Soft fruit: introduction

What is it?

The term ‘soft fruit’ means fruit that grows on anything smaller than a tree – so you can easily grow it in gardens and on balconies. Is soft fruit really soft? Well, soft fruit is generally very juicy and has a thin skin, so yes, it is softer than apples and pears and more fragile than oranges. Because of this, soft fruit doesn’t store for long, so needs to be eaten soon after picking, or preserved as jams, jellies, cordials, or dried or frozen.

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Redcurrants grow like bunches of shiny gems.

Most soft fruit grows on bushes – we’re thinking here of redcurrants, blackcurrants, gooseberries, blueberries and the like. Raspberries grow on stick-like ‘canes’ rather than bushes. Some soft fruit grows on vines and climbers (grapes, passion fruit) and one type of berry grows on small, long-lived, very invasive creeping plants – hurrah for strawberries!

What are the benefits?

Soft fruit growing is much less work than growing vegetables, because most vegetables need to be raised from seed every year, whereas fruit bushes and plants live for many years and need relatively little care. Growing soft fruit requires less space than growing tree fruit such as apples and cherries, so it can be done fairly easily in small gardens, balconies and allotments.

Soft fruit is full of vitamins and other nutrients that are really good for you. The plant chemicals that produce the rich colours of berries are thought to help prevent disease, possibly helping to reduce cancer risk.

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Grapes will grow well in full sunshine in the south of the UK, but will produce a more reliable crop in a polytunnel, greenhouse or conservatory.

Fruits such as raspberries and strawberries are wonderfully delicious eaten just as they are, while others like redcurrants, blackcurrants and some varieties of gooseberry are (depending on your taste) better eaten or cooked with other ingredients, where they will add huge helpings of colour and flavour.

Despite being very easy to grow, soft fruit is very expensive to buy. This is because the picking usually has to be done by hand, and once picked, it has a very short shelf life. Per kilogram, soft fruit is probably the most expensive type of fruit or veg in the shops. A 300g punnet of raspberries or redcurrants often costs several pounds, even at the height of the season when you’d think it would be cheap to buy.

So there we are, soft fruit is really good for you, a pleasure to eat, and growing it yourself either saves you loads of money or gives you something that you’d never be able to afford to buy. Having soft fruit in your garden or on your balcony means that you can pick it fresh every morning to add to your muesli or porridge (or lunch box), and home-grown strawberries are usually so much tastier than commercially grown ones.

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Strawberries used as ground cover around gooseberry and redcurrant bushes to reduce the need for weeding.

What can I do?

Soft fruit can be grown in most gardens, allotments and balconies. Whereas vegetables need lots of sun, soft fruit will grow fairly well in partial shade.

If you can plant directly in the ground, that’s the best option, as it cuts down on feeding and watering, but most soft fruit grows well in containers. Strawberries can be grown in pots and window boxes, and fruit bushes such as currants, gooseberries and blueberries will grow happily in containers the size of large buckets or 20-litre tubs. Raspberries will also grow in tubs – an old bath will do very well for them so long as there is drainage. If you are growing in containers, always make sure there are plenty of drainage holes in the bottom of them – drill extra holes if necessary.

When planting into garden soil, mix some home-made compost or well-rotted manure into the planting hole. For bushes, a handful of bonemeal mixed in (wear gloves) is helpful but not essential. To grow in containers, soil-based compost such as the generic and widely-available mix known as John Innes Number 3 is better than ‘multipurpose’ compost, or you can make your own mix of 50:50 compost and topsoil. A handful of a slow release fertiliser such as bonemeal is helpful, but not essential if you prefer to avoid animal by-products.

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Blackcurrants contain iron, potassium, manganese, phosphorus and a wide range of vitamins, including several times your daily requirement of vitamin C in a 100g serving.

