Berries Easy Pickings

Berries — Easy Pickings

We live in berry country. From late May until frost, numerous berry varieties thrive in sunny Rogue Valley. Even in neglect, blackberries sprawl on riverside paths as sultry summers and slightly acidic soils provide for both cane and low-growing berries' needs. Once established in the garden, they require minimal fertilizer, simple pruning, and some wintertime mulch.

"Berries have similar requirements "¦ rich, well-drained soil, and full sun," says Jean Stisser, owner of Tributary Heirloom Farm. "They like slightly acidic soil, so mulch them with pine needles."

Delectable blueberries prefer highly acidic, loamy soils with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. In spring, plant Northern high-bush blueberry varieties, Vaccinium corymbosum, 1/2-inch deep with peat moss and mulch heavily to protect their shallow roots. Early, heavy producer 'Duke', mid-season, big-berried 'Bluecrop' or late-season 'Elliot' varieties are touted by the Oregon State Extension Service. The attractive deciduous shrubs do well in half wine barrels and large containers.

And who can go through summer without strawberries? "June bearers produce their crop in a three-week period and tend to be sweeter and out-produce ever-bearers which produce from late May until frost," says Stisser. Spreading by multiple runners, popular June bearers 'Benton' and large 'Hood' produce one crop a season; while ever-bearing 'Quinault' produces to first frost. Place plants 14 to 18 inches apart on small hills to keep these rot-susceptible berries from sitting in wet soil. Urn-shaped strawberry pots provide small-space gardeners a way to savor strawberries.

The thorny canes of raspberries, blackberries and hybrids olallie, logan and marionberries, create rows of tender berries. Plant bare root berries about 3 feet from each other, in late winter or early spring, in well-drained soil. Except for ever-bearing raspberries, all bear fruit on two-year-old canes. Once the plant has fruited, cut or mow the canes to the ground. Train trailing types along a sunny trellis or backyard fence. Since berries are borne on tall, arching canes, provide support by "putting T-bars or supports on the ends of the rows, and run a wire to create a support and keep the canes upright," says Stisser. Not only does this make harvest easier, but it keeps the canes from reaching the ground and rooting. When picking berries from thorny canes, wear gloves.

Denise Marshall, owner of Eagle Point's Last Bite Cooking School, wears gloves when handling them in the kitchen as well, to keep the color in the dish and not on her fingers. "They are so rich in color. Take advantage of the contrast by serving a berry salsa with salmon or shrimp," she says.

Pick your favorites now. Regardless of the berry, use a shallow container when picking, so they won't be damaged by stacking. Wipe with a damp towel to remove dirt and unsavory bits, but don't wash them as they'll start to deteriorate. If not serving them fresh, preserve berries by placing them on baking sheets and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to plastic freezer bags.

These finger-staining treats are finger-licking good.

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