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The sweet rewards of berries

Special to The Times

Little fruits with explosive flavors -- blueberries, boysenberries and strawberries -- are especially tasty straight from the garden. And without question, the best way to start a berry patch is from bare-root plants, sold December through February. And because first-rate crops rest on careful selection and committed care, fall is the time for planning.

All these berries prefer sun, but some hate hot weather, so choose cultivars for your climate zone. They all want rich, fast-draining acidic soil, which must be created and artificially sustained in this region. Frequent watering and feeding are crucial. The payoff for such demands: sweet nutritious fruit, and bushes, brambles or trailing perennials that double as ornamentals.

Most handsome are the blueberry bushes, with bluish leaves that redden before dropping for the winter. By early spring, pink manzanita-like flowers appear on their naked stems. Marc Hall, of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, grows a dependable producer called ‘Sunshine Blue’ at his Ontario home. It’s a self-pollinating Southern Highbush cultivar, well-suited to this climate. Rabbit-eye types are also good choices, but at least two different varieties are needed for good fruit set.

Depending on the variety, blueberry plants grow 3- to 6-feet high, and fruit ripen from late spring into August. Hall grows his in containers, where it’s easier to control the drainage and pH. To fill each 24-inch barrel, he blends two-thirds azalea and camellia mix with one-third pathway bark, plus about one-half cup soil sulfur and one cup cottonseed meal. To bolster acidity, he scratches a little soil sulfur into the soil surface every couple of months.

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His strawberries are also in pots, set a foot apart and interplanted with chives. For soil, he combines cactus mix with generous amounts of oak leaf mold and a handful of organic fertilizer. To prevent rot, strawberries must be planted with their crowns high. Once they start fruiting, he douses monthly with liquid fish emulsion. Old-fashioned short-day varieties need a long, cool winter to bud up for their big spring crop. Hall’s preferred variety is ‘Chandler,’ an ever-bearing type that fruits almost continuously from mid-spring through fall.

Alpine or wood strawberries are “really like dessert.” He’s grown red ‘Improved Rugen’ and yellow ‘Pineapple Crush,’ available bare-root or in containers, and the delicate ‘Mignonette,’ sold by Renee’s Garden Seeds. They’re excellent as low edging plants or in pots and bear intermittently throughout the warm months

Hall’s passion for berries dates back to childhood and started with brambles and canes. The thornless boysenberries (a type of blackberry) lashed to a trellis in his garden were propagated from his mother’s plants. They share space with ‘Ollalieberry’ (another blackberry) and ever-bearing ‘Heritage’ raspberries. Multiple varieties ensure a long harvest.

The bed was enriched with compost and cottonseed meal, and mulched with oak leaf mold. A soaker hose waters weekly during warm weather. Monthly feedings of kelp solution add nitrogen and micronutrients.

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Marc Hall’s “Berry Basics” workshop will be from 10 a.m. to noon Monday at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. Reservations requested; $18; call (626) 821-4624.

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Grow your own Bare-root berries arrive in local nurseries around Dec. 15. Look for plump stems and roots; strawberries should have fresh green foliage.

Bay Laurel Nursery, 2500 El Camino Real, Atascadero, CA 93422; (805) 466-3406, www.baylaurel nursery.com

One Green World, 28696 S. Cramer Road, Molalla, OR 97038; (877) 353-4028

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To learn more:

“The Berry Grower’s Companion” by Barbara L. Bowling, Timber Press, 2000; and “Art of Preserving” by Jan Berry, Ten Speed Press, 1997.

* ucce.ucdavis.edu/counties/ceventura/Agriculture265/Blueberries.htm


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