Common small fruits cultivated by home gardeners include blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, kiwi, currants, and gooseberries. Less common small fruits, such as elderberries, juneberries, cranberries, and lingonberry, are also grown by home gardeners in our region. These delicious small fruits are prolific producers when you plant the right variety in the correct location, and deserve serious consideration when you are planning your garden.
There is a wealth of on-line information available to the home gardener on the cultivation of small fruits. For our area, two of the best on-line sources of general small fruit information is the WSU publication Growing Small Fruits for the Home Garden and the OSU Northwest Berry and Grape Information Network. The purpose of this page is not to duplicate the extensive information already available to the home gardener, but to provide a brief introduction to the major small fruit crops which grow in our region. The sites listed under Resources at the bottom of this page provide a starting point for obtaining detailed information on small fruits.
Small Fruit Gardening
As with other plantings, you should select small fruit plant species and cultivars based on your own specific gardening environment. While the cultivars mentioned on this page have been successfully grown in Western Washington, they are certainly not the only choices available to you. Nursery catalogues and websites are often good sources of information on the new cultivars constantly being developed. You may also want to contact your County Extension Office for the latest cultivar information.
Another key point when selecting small fruit species is the pollination needs of the plant. Some plants are fully self-pollinating, others will self-pollinate but produce better crops when another pollinator is present, and still other plants require another pollinator in the immediate area to produce a crop. Information on the pollination needs of various plants may be obtained from commercial catalogues and websites, university sources like those listed at the bottom of this page, and your County Extension Office.
Most small fruit crops grow best in full sun. Avoid planting them in shady locations or where large trees and shrubs will compete with them for moisture and nutrients. Also avoid exposed locations where the plants may be subjected to drying winds.
Avoid planting berries in locations where potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, or eggplants have grown in the last 3 years, for the soil may contain harmful diseases. Raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries are sensitive to soils which remain wet for long periods of time, a common situation in Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties. Additionally, blueberries tend to prefer very acidic soils (a pH range of 4.5 to 5.5), so have your soil tested and amend it as necessary.
The longevity of small fruit plants varies widely. Strawberries may remain productive for 3 to 5 years, cane berries for 15 to 20 years, and blueberries may remain productive from 40 to 100 years. Planting some small fruit varieties is a long-term investment, so select your site carefully.
Blackberries are members of the genus Rubus, and are common in western Washington. Blackberry canes grow from a central root mass. While the blackberry plant is perennial, living for many years, the individual blackberry canes are biennial, living for only two years. The first-year canes with only vegetative growth are called primocanes, and the second-year canes that bear flowers and fruit are called floricanes. Primocanes grow for one year, overwinter, set fruit as floricanes the next year, and then die.
The blackberry fruit that we enjoy is actually an aggregate fruit, composed of a cluster of small, round drupelets surrounding a central core. Each of the individual drupelets has a fleshy outer covering surrounding a seed. In blackberries each of the fruit clusters comes from a single flower; blackberries are self-fertile, eliminating the need for an additional pollinizer cultivar. Unlike a raspberry, when a blackberry is picked the core remains inside of the fruit cluster.
There are three types of blackberries: trailing, semi-erect, and erect. The canes of trailing blackberries naturally trail along the ground, so they must be trained onto a trellis. Semi-erect varieties, while more rigid than the trailing varieties, also require a trellis. Erect varieties have stiff canes that usually don't require a trellis or other support.
Depending on the cultivar, blackberries ripen from mid-June to mid-October. Blackberry cultivars vary greatly as to growth habit, fruit size, appearance, and flavor. Common trailing cultivars are "Silvan", "Marion", "Kotata", and "Thornless Evergreen". Some of the erect cultivars available are "Cherokee", "Navaho", and "Arapaho". Semi-erect cultivars include "Black Satin", "Chester Thornless", and "Triple Crown". There are also several red raspberry/blackberry hybrids, including "Logan", "Tayberry", "Boysen", and "Young".
Blackberries generally are more tolerant of varying soil conditions than are red raspberries. While they can usually tolerate heavy soil conditions, avoid sites with standing water in the winter. Plant in locations that receive full sun. Many problems can be prevented or controlled by selecting the site carefully, encouraging air movement through the plant, picking the fruit regularly, providing proper support, and removing spent floricanes.
