A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Berries
Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries taste wonderful right off the plant and they offer myriad uses in the kitchen far beyond simple snacking. Imagine picking your own mouth-watering berries fresh from the plant whenever you feel the slightest pang of hunger or sending your kids to pick their own snack. A perfect addition to breakfast, salads, or desserts, berries can be one of the most enjoyable fruit-bearers to grow at home. Plenty of recipes and inspirations lead to delicious culinary creations and your yields will happily freeze for future use. Best of all, you can grow berries at home in containers with very little regard to the size of your yard.
Easily avoid the oft-exorbitant cost of buying berries by the carton when you chose to grow your own varieties from the comforts of home, be it in your sunroom or on your balcony, porch, or patio. The biggest pieces of the puzzle in growing your own berries typically involve choosing the right pot size and ensuring adequate drainage. Whether you wish to grow raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, or another variety, you can find great success both indoors and out. Start planning for spring and consider these tips to help your homegrown berries thrive.
Growing Strawberries in Containers
Especially suited for growing in containers, strawberries take little time and effort to establish a successful setup. Start with an everbearing variety like Ozark Beauty, Tillicum, or Quinault for the most favorable results.
Choose the Right Container: Delightful as a first choice of berry to grow in containers, strawberries even have their own style of container, a strawberry jar, which is shaped like an urn and boasts individual openings where you can plunk down a plant on all sides of the container. Strawberry jars make a fine choice so long as you don’t let your berries dry out for too long in the hot sun. Other ideal containers include standard flower pots; half-barrels; long, low planters; and hanging baskets.
Planting the Berries: Before you fill your strawberry jar, consider creating a drain tube. Using a length of PVC pipe, a drill, some gravel, and a bit of mesh or pantyhose, you can make this handy watering tube to help evenly distribute the water. Drill holes evenly throughout the tube, add gravel, seal the ends with permeable fabric, and place it in the center of the pot. You can fill around the drain tube with a pre-fertilized soilless mixture or one that already contains a bit of compost. Once in place, put a strawberry plant in each opening of the jar and gently tamp to incorporate it with the potting mix. Add several strawberry plants to the top of the planter once you’ve filled the side openings. If you are worried about the soil and plants washing away out of the openings, you can add peat moss or a bit of newspaper to the base of the plants.
Let the Sun Shine: Ideally, strawberries enjoy full sun to partial shade and temperatures of 70-85°F (21-29°C). For the first few days, though, you may wish to keep the pot in the shade until the plants acclimate. Depending on your climate, you may also need to adjust location and watering intervals to better suit the plants’ needs.
Monitor the Moisture: Strawberries don’t like to go to bed with wet feet. Make sure you water your berries early enough in the day so that the water has a chance to soak down to the roots without leaving the soil a soggy mess.
Growing Raspberries in Containers
Raspberries tend to produce their yields in the summer or the fall. Choose from numerous tasty varieties, including red raspberries, black raspberries, and even golden raspberries. Like strawberries, everbearing varieties (autumn-fruiting) may be the best place to start, offering a smaller, sturdier plant that is less likely to require a support structure.
Choosing the Right Container: At a minimum, look for a pot with a 24-inch diameter. You can also grow raspberries in raised garden beds or directly in the ground, and it is advisable to do so once they’ve reached about three years of age.
Planting the Berries: Start with a layer of gravel or broken seashells at the base of your container. Next, fill your raspberry container with a soilless potting mix specific to raspberries or a soil-based compost. Plant several raspberry canes around the edges of the pot, gently tamping the soil around them. Throughout the growing season, use a high-potash fertilizer to encourage greater yields.
Let the Sun Shine: Raspberry plants tend to prefer a sunny spot where they can brush up against each other. Place your pot in full sun, aiming for about six to eight hours of sunlight a day. If possible, place the berries on the east side of your home or in a place where they will avoid some of the harsh evening sun.
Monitor the Moisture: Raspberries in the ground typically need one good watering a week during the dry season and more frequent watering during fruiting season. For berries grown in containers, more frequent watering is expected, but carefully aligned with good drainage. Overwatering raspberries can lead to root rot and other problems. A long-time berry grower at the local landscape supply store shared a helpful raspberry watering trick with me this summer. He collects all the sticks from the Popsicles his kids eat and sticks them partway into the soil below his berry plants. Simply pulling the stick out of the ground reveals whether it’s time to give the plants a drink. Thirsty plants are easily detected by Popsicle sticks that are even in coloring and bone dry. Wait to water the ones that have a stick showing off a subtle shade difference or a touch of dampness.
