Fruit! Glorious Fruit!
Of all the crops I grow on my plot, by far, the ones that give me the best return in terms of cost, time and harvest are the soft fruits. So if you don’t grow them just now or are taking over a new plot and wondering what to plant, here are my Fab 4 which will provide you with delicious fresh fruit throughout the growing season. They share some common traits; they provide an abundant harvest; are not particularly prone to pests or diseases, and they require a minimum of maintenance and pruning – I estimate 7 hours a year. Each requires similar ground preparation i.e. fork the ground over thoroughly, remove all traces of perennial weeds, apply a couple of handfuls of bone meal per square meter and add some well rotted manure. Be generous, the plants will be there for years and years. After the preparation I promise you, your hardest work will be picking the fruit!
Rhubarb: April – June.
Although technically a vegetable, as we eat the stalk and not the fruit, I include it as most regard it as fruit and mainly we eat it as a dessert.
Leave the plant for the first year to allow the root to develop. In the second year you can crop stalks from early April until the end of June. Thereafter, leave so the plant will build up its strength for the next year. When the leaves die down mulch them with your own compost or manure. I grow an early and late variety, to extend the season, but I don’t know what they are called as I inherited them from the previous plot holder 15 years ago! Timperly Early and Victoria are two well known varieties. Well before the rhubarb is finished you will be cropping gooseberries, the second of my Fab 4.
Gooseberries: June – July.
The bush will not produce much in the first year. In the following February apply a mulch of your own compost and a good couple of handfuls of Sulphate of Potash. By June you will have a good crop of berries. To thin out the crop take some of the unripe berries for pies and jams. This allows the remaining fruit to fully develop and ripen, green varieties will develop a slightly yellow colour and be yielding to the touch.
Gooseberries are the only one of my Fab 4 which requires a bit of pruning but don’t let that put you off as the plant is tough and won’t pass away if you make a mistake. From planting allow a leg – a central stem of about 6 to 9 inches – to develop. From that aim for a cupped hand shape with 4/5 up stretched fingers. After fruiting, reduce the side shoots to 5 leaves- this is where next year’s fruit will form. Keep the fingers to a reasonable length by snipping the tips. That’s all you need to do-as easy as that! I grow Careless, a traditional variety and Pax , a red one which is nearly thornless for easy picking. By late June you will be picking your first strawberries.
Strawberries:Late June – July.
These fruits are the easiest to grow and arguably the best. Nothing like sinking your teeth into a luscious ripe strawberry freshly picked on a warm June morning! They crop June into July and even in the first year you will get a reasonable crop. Use mats or a mulch of straw to keep the berries off the ground. In an established bed you need to pick them every 2/3 days even if there is no sun. If there is sun get ready for an avalanche of fruit. After fruiting cut the leaves back to within an inch of the crown and give them a sprinkling of Sulphate of Potash. I grow Marchmello from Marshalls. Don’t over order as the young plants send out so many runners they will double in the first year. Next are the autumn fruiting raspberries.
Raspberries: Mid August- Mid October.
Although there is a slight gap between the strawberries and raspberries you can take advantage of the rock bottom prices in the shops due to summer glut. Autumn fruiting raspberries are called Primocane as they fruit on the canes that have grown that year. There is no need to tie in, provide supports or netting. The birds seem to have enough food elsewhere and leave my berries alone. To be frank the raspberries crop so abundantly the birds are welcome to a taste! In the winter you cut the canes right down to the ground and in February mulch them with compost or manure and some Sulphate of Potash- then watch them shoot away. Too much growth will result in too many small berries. I restrict the new shoots to 4/5 when the young canes are about a foot long. I grow Autumn Bliss, a traditional variety with a truly gorgeous flavor and Joan J a more modern variety, very good flavor with some of the biggest berries I have every seen. The raspberries send out roots everywhere so you will be very popular with other plot holders as you can supply them with near endless root cuttings!
So there you go, the Fab 4 will give you a stream of delicious healthy fresh fruit from April to October. Adding a late cropping apple tree will take you into November. Freezing your summer surplus will take you into the New Year. Just as the early rhubarb bulbs appear, heralding next year’s abundance of Fruit! Glorious Fruit!
Note: As summer ends and clear spots develop on your plot now is the perfect time to do the preparation for any of the Fab 4. If you can lay your hands on the plants they all benefit from autumn planting. If you can’t source the plants, do the work, sow green manure and just dig it in prior to spring planting.
John and Monica McKinlay, Craigentinny Allotments.