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Gardens: Berry good options

Growing and gathering berries in Alabama

It’s berry season in Alabama and the perfect time to relish the healthy, natural, flavorful qualities of locally grown berries. And, whether you buy them at roadside stands, U-pick operations or farmers markets, harvest them from the wild or plant them in your garden, the options are plentiful.

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a berry is any “pulpy and usually edible fruit of small size irrespective of its structure” and it goes on to say that, technically, grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers and even bananas are “berries.” For most of us, however, the word “berry” conjures up Alabama’s three favorite (and native) berries — strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. But there are other kinds of berries to consider, both in the wild and for our gardens.

Let’s start with some wild options.

Berries that grow naturally in Alabama include blackberry (designated as Alabama’s state fruit and which usually exhibits a more upright, arching growth habit than other wild bramble berries), dewberry (a cousin to blackberries that typically has a sprawling, trailing growth habit), strawberry (mock and true strawberries are both edible, but the true ones actually taste good) and elderberry and mulberry (shrubs or small trees with fruit that should only be eaten if ripe).

In theory, all of these are there for the taking (as long as you’re not trespassing to gather them), though never eat wild-harvested fruits and plants of any sort that you cannot identify! Some may cause stomach upsets while others are highly poisonous to humans, so always use a field guide to make sure you’re picking and eating the safe ones (a quick reference guide is available at http://cf.ltkcdn.net/herbs/files/1336-Wild-Berry-Identification.pdf).

Avoid picking berries or any other wild edibles from roadsides where chemicals may be sprayed, and keep an eye out for possible threats to your health and wellbeing while picking berries. Poison ivy, poisonous snakes, ticks and chiggers are fond of berry patches and there may even be some black bears around that won’t appreciate sharing their food sources.

If you want a tamer environment for harvesting berries, and if you want to take advantage of domesticated cultivars that have added benefits (such as no thorns), plant some for yourself. Not only can berry plants be used as handsome ornamentals, most berries produce fruit after the first year and require only minimal attention if they are planted in full sun and on a well-drained soil.

A couple of caveats: A soil test is well worth the money before you plant to make sure you’re providing your berries the right soil nutrients and pH balance; some berries (blueberries, for example) require at least two varieties with corresponding bloom times to achieve proper pollination, so you may need to plant more than one bush to ensure good fruit development and yields.

Planting berries in your own yard also offers a chance to try non-native species such as tayberries, boysenberries, loganberries, Goji berries (Chinese wolfberries), Juneberries (serviceberries), Chinese mulberries (sometimes known as silkworm trees), raspberries, gooseberries and currants. These days, a whole range of varieties and cultivars is available that are better adapted to our growing conditions and, if they won’t do well in the ground, they may do beautifully in containers.

Regardless of the types of berries you plant, if you pick plants that are adapted to Alabama’s USDA Plant Hardiness Zones and buy those plants from reputable local nurseries or regional mail-order companies, you should be able to expand your berry options with relative ease. After that, the biggest problem you may have is keeping wildlife from eating the berries before you can. That means you either have to protect them or, heck, just go ahead and plant enough for everyone. You’ll be feeding the world around you along with yourself.

To learn more about growing berries, seek advice from local or regional specialty plant nurseries, check with your Alabama Cooperative Extension System office or Master Gardener organization or ask local home gardeners or farmers market growers for suggestions. They are likely all berry — I mean very — happy to help.

June Tips:

  • Harvest basil leaves from the top of plants before they begin to bloom.
  • Weed regularly.
  • Plant more tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and sweet potatoes.
  • Sow seeds for beans, field peas, pumpkins, squash, corn, cantaloupes and watermelon.
  • Tie up or provide support for tomato plants and beans and other trailing vegetables as they grow.
  • Pinch back flowering annuals to encourage continued blooming.
  • Prune or shear your evergreens as soon as the new growth begins to turn a darker shade of green.
  • Give houseplants, newly planted shrubs and perennials and lawns water as needed.
  • Keep an eye out for insect, disease and problems.
  • Keep fresh water in birdbaths and ornamental pools to reduce mosquito breeding.
  • Refresh hummingbird feeders at least once a week and more frequently as the weather gets warmer.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.