Growing Blueberries in Containers
Dwarf varieties of blueberries can be a great choice for container gardens, although other types can also live and produce quite happily in pots. Look for drought-resistant berries like Bluecrop or those that best suit your climate. Northern Highbush Top Hat tends to do well in zones 3 through 7 while Southern Highbush Sunshine Blue thrives in zones 5 through 10. Cross-pollination between plants can boost overall plant fruiting and production, so plan to grow at least two if possible.
Choosing the Right Container: When beginning with blueberries, choose a five- to 10-gallon container. This size provides plenty of room for blueberry bushes, which have root systems that tend to be shallow and wide-spreading.
Planting the Berries: Blueberries prefer more acidic soil, so fill the container with acid-lovers potting mix or a 50-50 blend of potting soil and peat moss. Avoid mixes containing redwood sawdust as it is not recommended for blueberries. Test the soil pH throughout the growing season to ensure it falls into the optimal range of 5.0 to 5.5. If needed, you can amend the soil with fertilizers to gradually increase the acidity of the soil.
Let the Sun Shine: Like many berries, blueberries prefer full sun. Aim to give them sunshine for about three-quarters of the day, with periods of partial shade limited to late in the day if possible.
Monitor the Moisture: Like raspberries, watering when the soil gets dry is usually the best bet. You can use the Popsicle stick trick or simply stick your finger into the soil to see if the top few inches are dry. Water them when needed, but avoid overwatering. Each climate and container calls for different watering patterns.
Growing Blackberries in Containers
Most blackberries grow wildly and vigorously, making them less suitable for the container garden lifestyle. However, some thornless varieties can survive just fine in a large container with the proper care.
Choosing the Right Container: Start with a container that is five gallons or larger for your blackberries. Large clay or ceramic planters, wooden barrels, and other wide, shallow styles work nicely.
Planting the Berries: Blackberry plants require at least six inches of space for their roots to grow and develop. These berries tend to be rather invasive, spreading their roots across rather than down into the ground. Add broken pottery, gravel, or shells to the bottom of the planter for drainage and fill with a topsoil blend or regular potting soil. Depending on the size of your blackberry plants, you may need to add a trellis for support. Consider applying fertilizer regularly in small doses or once per year in slow-release format to ensure optimal growing conditions.
Let the Sun Shine: Plan to place your blackberry containers in full sunlight where they will enjoy between six to eight hours of direct sun per day.
Monitor the Moisture: Water blackberries when the top inch of the soil in their container is dry.
Wintering Over Your Berries
If you’ve grown your plants outside during much of their growing season, you’ve likely found a routine of care that seems to work best for each type of berry. As the colder months set in, however, you’ll need to adjust your care a bit.
You may wish to bring your berries away from the elements for the coldest part of the year. Bring plants indoors or by find a sheltered location outside, like under your deck or against a wall or shed. You can also add a layer of mulch to the tops or wrap a blanket or burlap around the containers for increased protection.
While they won’t need as much watering in the winter, don’t let your berry plants completely dry out, either. Water raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries just enough to keep them alive. At the start of the next growing season, top off the soil with new nutrient-rich mix as per the plant’s preferred medium. Then, after the danger of frost has passed, you can return your berry containers to their favorite sunny spots outdoors.
Other Key Considerations of Container Berries
In addition to all the basics, here are a few other important points to remember when growing berries in containers.
- Picking is probably the most fun part! Get the hang of when to pick for best flavor and ripeness. With blueberries, resist the urge to pick right when they turn blue; wait a few days and then pick every three to five days thereafter.
- Refrigerate berries to prolong their freshness. Freeze in zippered storage bags or ice cube trays for future use.
- Protect berry plants from birds with wildlife netting once fruit begins to develop.
- Bring pots indoors or under shelter during heavy rainfall if you are concerned about overwatering.
- Prune plants as needed, even while they are in containers. Research each individual plant’s pruning requirements for best results and a better yield next season.
- In addition to pruning, you may also need to divide your plants into new containers if they multiply beyond the available space in their containers.
- Move pots around your yard to ensure optimal conditions if desired.
Once you choose your variety of berry, your container, and your location, you’ll be in good shape to enjoy delicious berries and the joy of growing your own year after year.