Q. Mike, what are the best fruits to grow?
- ---Patricia in Clinton, MD
A. Well Pat, the first answer that comes to mind is "the fruits you like the best"! But tree fruits, like apples and peaches, require a lot of care and attention. Cherries and blueberries are easier, but birds will fight you for every fruit; same with strawberries, which must also be protected from slugs and rot.
That why MY personal favorite is raspberries! I started growing these tasty treats for my wife, whose fondest childhood memory was returning from her grandparents' patch with an empty bucket, a red-stained face and a huge smile. Lucky me, it turned out that raspberries are pretty much the easiest thing you can grow!
There are two basic types. "Summer bearers" produce one crop a season—on the previous year's canes. New canes appear in the Spring, grow all summer, rest over the winter, produce a big crop the following summer and then are done. I do not grow this type personally.
I grow "Fall bearers". These produce two crops a year, but the way they do it confuses the heck out of people. Green shoots pop up all throughout the patch in Spring (and all around it—raspberries like to spread and can be invasive, which is actually a synonym for 'easy to grow'). Anyway, these shoots grow into long canes, which produce a nice flush of berries at their very tip at the end of that first season. And I do mean at the end of the season. In the far North—or during a cool year almost anywhere—some of these berries will be lost to frost. (In a warm year, however, the first ones will be ripe early in August.)
Over the winter, those canes will turn brown and look dead, but the following Spring, they will sprout lots of green shoots that produce big runs of berries early in the summer. When that run is over, the canes die for real and can be pruned out. In my Pennsylvania garden, we generally pick these 'second-year' canes for most of July. So you get a concentrated harvest in early to mid summer, and a more spaced-out run in late summer. (This year we got around 30 or 40 pints from the second year canes in our roughly thousand square foot patch, and the Fall crop looks like it could be amazing.)
Easy to grow and stunningly delicious, raspberries are also one of the single healthiest things you can eat. One cup contains six grams of fiber, lots of Vitamin C, and a huge concentration of heart-healthy, cancer-fighting flavonoids and other beneficial phytochemicals. And that's just the fruits—raspberry leaves are used in a lot of natural healing teas. And finally, raspberries are also what's called a 'high value' crop, meaning they're darned expensive to buy in the supermarket, so the space you give them in your garden is extremely worthwhile, cash-wise as well.
Above the Mason-Dixon line, plant new canes in the Spring; you can mail order some starts, or if you know someone with a patch, ask for some of their extra shoots—we raspberry wranglers are always pulling up strays in the Spring. The further you are down South, the more Fall planting may work better for you. Ask your local county extension agent for advice on timing and the best varieties for your specific region.
Now, are they really that problem free? Let's answer a couple of raspberry questions and find out:
Q. Mike: I love berries, but they don't love me. After four years of waiting for blueberries, I yanked the bushes out. I figured raspberries would be foolproof, but after two years all I have is vigorous vines without even a blossom! The bushes are in full sun and I add Holly Tone and lots of compost to the already rich soil. What am I doing wrong???
- ---Angela in Wynnewood, PA
A. Blueberries need lots of sun and very acidic soil; you likely failed to provide at least one of those. But raspberries grow in sun or shade and don't need acidic soil, so the Holly Tone—a mostly natural fertilizer that also lowers pH—was the wrong way to go. That also leads us to the REAL problem here—your adding a lot of food to what you say is ALREADY rich soil. Stop with the compost and fertilizers! One of the best features of raspberries is that they prefer poor soil. I just give mine a couple shovelfulls of compost every few years and we get big healthy canes AND lots of fruit. If you overfeed them…well, you know what happens then, now don't you?
Q. Mike: I love my raspberries! They are very low maintenance, and have made me quite popular in the summer (especially since the Presbyterian Church cut their patch down); my friends and I can pick 25 gallons in a season. But I am battling a red "rust" on the leaves. What can I do? I should explain that I'm not much of a gardener: I cut the dead canes and lay them on the ground around the plants for mulch, and if it's a dry summer, I water them, although that hasn't been an issue this year.
- ---Leigh in Haines, Alaska
A. Actually I think water IS at least one of the issues here. The only thing these plants absolutely require is good drainage, and you Alaskinians have a really high water table, making it hard for the poor plants to have dry feet under the best of circumstances. So stop any watering to help protect them from this disease, which is actually a form of anthracnose (although it IS called 'rust' when it appear on raspberries).
Your poor man's mulch is the BIG problem. This disease over winters on diseased plant parts, so you have been spreading it by keeping those old canes around. Get rid of them, give the plants a little compost, don't irrigate and I bet your rust will simply disappear.
Wish I could say the same for mine.