you? What sort of soft fruit do you grow and do you have any plans to add to it, or change it up this year? Let me know, via the comments.
With the weather holding dry and fair last week, I took the opportunity to spend some time down at Plot #59 and make a start on of the more essential winter maintenance jobs: pruning our soft-fruit bushes.
Soft-fruit crops are among the most useful you can grow on an allotment. They’re perennial, so once they’re in they take very little to maintain, and count towards your area-under-cultivation score for purposes of satisfying the allotment committee’s quotas. The fruit itself is the sort of thing that’s generally classed as a ‘superfood’ (although it seems that pretty much anything fresh is going to be vitamin-packed and bloody good for you). And when you look at the shop-price of a small punnet of raspberries or blackcurrants in the shops, then think of the kilos of fruit you can pick from even a couple of bushes in a decent year, I think you’d be a bit daft not to.
We have a small but highly fruitful selection so far: five gooseberry, around ten blackcurrant, a Japanese Wineberry, three redcurrant and a whitecurrant. We also have a section of assorted raspberry canes relocated from elsewhere on the plot; mostly Autumn-fruiting, one or two Summer-fruiting. We have plans to grub the raspberries up and replace them with named varieties next year, but for now they’re staying put. And we’re hoping to add a few more bushes to the section as well: one or two Jostaberries, maybe a Gojiberry, that sort of thing.
Confession time: we made a bit of a noob mistake when we planted them out back at the start of our allotmenteering and the fruit bushes went in too close to each other. Now, well-established well and with conditions this year proving favourable for lots of new growth, they’re a little too closely packed for comfort. Some of them will need to be relocated, or donated to plot-neighbours. But before that stage, they all need a good winter prune.
I’ve tackled the blackcurrants and gooseberries so far, going over the plants to remove any congested, crossing or damaged stems and branches. I’ll be giving them a second pass shortly, and working on the redcurrants, too, following the generally prescribed method (Carol Klein’s book Grow Your Own Fruit is a good source for general advice).
Blackcurrants: Fruit on new growth. Up to the fourth year after planting, remove weak and wispy shoots to establish a framework of 6-10 strong, healthy branches. After year four, cut out about a third of the old wood at the base to make room for new growth. Continue to remove weak shoots and those leaning towards the ground.
We moved the blackcurrants from elsewhere on the plot, or brought them in from home, so I’ve assumed that they’re all probably more than four years old and so have pruned accordingly.
Gooseberries, Redcurrants, Whitecurrants: Fruit on old wood and at the base of new stems. Shorten leaders back by a third and sideshoots back to two buds to encourage fruiting spurs.
Here’s a before-and-after shot of the largest of the gooseberry bushes. A bit difficult to make out – especially with the different light levels between shots – but hopefully you’ll spot that the second pic is less congested, with a more open, goblet-shaped centre. This should hopefully allow for good ventilation when the plant is in full leaf next year, cutting down on the risk of grey mould infection, and allow plenty of light to reach the whole plant.
Raspberries (Autumn): Fruit on new canes. Cut down all old canes, right to the ground.
Which is what I’ve done with all of ours. There’s a different pruning regime for Summer-fruiters, which fruit on one-year-old canes which need to be tied in to a support framework. Check out this short GardenersWorld.com video for useful advice from Monty Don.
Japanese WineberriesFruit on this year’s growth. Sprawling habit, will self-layer (like blackberries, they’ll form roots if stem-tips touch the ground), and can become invasive…
The Japanese Wineberry only gets a passing mention in Carol Klein’s book as a hybrid berry of interest, but I’ve read up elsewhere. Knowing about the tip-rooting habit, I made sure that the one strong stem that grew last year from the newly-planted rootstock (which I think we bought from Beningbrough Hall NT, where they grow them in the walled garden, if I remember it right) was tied to an upright bamboo cane. This year it sprouted prolific side-shoots, all of which developed multiple clusters of delicious berry-producing blossom. After fruiting, these side-stems seemed to die right back, and so I pruned them out as they failed, leaving a single strong, upright stem and three or four smaller side-stems. We’ll see what happens next year: hopefully more of the same, and I might be able to encourage a stem or two to self-layer into pots so we can increase our stock.
Blueberries:Maintain a soil pH of 5.5 or lower, using ericaceous compost or a sulphur-based amendment, and mulching with conifer clippings (a handy use for your neighbours’ chucked-out Xmas tree). For established bushes, remove 2 or 3 old stems at the base to encourage new growth and tip back vigorous new shoots to a healthy bud to encourage fruitful side-branching. These hardwood cuttings can be used for propagation purposes, too.
We have two blueberry bushes growing in large pots at home. I’ll be taking a look at those this week and checking to see what needs doing with them, but as I re-potted them at the beginning of the year, I don’t think I’ll be doing anything too drastic.
And that’s pretty much it, apart from the aforementioned reorganisation and relocation, followed by a good mulching with composted bark.
If you’ve had success – or not so much success – with the same or different pruning and care regimes, please do feel free to share your top tips in the comments below. All feedback and advice will be very welcome indeed.
The merry month of May is when blossom season really gets going. Whilst the big, showy masses of apple, cherry and early strawberry flowers are grabbing the bulk of the attention and hogging the photo opps, I thought I’d take a closer look at what’s going on in the soft fruit patch down at Plot #59.
What I found was our selection of berry and currant bushes quietly doing their subtle, under-stated thing: putting out a lovely array of tiny, delicate bee-lures that don’t scream “pollinate me!” anywhere near as loudly, but carry just as much productive promise of bumper harvests to come.
Here’s what’s happening at the moment:
What’s your favourite soft fruit? Or are you growing any unusual varieties? (We have a Japanese Wineberry plant and have edible fuschia berry plugs on order). Let me know in the comments…