The main rule to remember is that when growing soft fruit in containers, don’t just fill them with garden soil, and never ever buy peat-based composts, as peat extraction destroys habitats and releases CO2 (exception: there is one brand of eco-friendly peat-based compost which is made from peat filtered from river water). There are good peat-free bagged composts available in most garden centres (for more details of brands, and peat-free compost tests, see www.earthfriendlygardener.net).

In most parts of the UK, the soil is unsuitable for blueberry bushes, so they can only be grown in containers. That’s because they are ‘lime hating’ or ‘ericaceous’ plants. You’ll need to buy ericaceous (lime free) compost to plant them in – available in all garden centres.

Having sorted out a place to grow your soft fruit, you also of course need to obtain plants or bushes. Spring or autumn are the best times to plant or transplant soft fruit. The lowest-impact, and cheapest source of plants is from gardening friends or neighbours, or if you don’t know anyone suitable, an email to your local Freegle or Freecycle group is likely to produce offers. If you have a local permaculture group you could ask them too. Join it, as it will change your life in more ways than gardening! If you can’t get plants and bushes from the community, you will need to find them via mail order, or the local garden centre (but aim to use an independent local garden centre or plant nursery if you have one in your area).

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Not strictly a ‘fruit’ (it’s a stem), rhubarb will grow nicely in a shady part of your garden.

Strawberries spread fast – each plant has several new plants on runners each year, so people with strawberry plants will usually be more than glad to give you some runners. Pot them up and if they don’t yet have good roots, keep them well watered in a shady spot for a few weeks to get established (even if they do have good roots, it’s sensible to keep them in the shade for a week or so to recover from being transplanted). If all your strawberry plants are the same variety, you’ll be picking fruit for 3-4 weeks each year. Different varieties crop in different months, from early June to September, and there are some new varieties which claim to produce berries all summer.

Raspberry canes also spread fast so can often be obtained for free from friends. If planting directly into your garden, bear in mind that they will spread into adjacent areas, so burying a vertical barrier in the soil around the raspberry bed can be a good idea, though it’s not essential. If they are next to a grass path, or lawn, the mowing will stop them spreading in that direction.

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You usually have to fix some netting over redcurrants to protect them from birds.

Rhubarb is not actually a fruit of course – we cook and eat the stems of this perennial plant – but people often think of rhubarb as the first soft fruit of the season. Ready to pick from about April, it fills a useful gap before the berry harvest begins in June. It won’t grow well in a container, but due to its huge leaves, it tolerates shade so can often be tucked into an otherwise unpromising corner of a garden or allotment.

The best way to obtain a rhubarb plant is from someone whose rhubarb has grown too big. After it has died down in autumn, use a spade vertically to cut off a clump of root from the edge of the donor’s plant. Dig a generous amount of manure or home-made compost into the new planting hole, feed it well each year with a pile of compost or manure in late winter, and make sure it is kept well-watered as it hates dry conditions, especially in the year following transplanting. If you can’t find someone to give you a section of their big plant’s root, small plants can be bought in pots from nurseries and garden centres, but these take a few years to grow to a useful size. Here are a couple of culinary rhubarb tips: 1. you can stew rhubarb with Stevia leaves or extract to sweeten it, instead of sugar; 2. you can add orange zest while cooking if you want to reduce the tendency of rhubarb to make your teeth feel funny.

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A healthy, delicious breakfast of muesli with freshly-picked home-grown berries.

Currant and gooseberry bushes grow very easily from cuttings. If you have time and know someone else who has currant or gooseberry bushes, cut off some 8-10 inch long twigs in the autumn and push them halfway into well-drained soil or compost. Give them a bit of protection from the weather, using a cloche, some garden fleece supported on sticks, or half a large plastic bottle (add air holes to the half which doesn’t have the spout). In the spring most or all of the cuttings will burst into life – new green leaves growing on the bare sticks. Transplant them or pot them up the following autumn when their root systems have grown. To save work, you could just push your cutting sticks into the ground where you want the bushes to eventually grow, but put 2 or 3 in each spot in case they don’t all succeed – thin them out later to just one in each spot.

