Nardozzi: Backyard berries

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(HOST) Commentator Charlie Nardozzi says that when it comes to lots of nutrition for very little fuss, backyard berries are hard to beat.

(NARDOZZI) The National Gardening Association estimates the number of vegetable gardeners this year has increased about 20%. While it’s great more people are growing veggies, I think another edible crop should get equal billing. That’s berry bushes.

Growing berry bushes is one of the easiest ways to produce your own food. They have many advantages. They’re perennial, so no need to replant every year. They’re easy to grow in our cold climate. They produce fruit a year or two after planting. Many are attractive shrubs making great additions as landscape plants along the back, side, and even the front of your house. Plus, they’re good for you. Researchers at Cornell University compared the antioxidant activity levels in 25 commonly consumed fruits in America. They found that pomegranates, blueberries, and blackberries had the highest levels — 30 to 40 times higher than other fruits such as melons and watermelons.

My wife Wendy and I have 2 blueberry bushes, two rows of raspberries, and a few gooseberries in our yard. When they are producing, we can’t keep up with the harvest and end up freezing the tasty berries to eat in winter.

So what to grow? Let’s start with the brambles. I like the everbearing red and yellow raspberries. They’re called everbearing because they produce a summer and a fall crop. They’re perfect planted as an edible hedge or fence on your property boundary or grown, as we do, in a raised bed in the lawn. I like our method because any stray shoots that creep into the lawn get mowed down. Other than a few cane borers and the ubiquitous Japanese beetle, they are relatively pest free. Just add some compost in spring, mulch with straw or grass clippings in summer, and prune out dead or spent canes. If you’re really lazy you can mow down the whole patch in fall and let new canes form in spring. You’ll sacrifice your summer crop, but you’ll get a larger fall crop instead. ‘Fall Red’ and ‘Fall Gold’ are two of the best everbearing varieties to grow.

Two of the best edible landscape shrubs to grow around your house are gooseberries and blueberries. I’ve waxed poetic about blueberries for years. The half-high or high bush varieties grow 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, depending on the variety. They require little care other than adjusting the soil pH to around 5 and some occasional pruning. Just keep the birds out of the patch with netting, or you’ll be berry-less by summer.

Gooseberries are underutilized and underappreciated. They only grow 3- to 5-feet tall and wide but reliably produce grape-sized, tasty fruits. Unlike most other berries, gooseberry fruits can hold on the bush for days when ripe and not turn to mush. I grow a red variety called ‘Sophia,’ whose fruits get sweeter with age.

So keep growing veggies, but add a berry bush or two to your yard. You’ll be rewarded with easy to grow, tasty fruits without breaking a sweat.

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