Raspberries are also members of the genus Rubus, and have growth habits and cultural characteristics which are similar to blackberries. The plants are perennial, with the roots living for many years, while the individual canes are biennial. Raspberry canes grow as vegetative primocanes the first year, overwinter, flower and fruit as floricanes the second year, then die.
Raspberry fruits are also aggregate fruits, with numerous drupelets surrounding a central core. The most significant difference between the fruits of raspberries and blackberries is that when the fruit is picked the central core pulls out of the raspberry fruit while remaining in the blackberry fruit. Raspberries are also self-fertile, eliminating the need for an additional pollinizer cultivar. While most raspberry fruits are red, some varieties have black, purple, or amber fruit colors.
There are two basic types of raspberry cultivars: summer-bearing and fall-bearing. The summer-bearing raspberries produce a single fruit crop in June/July, and are considered to be the best varieties for high volume fruit production and freezing. There are many different summer-bearing raspberries available, including "Chilliwack", "Meeker", "Cumberland", and "Brandywine". Summer-bearing raspberries need to be supported on a trellis.
Fall-bearing raspberries are usually grown for fresh eating. In July to October fall-bearing raspberries produce an initial fruit crop on the top portion of the current season's primocane, which will then become floricanes the second year and produce a second crop in June/July of that year. This unusual fruiting pattern is the reason that fall-bearing raspberries are often called "everbearing" raspberries, for they produce fruit on both the first- and second-year cane growth. Some of the fall-bearing raspberries are "Heritage", "Summit", and "Fallgold". Fall-bearing raspberries are often grown in a hedgerow.
Raspberries are more sensitive to their environment than blackberries. The soil should be well-drained, lighter in texture than for blackberries, and have a high organic content. Raspberries also require full sun. As with blackberries, many problems can be prevented or controlled by selecting the site carefully, encouraging air movement through the plant, picking the fruit regularly, providing proper support, and removing spent floricanes.
Highbush blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum, are a wonderful choice for your garden - if you have the right conditions. These long-lived deciduous shrubs, which can grow to 6 feet in height, produce abundant white to pinkish urn-shaped flower clusters in late April to early May. Many cultivars have colorful stems, and in autumn some cultivars display striking yellow-to-scarlet foliage before the leaves fall. Blueberry plants benefit from pruning out older, woody stems.
The blueberry fruit is small and round, grows in clusters on the stems, and is a rich blue in color when ripe. Harvest is from early July through mid-September, depending on the cultivar, with the blueberries picked at 3- to 5-day intervals. Young plants generally do not begin to bear fruit until they are between 4 and 5 years old. Mature plants can yield as many as 20 to 25 pounds of berries in a single growing season. Blueberries are self-fertile, but plant at least two different cultivars near one another to ensure optimum fruit set and size.
Highbush blueberry cultivars are usually grouped by time of ripening. Early-season cultivars include "Spartan" and "Olympia", mid-season include "Blueray" and "Nelson", and late-season include "Darrow" and "Elliot". There are also "half-high" blueberry cultivars, which are smaller and usually more cold-hardy than their highbush relatives. Some of the half-high cultivars include "Polaris" and "Northcountry". Remember to plant more than one cultivar to maximize fruit production.
Blueberries prefer moderate summer temperatures and acidic soils (pH between 4.5 and 5.5). They are generally cold tolerant, surviving midwinter temperatures as low as -20 and -25 degrees F. Blueberries will not tolerate poorly drained soils, so plant in an area where the subsurface water table is at least 14 inches below the surface, provide drain tiles, or plant in raised beds. Although they do not like saturated soils, blueberries benefit from irrigation during the dry summer months. Blueberries should be planted in full sun.
Strawberries, Fragaria ananassa, are a small fruit crop well adapted to Washington's climate. Strawberries are a low-growing hebacious perennial, spreading out by runners from a central crown/root structure. Even with excellent care strawberry plantings will only be productive for about 5 years, at which time the bed will need to be renovated or replaced.
The strawberry fruit itself is the swollen receptacle of the flower. The individual achenes or seeds on the berry's surface result from bee pollination and fertilization. The giant strawberries seen in the market are quite impressive, but usually have an inferior flavor when compared to the smaller local cultivars.
There are two types of strawberries that are grown in our region: June-bearing and day-neutral or everbearing. With June-bearing cultivars the flower buds initially form in August and September when the days get shorter, then blossom around May of the next year, followed by a June harvest. Common June-bearing cultivars include "Hood", "Benton", "Shuksan" and "Rainier".