It’s a bit quicker to obtain bushes that are already a year or two old. They will usually begin to fruit in their second or third year. Feed them with a good helping of home-made compost or well-rotted manure around their roots each winter, and once the bushes are a couple of feet high, prune them so that they are fairly open in the centre – people usually say soft fruit bushes should be ‘goblet shaped’. Always prune after harvest, not before. Redcurrants don’t like much pruning, but blackcurrants perform best if pruned hard (with a hedge trimmer or shears is OK!). Gooseberry bushes are so spiky and have a tendency for low growing branches to trail on the soil and root to form a thicket, so they are best shaped so that they have a clear vertical stem before bushing out (cut off the lower branches each year until you end up with this shape – be bold, it will make your life much easier).

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Raspberry crops can be prolific, which is good as they can be quite expensive in the shops. Eat them fresh, and any surplus can be turned into jam.

It’s good to mulch around your fruit bushes so that you don’t need to keep weeding around them. Weeds will compete with the bushes and reduce the crop considerably. You can mulch with a layer of cardboard or newspaper, topped with grass clippings, pulled-up weeds, or garden shreddings. Grass clippings without the cardboard will also do the job. It can also work well to plant strawberries around the base of fruit bushes, so that the strawberries form a productive ground cover. Leave a clear one foot/30cm circle of space around the roots of the bushes though so that you can feed the bushes with compost or manure each winter. Wood ash also makes an excellent fertilizer for soft fruit, so long as you’ve only been burning good clean firewood, rather than old scrapwood which may have been treated with preservative chemicals.

When planting currant or gooseberry bushes in the ground, a lot of novices plant them much too close together. Allow 1.5m or five feet between bushes. Each bush will eventually grow into something approximately the size of a washing machine! – hard to believe when you plant those little one-year old bushes. While the bushes are young you can use the empty space between them for other crops – onions for example.

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Strawberries grow so abundantly that you can easily run out of containers to put them in when picking.

You generally do not need to grow soft fruit in a fruit cage. If you like fruit cages and can afford one, by all means have one, though they can collapse in heavy snow, and you really should take the mesh off in the winter to allow birds to come in and eat pests. With no fruit cage, in some areas birds will be a problem and in others they won’t. Most likely you’ll only need to cover your redcurrant bushes from flowering until harvest, and everything else will be fine. You can cover bushes with old net curtains, or plastic fruit cage netting (peg it to the ground with string and tent pegs). If your redcurrant bushes are protected from birds, you can pick the berries from the bushes all summer long. Blackcurrants and gooseberries don’t ‘keep’ on the bushes and all have to be picked as soon as they are ripe.

How many bushes or plants do you need? Mature, healthy currant and gooseberry bushes each produce at least 10 lbs (5kg) of fruit, so for many families one redcurrant bush, one blackcurrant, and one gooseberry bush will be plenty. If you have lots of space and good appetites, two bushes of each might be good, but more than that and you’ll need help from friends to harvest and eat the berry crops. Ten or 20 raspberry canes, and 10 or 20 strawberry plants per family would also usually be enough. Add in a couple of blueberry bushes in tubs, and your family will be self-sufficient in soft fruit.

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Gooseberry bushes are thorny and will become tangled if not pruned, making the berries difficult to pick. They’re worth it though – they’re delicious when ripe, and they freeze well, so can be used all year.

Soft fruit grows reasonably well with neglect, so even if you aren’t the sort of person who is likely to do the feeding, pruning, and (maybe) covering at the right times, it’s still worth planting it. By far the most important process, after all, is the eating… and there’s nothing to compare with bringing home your own strawberries from the allotment, or wandering out to the balcony on a summer’s morning to pick berries for your bowl of muesli!

See here for a guide to growing all types of soft fruit.

 

Thanks to John Walker of Earth-friendly Gardener for information.


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