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Grow spring fruit at home


Strawberries

Credit: iStock

Spring is blossom and Beauty. For me (and the birds) it’s also spring fruit time. Spring fruit is usually softer than mid- to late-summer fruit, more delicately flavoured but even more welcome. If you want homegrown fruit all year round, early spring fruits can be hardest to find, especially in cold climates.

Our garden goes down to -9ºC some years and regularly to -6ºC, with unexpected frosts even at Christmas time. But with the fruits below, we are happily munching and crumble making, and even making jam and freezing the surplus.

Strawberries

Finding the first ripe strawberry each year is one of the great Garden joys. Eating it is even better. Try to buy the old-fashioned berry varieties — those that do well in your climate; the new super-sweet ones lack the true berry fragrance and gorgeous sugar–acid balance that makes berry fruit so delectable.

Strawberries will produce a good crop the first year you plant them.

Strawberries will produce a good crop the first year you plant them. They prefer acid soil with plenty of humus and moisture: a casuarina mulch is excellent and will help prevent leaf spot. Keep strawberries moist: drip irrigation is excellent, mulch almost a necessity. Give them a scatter of blood and bone or old hen manure in winter.

Plant your runners in autumn or winter. Autumn planting is more usual in subtropical areas where a winter crop is wanted. You can plant the potted ones all year round. Set the runners out on their own small hills, or plant them about a handspan apart.

Buy virus-tested runners. Commercial growers replace runners every three years: the virus is spread by aphids and plants are usually infected by then. But the home gardener, with a smaller yield, needn’t bother. Several superb varieties grow from seed and don’t produce runners.

If you are choosing your own runners, try to take the first runner on a plant, and one that hasn’t flowered yet. Thin out beds as they become crowded.

Strawberries also grow well in pots, but choose a moisture-retentive potting mix and water really regularly (up to a couple of times a day in hot and/or windy weather).

Strawberries from seed
Alpine strawberries grow from seed, don’t produce runners and aren’t attractive to birds. New varieties are sweeter than the old cardboard ones, but are more attractive to birds, too. Try yellow alpine strawberries — the birds may not notice them.

Currants

These need cold winters, which may be why they aren’t seen as often in home gardens nowadays — few people know how to grow them. As long as you get a frost or two a year, you can grow currants. They bear fruit in two to three years.

Mulch them. Give red and white currants a yearly sprinkle of wood ash or comfrey, for potash. Black currants need more nitrogen. Give them a feed such as blood and bone in winter, or mulch them with a kilogram of manure per bush. Don’t prune red or white currants. Thin out black currants every few years as they fruit on new wood.

Loquats bloom from summer to winter and the fruit ripens in November.

Currants make superlative jam or you can just eat them fresh. They’re not particularly sweet, so you can guzzle them without worrying about a sugar high. They also combine to superb effect with the first of your bramble berries.

Loquats

These are tall, leathery-leafed trees. The old-fashioned varieties of fruit were mostly a giant seed with a small rim of fruit around it; new varieties have smaller seeds and sweeter fruit. Young trees are slightly frost-tender when small but, once established, tolerate extreme cold — as well as heat, drought and temporary flooding. Seedlings take up to 15 years to fruit, one of the few fruits where grafted trees do bear earlier. Loquats grow without any extra feeding, but a yearly mulch is good while they are young.

Loquats bloom from late summer to winter and the fruit ripens here in November. Eat them fresh, peel them for a fruit salad, stew them or make jam — loquat jam is magnificent.

Elderberries

These grow from cold to subtropical climates as far north as Rockhampton. Not all trees will bear fruit — I find we need two wet winters in a row to get a good fruit set — but when you do get fruit, it’s wonderful for a rich, almost blue-black jam, or added to fruit salad. Be careful you don’t use the stems, twigs or leaves in the jam, though, as they can be toxic. The fruit is ripe when it turns dark.

Cape gooseberry

These small, frost-sensitive bushes bear fruit in the first year. They are also one of the few fruits that love to grow in shade. They’ll grow — with care — in any climate but in dry areas they need mulch and water. We grow most of ours under other fruit trees, both for shade and to protect them from frosts. They are hit each winter, but grow back and fruit each summer. Birds can spread the seeds and in warmer areas they can become a weed.

Cape gooseberries carry their round, orange fruit in pale-brown paper lanterns. When the lantern turns pale brown, almost transparent, the fruit inside is yellow and ripe. They grow easily from seed.

Raspberries

There are dozens of raspberry varieties available from specialist nurseries. Some bear early in spring, some in summer and autumn, some in both spring and autumn. If you love raspberries, plant as many sorts as you can get. Raspberries grow best with cold winters, but in temperate to tropical climates you can try the native Atherton raspberries that bear in winter to spring. Other native raspberries are good, too, if you can find wild berries to use for seed.

Mulberries

You can rarely buy mulberries, as they turn to squish a day or so after picking. But they’re luscious in pies or fresh from the tree, or frozen then puréed into a smoothie. They also make a beautifully flavoured, deep-purple jam.

Plant bare-rooted trees in winter. Potted mulberries can be grown any time. Ours is a dwarf mulberry; it’s about two metres high and wide and gives us buckets of fruit. The birds love mulberries, too, but you can either exclude them with netting or just share the crop.

Silvanberry

These are a cultivated, non-invasive blackberry, suitable for cold to subtropical climates. They are large, shiny, very prickly and vigorous and have big, succulent, black berries. They ripen here about late November and fruit from then till early February — the longest cropping season of all the brambleberries. They’re sweet and luscious but don’t have the rich raspberry hints of some of the other brambleberries. However, if you are just growing one brambleberry – and are sure you’ll hack it back every winter — this is a good choice.



 

Jackie French

Jackie French is a gardener, ecologist, honorary wombat, 2014-2015 Australian Children's laureate, 2015 Senior Australian of the year and passionate believer in the need for all humans to feel part of the earth around them, by understanding the plants that sustain us.