Part 5: Growing Berries and Grapes In Your Mini Fruit Garden
I encourage you to start with small fruit like berries and grapes. They are usually easier to grow than fruit trees, and are naturally smaller plants. Some of them fit easily into a small fruit garden – this includes strawberries, gooseberries, and highbush blueberries.
But you may find brambles, such as blackberries and raspberries, difficult or impossible to confine to small garden beds as they spread vigorously through their underground root systems. In addition, you may find their yields in small areas very low compared to other fruit. If you want to grow brambles, give them lots of elbow room, well away from other plants or garden beds.
Vining fruit, such as grapes, can grow large, but you can control them to fit within small trellises by doing regular summer pruning. You can also grow them on arbors, where the vines can give shade to benches or patios.
Strawberries are the one fruit that you can harvest within a few months of planting. If you plant day-neutral varieties in April, you can start picking ripe fruit in July. You can also fit these plants into a variety of locations – containers, separate small garden beds, or tucked along the south side of trellised fruit beds.
I suggest growing day-neutral strawberry varieties, like Tristar, Tribute, Seascape, and Albion. “Day-neutral” means that these varieties will continue to produce fruit, no matter the length of the daylight hours. In much of the U.S., they can produce ripe fruit from late May until September or even October – though they may pause production during very hot weather. They usually flower heavily every 6 weeks or so. You will harvest a large amount in June, and then the remaining berries will ripen throughout the summer and fall.
Day-neutral strawberries also usually produce fewer runners, which makes them easier to control in small beds and containers. However, they tend to wear themselves out with constant fruiting, so I recommend that you replace the plants every 2 years or so.
I love having fresh strawberries available every week for months on end, but it means that I need to harvest from my plants at least 2-3 times a week throughout the whole growing season. Believe it or not, that can get tiring after a while! This is another reason I love growing my strawberries in raised containers, so I don’t need to kneel or squat to harvest them.
Some people prefer to harvest all their strawberries at one time in June, and preserve them to eat the rest of the year. June-bearing strawberries often have higher yields than the day-neutral types. I’ve tried growing June-bearers a couple of times, but happened to get heavy rains during the harvest period both times, and lost both entire crops due to mold! When I grow an ever-bearing type of strawberry (such as the day-neutral “Tristar”), I don’t risk losing an entire crop due to bad weather.
I also had a terrible time trying to keep one of my June-bearer varieties within a small bed, as the 50 plants produced literally hundreds of runners. In addition, you can’t harvest June-bearers until one year after planting.
I prefer to grow strawberries with the “hill system.” You plant the strawberries 8-12 inches apart, and remove all the runners throughout the year. You also remove all the blossoms for the first 6 weeks or so after planting. This encourages the plants to become large and vigorous, and produce larger, better-quality fruit. Given good growing conditions, you should expect to harvest about 1/2-1 quart of fruit per plant each year.
I always mulch my strawberries – to keep most weeds from growing, and to keep the soil moist. It also reduces the number of strawberries that rot from being in contact with wet soil. I've found that pine needles make one of the best mulches for this purpose, as they drain well and dry out quickly, therefore keeping the fruit drier. We used to lose a lot of ripe strawberries to mold, until we switched to pine needle mulch.
If you grow strawberries in containers, it’s a good idea to give them extra protection during the winter. Plants growing in containers feel like they are in a much colder zone during winter, because their roots are exposed to the cold air. Either tuck the containers into a cold frame, or set them on the ground and cover them with a mulch – pine needles or straw does a good job for winter protection.
When I am ready to start a fresh bed of strawberries, I allow a few runners to take root in the old bed (if the plants are looking healthy), and then transplant those young plants into the new beds.
Blueberries are my second-favorite fruit in my mini fruit garden. Other than keeping them well mulched and watered, pruning them once in winter, and adding sulfur occasionally to keep the soil pH between 4 and 5, there really isn’t much work involved in maintaining them. In addition, these bushes should live for over 20 years.
Most blueberries for sale through nurseries are the highbush types. They usually grow about 4-6 feet high and about 4 feet wide. There are highbush varieties suited for the north (zones 4-7), and other highbush types that will thrive in the south (zones 7-9). The commonly available highbush varieties don’t generally spread by runners, so they are easy to confine in small beds. The northern lowbush does spread by runners, which may make them more difficult to keep confined. Many of the southern rabbiteye blueberry varieties can grow 8-14 feet tall.
You can expect to harvest about 4-6 quarts of berries each year from most full-grown, 6-foot-tall blueberry bushes, although some sources quote as much as 5-10 quarts.
Blueberry bushes are attractive enough for you to include in an edible landscape, but they are pretty picky about their soil requirements, so I usually prepare a separate bed just for them. The other advantage for having a separate blueberry bed is that you can cover all the bushes with one piece of bird netting when the berries start ripening. I pick the berries about once a week. Don’t expect to harvest many berries without a well-constructed netting cover. The bird scare devices usually don’t work very well.
Blueberries require well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. If you have clay soil, fill a raised bed with loam or sandy soil, and blend a generous amount of peat moss into it. Peat moss will add organic matter and help lower the pH at the same time. Before you plant the bushes, have the soil tested and be sure to use sulfur or other acidifying products if the pH is above 5.5. On established plants, always check the soil pH if the leaves turn yellowish with green veins.
