The Natural Gardener – Soft Fruit

Here in West Cork we have fantastic growing conditions for all types of soft fruit. Even a novice gardener should be able to get great returns from just a few plants. Kids (and adults) will be delighted to feast on the tastiest fruit grown in their own gardens! Even with the smallest garden you will be able to find somewhere to grow some soft fruit, unlike fruit trees, which can take up lots of space .

This time of year is the best season to plant soft fruit, as plants have a great chance to establish strong roots, without any chance of drying out! There is also the largest range of varieties available at the best prices, as many are sold as bare root.

Listed below are some of the most popular as well as some more unusual, with information on planting and after care. They are all tried and tested with feedback from our customers here at Deelish garden centre. We also stock a range of more unusual soft fruits including; hardy paw-paw, chilean guava, feijoa, cape gooseberries, mulberry, figs, passion fruit and dead man’s fingers!

Blackberry, Wineberry, Tayberry, Loganberry, Sunberry & Boysenberry: A selection of these fruits can provide fresh berries from early July until the first severe frosts occur in the autumn. They provide a variety of flavours ranging from that of the true blackberry to those arising from crosses between raspberry with blackberry and other Rubus species. Plant in well-drained but moisture retentive soil in full sun or partial shade. Grow them on wires against a fence or wall, or as single plants up a post. Space at least 6ft/2m apart. Cut back to 10in/25cm straight after planting to promote fresh growth from the base. During autumn or winter each year remove canes that have fruited to ground level and train and tie in the new growth that has grown up from the base during the summer. In late spring cut out the tips of the leading canes to promote the growth of extra fruiting laterals.

Blueberry: Blueberries, a well known ‘superfruit’ grown for their health-boosting properties can be a tasty and attractive addition to the garden. In the autumn the bushes turn crimson, adding brilliant colour to what can otherwise be a dull season. In the spring the bushes are covered in masses of sweet scented dainty white bell shaped flowers. The soil in west Cork generally gives them the acidic conditions they require. If you do not have the appropriate soil, they should be grown in containers using an ericaceous compost. Two varieties should usually be planted to improve pollination and ensure a good set of flowers under adverse weather conditions. Plant 3ft/1m apart in a sheltered position in free-draining ericaceous soil in full sun/partial shade. In winter, cut out any damaged or dead branches. It is also recommended that each year a few old stems that have borne fruit are cut hard back to promote new growth in the following spring. They will thrive from an annual mulching of pine needles or similar acidic mulches.

Cranberry: Cranberries add a tangy flavour to everything from stuffing and sauces to drinks and barbecues. Best grown at the edge of a pond, otherwise in a container or raised bed lined with plastic which has been pierced so that water is retained but not allowed to stagnate. Incorporate plenty of moss peat when planting and water regularly with soft (rain) water. Space about 1ft/30cm apart.

Currants: Closely related to the gooseberry, currants have a markedly different flavour and use. Currants produce insignificant flowers followed by long strings of shiny berries, with a sharp flavour. Plant them in moisture retentive soil in an open position in full sun or partial shade. Avoid planting in a position where the bushes might catch a late spring frost which will damage any emerging leaves and new growth. Space currant bushes 3-4ft/1-1.25m apart, apart. After planting, cut blackcurrants down to 3-4in/8-10cm above ground level, and cut the stems of red and white currants back by about half. Blackcurrants fruit on new wood so aim to remove a third of the old wood each year, taking out at or near ground level the oldest branches (those with the darkest wood). Unlike Blackcurrants, Red and White currants fruit on two year old wood so require only that the leading shoots are shortened by about half each year to encourage branching. If and when the bush becomes crowded, remove the occasional branch to open it up to allow air to circulate more freely.

Gooseberry & Jostaberry: The gooseberry is the first fruit of the season. The fruit should be thinned in late May and the thinnings used for cooking. The remainder should be left to swell near to full size and then used for pies, jamming and freezing. Jostaberrys were produced by crossing a blackcurrant and gooseberry. The berries resemble a large blackcurrant, but are about twice their size. Plant in deep, well-drained but moisture retentive soil in full sun or partial shade. Avoid planting in shallow soil which dries out in summer as this will result in poor sized fruit. Also avoid sites liable to catch late spring frosts. Space bushes 4ft/1.25m apart Jostaberries 6ft/2m.Cut stems back by about half after planting. This is very important for successful establishment. Try to build up a well-shaped bush by annually cutting out crossing branches from the centre in the spring before bud break. Also cut out any diseased or damaged wood.

Goji Berries: Goji berries are the latest ‘must have’ fruit and are said to boost your immune system, contain more vitamin C than oranges, more iron than steak and play an important role in traditional Chinese medicine. Plant 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) apart. Goji berries are self fertile and are easy to grow and thrive even in poor soil. Flowers and fruit are formed on the stems that grew in the previous year, so pruning aims to encourage the production of this wood. Prune lightly in early spring, removing dead and badly-placed shoots.

Grapes: Grapes are very hardy and the breeding and selection of varieties has progressed so far in the last ten years, that it is now possible to plant a range of varieties suitable for growing under cover and outdoors. If we get more summers like 2018, we may see a West cork wine company in the future! They will give the best results if planted and trained against a south facing wall; they will also do well when trained onto a horizontal wire support away from any wall. When grown under glass or plastic, vines can be planted outside and brought in through the wall. Vines should be spaced 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) apart. Many a book has been written about pruning grapes and there are various methods to choose from depending on where you are growing them. Fruit will be produced on new growth, so pruning is needed for a good crop. The main pruning time is early winter. Pruning later can cause the vine to bleed sap, weakening the plant. Training and pinching out of new shoots, as well as thinning of fruits, is carried out in spring and summer.

