Summer is the perfect time of year to cultivate your home-grown berries. The warm, sunny weather is ideal for growing a bumper harvest - and with a little care and know-how, you'll soon have your own fresh fruit on demand.
It's important to know when and how to harvest berries, as they have a short shelf life. Harvesting them at the correct time means they can be enjoyed when they are at their sweetest, and it also avoids waste.
In the UK, we're lucky to have the type of climate that enables us to grow many different types of berries. These include strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, redcurrants, blackberries, blueberries, loganberries, elderberries and goji berries.
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Growing berries in hot weather
In the current high temperatures, it's important to look after your crops properly. Although berries are easy to grow in a moderate climate, it can be a different story in a heatwave. Some crops can be particularly challenging to grow in a hot climate, such as raspberries, blueberries and strawberries.
With a little extra effort, you can achieve a degree of success. One tip is to ensure the PH levels in your soil are not too alkaline, as this can make the fruit crops weaker in the first place. One sign that your soil has high alkaline levels is when the plants' leaves start going yellow.
Secondly, in extreme heat, you can try growing berries in containers, so that you can move them round into shady spots during the day, rather than leaving them in the direct sunlight. In extreme heat, it can be sufficient to leave berries in the morning sunlight until around 10am, but then move them into shade before the hottest time of the day at around noon.
Some fruit plants thrive in hot temperatures, such as blackberries. They can also handle a slightly alkaline soil. You can offset excessively-high alkalinity by adding soil sulphur, peat moss, pine mulch and compost. A trellis may be needed to support heavy crops of blackberries.
When are your berries ready for picking?
The easiest way to decide whether your crop can be picked is primarily to let what you see be your guide. The colour and size of the fruit is an indicator of how ripe the berries are. Berries change from green to a more vibrant colour - anything from red and orange to purple and blue, with many variations. It's easy to see when the fruit is ripe.
As well as the colour, you will start to smell the berries as they begin to ripen. The aroma will get stronger and you will realise they're reaching peak quality. You can even eat a little of the fruit before you start, to check that it's ready for harvest. Touch the berries to make sure they are soft.
The best time to harvest any type of berry is in the early morning before it gets too hot. This is the time when their sweetness is at its peak. It's also helpful for you that it's the coolest time of day, so you're not out labouring in the heat of the midday sun.
Can you freeze berries?
Berries can be frozen easily without any problems. It is best to freeze them as soon as possible after they have been picked if you're not going to eat or use them straight away. This means they will still taste fresh when defrosted.
They can be frozen to thaw out later for use in sauces or pies, or they can be used for ice-cold smoothies if you put them in a blender straight from the freezer.
When you freeze them, they can lose their shape if packed too tightly, which can make them lose their juiciness too. Put them in freezer bags that aren't packed too tightly. Then, let them thaw on a baking sheet or in a bowl, in case the bags leak as they defrost.
Which birds steal berries?
One thing you must remember when growing and harvesting your own berries is that you’re not the only one interested in your crop! The last thing you want is to start picking them, only to find half of them have been pecked at and ruined.
Quite a lot of common bird species eat berries and they can quickly demolish your crop if you're not careful! Blackbirds enjoy sampling berries - in fact, they seem to like most berry varieties and will appear the moment the fruit is ready to eat, as if by magic!
House sparrows, in particular, seem to flock into gardens where berries are growing and will tuck in to feed noisily. They can wipe out a crop in a very short time if a small flock of sparrows arrives en masse.
Berries are a vital food source for many species of bird during colder weather when the ground is hard and they can't forage for worms. Some birds, such as redwings, song and mistle thrushes, blackbirds and fieldfares, get most of their winter nutrition from berries, but it's better that they eat wild berries, instead of consuming the fruits of your labour!
Protect your crop with Henry Cowls' fruit cages - a kind and harmless way to deter the birds.