Blueberry bushes have very shallow roots, and they need a steady moisture level, so they greatly benefit from a layer of mulch at least 4-6 inches deep. As the mulch decomposes and shrinks, it’s very important to keep adding mulch once or twice a year. Otherwise, the roots can become exposed, dry out, and die. It would also be a good idea for you to set up a watering system for your beds. I usually wind a 50-foot section of a soaker hose back and forth on top of my 3′ x 16′ fruit beds.
Not many gardeners in the United States are familiar with gooseberries, mostly because there used to be federal and state bans on growing them. This was an effort to prevent the spread of white pine blister rust. The federal ban was lifted in the 1960s, and most states now allow the planting of gooseberries and some types of currants. Be sure to check into your state laws before purchasing any plants.
Gooseberries prefer a cool, moist, well-drained site. They don’t tolerate hot sunny weather for long. My last garden was located in a cold microclimate which was a good 10 degrees cooler than much of Virginia. My gooseberries did pretty well there.
I brought a couple of plants with me when I moved to my current home, just 16 miles away from my previous home. The climate is so much warmer here that my gooseberries are not doing well. If your climate is borderline for this fruit, try giving your plants some afternoon shade and a good layer of mulch around the roots, and keep their soil moist.
Although these bushes bloom very early in the spring, I didn’t notice much freeze damage after my late frosts, and I still picked a good crop of berries each year. You can generally expect to harvest 4-6 quarts or more from mature bushes. My neighbor’s boys love eating gooseberries straight off the bush.
Gooseberries respond well to a variety of training methods. I have grown them as large bushes, or pruned into a tall and narrow shape. My biggest challenge is trying to harvest the fruit without getting badly scratched by their thorns. In my opinion, they are worse than thorny blackberries, partly because much of their fruit is deep within the bush. I am currently experimenting in pruning the bushes in different ways in an effort to make the harvest easier for me.
Many of the common varieties, such as Pixwell, sold by nurseries today, have very poor flavor compared to the better varieties. You may have to search a little more to find varieties with great flavor, disease resistance, and fewer thorns, but your effort will be well rewarded. Here are links to two online articles with more information about gooseberries:
Brambles – Raspberries, Blackberries and more
In general, I don’t recommend growing brambles in a miniature fruit garden. This family of plants loves to spread and can be very difficult to keep confined to small beds. I remember trying to confine a patch of wild blackberries at my previous home. Even though I carefully mowed around the patch every month, they still managed to spread their roots into a flower bed over 20 feet away!
In addition, the yield of fruit per square foot of bed is often quite small – though I have sometimes seen domestic blackberry plants so heavily covered in fruit that it looked like the ripe berries weighed more than the plant supporting them!
I experimented with growing Purple Royalty raspberries. They were not supposed to spread as vigorously as other types. However, even this variety escaped well-beyond their bed within just 2 years. My sister and I eventually dug them up and replaced them with more blueberries.
Grapes are very flexible plants. They can be pruned dozens of different ways. However, many gardeners neglect grapevines after they are planted. The vines become massive over time and overwhelm the arbors they are growing on – which ends up overwhelming the gardeners, too! You may have noticed these overgrown grape arbors in your own neighborhood.
You don’t need a large arbor or trellis to successfully grow grapes, but it will take frequent pruning to keep the vines manageable on a small trellis. You can train and support grapevines in many ways. The best resource I’ve found so far on this topic is the book, American Horticultural Society Pruning and Training.
It is quite easy to grow one grapevine in a small 4′ x 4′ bed, and train it up two small trellises – one on the north side of the bed and one on the south side. Plant the grapevine in the middle of the bed, and train two vines from the main trunk, one up each trellis. You should be able to harvest somewhere between 16 and 32 bunches of grapes from this one tiny bed.
If you are interested in growing grapevines in containers, Stella Otto in The Backyard Berry Book: A Hands-On Guide to Growing Berries, Brambles, and Vine Fruit in the Home Garden offers two pages of details on how to do that. She says that a vine in a 5-gallon container could produce about one dozen bunches of grapes – not bad!
Diseases are often a big issue with grapes. The best way to deal with diseases organically is by selecting disease-resistant varieties, providing the vines with adequate ventilation, and following good sanitation rules. However, during extremely wet years, like we had in 2013, even these precautions failed to prevent a total crop loss in my garden. In this kind of situation, using organic sprays for disease control may help save your grapes.
I prefer to grow seedless grapes, but I noticed during my research that I was able to find many more disease-resistant varieties for seeded grapes.
If you want to grow a miniature fruit garden, planting berries and grapes is a great way to get started, and they easily fit in small spaces. They need less pruning to remain small, and the day-neutral strawberries are the one fruit you can start harvesting within 3 months!
Small Fruit in the Home Garden (PDF file) A 12-page publication from Virginia Cooperative Extension
Introduction: How to Grow Fruit (Even If You Have a Tiny Yard)
Part 1: Eight Reasons Why You Should Grow a Miniature Fruit Garden
Part 2: How To Design Your Own Miniature Fruit Garden
Part 3: How to Select Fruit Varieties That Will Thrive in Your Garden
Part 4: Six Steps to Planting a Successful Fruit Garden
Part 5: Growing Berries and Grapes in Your Mini Fruit Garden
Part 6: Growing Dwarf Fruit Trees in Your Mini Fruit Garden