Honeyberry: The fruits are very similar to blueberries in taste and looks, and can be eaten raw or used in jams and jellies. Like blueberries they are high in antioxidants and vitamin C and make an interesting addition to your fruit collection. Plant 3ft/1m apart in spring when there is no risk of frost, this allows the plant to get established over the following summer. They do not mind acidic or alkaline soil which makes them a great alternative for gardeners who struggle to grow blueberries. Young plants only need dead material removed for the first three years while they get established. For more established honeyberries, pruning should be done in early to mid-summer after harvesting. At least one other variety will be needed for pollination. It may be worth considering pollination by hand to increase yield of fruit.

Kiwi: The Chinese Gooseberry is a very hardy twining climber and can be cropped outdoors wherever grapes grow. Baby Kiwis (Actinidia arguta) are edible, grape-sized fruit similar to kiwi fruit in taste and appearance, but are green, brownish, or purple with smooth skin. Often sweeter than the kiwifruit, baby kiwi fruit can be eaten whole and do not need to be peeled. It is important that the bush is given very good shelter from the prevailing winds. Bushes are excellent for covering old walls and should be planted at least 5.5m (18ft) apart. Some varieties are self fertile, others need a male and female for pollination. In winter, cut existing laterals back to three or four buds beyond the last fruited stems. Each year cut back about one-quarter to one-third of the oldest laterals to a bud around 5cm (2in) from the main stem. New growth will be produced from this stub in the growing season.

Lingonberry: The Lingonberry is from the same family as the blueberry and cranberry and therefore enjoys the same acid soil conditions. They are Ideal for growing in pots in an ericaceous compost and are evergreen and self fertile. They have a natural spreading habit and are particularly useful as an under planting around blueberries.

Raspberry: Raspberries are really delicious, but very expensive to buy fresh in shops. A single cane (costing just over €1) can produce over 2kg. Of fruit! Plant in deep, rich well-drained but moisture retentive soil in a sunny or partially shaded position. Space canes 15-18in/40-45cm apart. Allow 4-6ft/1.25-2m between rows of summer-fruiting varieties (summer fruiting varieties will need a support) and at least 6ft/2m between rows of autumn-fruiting varieties. Dig the planting hole deep enough so that the root sits in the soil with the previous soil mark just below the soil surface, back fill and firm in. Cut back Regular canes to 2in/5cm above soil level after planting (these off cuts can easily be used as cuttings to produce more canes). Keep well watered until canes get established and add an annual top dress of organic fertiliser in the spring. Do not hoe in the planting area to remove weeds. Pick weeds by hand. The growing shoots of the Raspberry plant grow from underneath the soil. Hoeing could chop off these growing shoots resulting in canes dying. Summer-fruiting varieties fruit on canes produced in the previous year. After fruiting, cut out the old, fruited wood in autumn/winter and tie in the new growths to the support. Autumn-fruiting varieties fruit on canes produced in the current year. After cropping, these should be cut down to ground level to promote the growth of new canes.

Rhubarb: Rhubarb has been cultivated in Irish gardens since the late sixteenth century. Its leafstalks can be stewed or used for making preserves. Plant about 21/2-3ft/75-90cm apart in an open, sunny position in moisture retentive soil that has been enriched with well-rotted manure or organic matter prior to planting. Over the years the crown may begin to spread. To keep it producing healthy growth for long it will need to be divided, which can be done during winter-time (at a time when the ground isn’t frozen). This is done by digging up either the whole clump or a section of it, cutting it into smaller pieces, and then re-planting each bit in an area with a bit more space.

Strawberries, Framberry & Pineberry: Strawberries are most children’s and some adults favourite soft fruit! Pineberry is a white strawberry cultivar with a pineapple-like flavour, white colour, and red seeds, great for confusing hungry birds!. Framberry grows like, looks, and is classified as a strawberry, but has a distinctively different flavour, somewhere between that of a raspberry and a strawberry combined. Plant them in an open, sunny position in soil which is rich in humus. Set plants 18in/45cm apart in rows 30in/75cm apart. After planting, water thoroughly. If no rainfall occurs during the first few weeks after they have been planted, water regularly to keep the soil moist until plants re-establish. Replace with fresh, certified stock (or your own ‘runners’) in a new bed or a different part of the garden every 3-4 years. Strawberry ‘runners’ (baby plants on the ends of stalks) should be potted on next to the mother plant to increase the number of plants or cut off, giving the plant more energy to produce fruit.

All the soft fruit (as well as fruit trees) mentioned will produce much more fruit with the application of potash as a top dressing in late winter or early spring. This will help the plants produce more flowers and fruit. Potash will also help strengthen plants and make them resistant to extreme weather and diseases. An excellent source of potash is found in pure wood ash from your fireplace (not mixed with coal or briquettes),just spread on the ground around the plant and the rain will wash it down to the roots.

During the growing season an organic fertiliser and or mulch with added seaweed will add much needed nitrogen and trace elements for leaf growth and overall health of the plants. Fresh compost will make an excellent mulch around the base of the plants (keep it a few inches away from the stem), as this will contain earthworms and soil microbes.

If there are long periods of dry weather, regular watering is advised, especially for freshly planted fruit. Organic liquid fertilisers can also be added at this stage for a quick feed.

Fruit nets are sometimes needed to keep the birds from eating your buds and fruit before you get a chance to! Regular checking of the netting is needed to make sure they do not find a way in. If using a pest or fungal control on your fruit bushes, be sure to buy an organic product, or make your own. Always wait at least a week before eating any fruit after applying the product.

All that is left to do now, is to choose which of the above soft fruit is for you, plant it as soon as possible and enjoy your tasty rewards this summer! And remember, gardening doesn’t have to cost the earth!

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