Day-neutral strawberries are not governed by day length, but set their flowers and fruit simultaneously from June through October, with the best fruit seen earlier in the season. Common day-neutral cultivars include "Tillikum", "Selva", and "Tristar".
Strawberries need a sunny spot with good drainage and organic-rich soil. The optimum soil pH for strawberries is 6.0 to 6.5.
Kiwi is a native of China. It is a dioecious (has separate male and female plants) perennial vine which can become quite large at maturity (up to 30 feet long), requiring a substantial arbor or trellis for support.
The kiwi vine produces numerous large egg-shapes fruits which ripen late in October. Depending on the cultivar, the fruit may be either fuzzy or smooth. Each vine is harvested 3 or 4 times as the fruit ripens. While the vines will not produce fruit for the first 4 years, at maturity each vine may produce up to 200 pounds of fruit.
Although there are some self-fertile kiwi cultivars, normally one male kiwi plant of the same variety is required to pollinate 6 to 10 female plants. The male kiwi vines flower profusely, but do not produce fruit.
The most common commercial kiwi cultivar grown in the Pacific Northwest is the fuzzy kiwi Actinidia deliciosa "Hayward". More hardy kiwi cultivars include A. arguta "Hardy Kiwi" (smooth skinned fruit) and A. kolomikta "Arctic Beauty" (needs shade).
Plant kiwi in a sunny, wind protected and well-drained site. While kiwi plants are normally winter-hardy, avoid sites prone to early fall freezes or late spring frosts.
Currants and Gooseberries
Currants, Ribes sativum, are fast-growing deciduous shrubs. The plant is a multiple-stemmed clump, to 5 feet high and as broad.
Currant flowers are borne toward the bases of one-year old stems and on spurs on older stems. They appear in early spring with the new growth. Each flower bud opens to number of flowers (up to 20), joined together on a delicate, drooping 5 - 6 inch stem, called a strig.
Fully set strigs will be a pendulous chain of small berries. The berries contain 3 - 12 minute, bony seeds. Yields vary greatly, depending on growing conditions and cultivar. Anywhere from three pounds to over ten pounds may be harvested from a single bush.
Recommended red currant cultivars are "Red Lake", "Perfection", and "Wilder". A good white cultivar is "White Imperial". Black currant cultivars include "Consort" and "Crusader", both of which are considered rust resistant. Currants ripen in late July in Western Washington, normally over a 2-week period.
Ribes are quite tolerant of a wide range of soils and can tolerate heavier-textured soils better than many other small fruit crops. While they will survive heavier soils, these crops grow and produce best on deep, well-drained soils. Best fruit production generally requires a full sun exposure, but they will be productive in partial shade.
Gooseberries, Ribes grossularia, are deciduous shrubs, fast growing under optimum conditions to 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide. The stems are thin, becoming woody, with a large thorn at each axil. American gooseberry stems are densely bristly, with one or more additional thorns at each axil.
The inconspicuous flowers, green with pink flushed petals, open in early spring. The flowers are self-fertile and pollinated by wind and insects, including bees.
The fruit, borne singly or in pairs at the axils, is a berry with many minute seeds at the center. A gooseberry may be green, white (gray-green), yellow, or shades of red from pink to purple to almost black. Average yield from one gooseberry bush is between eight and ten pounds of fruit. Gooseberries ripen from mid-June through early July. Gooseberries mature over a 4- to 6-week period, and are harvested when they attain full size.
Gooseberry cultivars worth considering are "Poorman" (red), "Pixwell" (pink), "Oregon Champion" (green, thornless bushes), or "Captivator" (pink).
Gooseberry plants are less finicky about soil acidity than most other small fruits, and tolerate a wide range of soils, except those that are waterlogged. They are most productive in full sunlight, but they will be productive in partial shade.
Washington State University Extension Bulletins.
Hortsense. WSU Extension. Look under the Small Fruits section for pest control information.
WSU-Mount Vernon Horticulture.
Small fruit articles from the Monthly Regional Garden Column, WSU Extension Library.
Northwest Berry and Grape Information Network. Oregon State University. The premier source of production and market information for berries in the Pacific Northwest. Detailed information on the cultivation of grapes, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, kiwi fruit, huckleberries, currants, and goosberries.
Cornell Fruit Resources Cornell University. Includes a wealth of information on fruit trees, grapes, and berries.
"Sustainable Gardening". WSU Cooperative Extension Publication EM8742. This is the text used to train Master Gardeners.