FREEPORT, Ill. — Soil is the most important consideration when selecting a site for a new berry patch.
“You want to plant in fertile and well-drained soil because fruits don’t like wet feet,” said Candice Miller, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. “It is best to plant on a slightly elevated site or on a slope.”
After selecting the site, Miller said, take a soil test.
“Most berries prefer slightly acidic soil and blueberries need acidic soil,” she noted.
“Add organic matter such as compost, manure, leaves or grass clippings, which will add nutrients to the soil and improve soil texture,” Miller said during the Northern Illinois Berry School.
Don’t plant berry plants at a site where a vegetable garden has been planted within the last three to five years.
“Verticillium wilt can stay in the soil so choose a different site if tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or melons were planted there,” she advised.
November and December are great times for gardeners to order new berry plants from supply companies.
“Make sure you get plants that are virus free because there is no cure for a virus,” Miller stressed.
Selecting cultivars to plant is a personal choice depending on the goal of the gardener.
“If you are growing berries for fresh eating, you might want a larger berry,” Miller said. “If you are going to do preserving and making jams or jellies, you might want a smaller berry with a sweeter taste.”
If the new plants have disease resistance, that will help avoid future issues and it is important to select plants that are winter hardy to the zone where they are planted.
“If you are growing berries for a farmers market, you should choose several cultivars so you can extend the period of time you have the berries available,” Miller said.
Gardeners have the option to plant June-bearing or day-neutral strawberries. June-bearing plants produce one crop during late spring. Day-neutral plants will flower and fruit continuously during the growing season unless it gets too hot.
It is important to plant berry plants at the proper depth so the roots are below the ground and the crown is just above the soil level.
“If you plant them too deeply, the plants can rot and if they are planted too high, they will dry out,” Miller explained. “And plant them on a cloudy day or later in the day to avoid transplant shock.”
Blueberry plants require an acidic soil that has a pH between 4.8 and 5.2 to produce fruit and thrive.
“If the soil pH is too high, the iron becomes unavailable for the plant,” Miller said. “The leaves of the plant will turn yellow and the plant will die.
“To change the pH you can add sphagnum peat moss at planting, which will act quickly to reduce the pH,” she said.
About four weeks after planting, gardeners should start fertilizing the blueberry plants with one ounce of ammonium sulfate in a band at the drip line. “Increase that amount every year by one ounce until you get to eight ounces,” Miller said.
In addition to selecting from red, black, purple or yellow raspberries, gardeners can also select from summer-bearing or ever-bearing plants.
“Plant raspberries in rows that will form hedgerows,” she said. “Red and yellow raspberries will produce root suckers but black and purple plants do not produce root suckers.”
Summer-bearing raspberries will produce one crop of fruit per year on 2-year-old canes.
“The first year the plant will be vegetative and the second year it will produce raspberries,” Miller said.
“Mulching is great for raspberries because it helps keep the weeds down and maintains the soil moisture,” she said.
Blackberry plants are available as either thorny or thornless.
“When we breed for thornless, these plants lose a lot of their winter hardiness,” Miller reported.
“Cut the top of the blackberry plants back to 6 inches at planting,” Miller said. “Cultivation and mulching for blackberries is similar to raspberries.”