FREEPORT, Ill. — Watering at the base of berry plants will help avoid disease issues.

“Drip systems work great, but a soaker hose can work just as well,” said Bruce Black, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. “Water as close to the soil as possible to avoid getting the foliage wet.”

Water the plants during early morning or late afternoon, Black advised during a presentation at the Northern Illinois Berry School.

Fertilize strawberry plants before they are planted and during the spring of the second year of a planting, Black said.

“If your June-bearing plants don’t produce runners by mid-July, they need nitrogen,” he added.

When establishing new strawberry plants, Black said, gardeners need to remove flowers for the first six weeks.

“That will promote good root growth,” he explained.

Winter cover for strawberry plants can be a variety of items such as straw, mulch, pine needles, grass clippings or leaves.

“The cover should be 4 to 6 inches deep,” Black advised. “When the temperature gets to 15 degrees, the crown of the plant can be damaged if there’s not sufficient cover.”

After the temperature has been 70 degrees for a few days in the spring, Black said, the cover can be raked off the strawberry plants.

Harvest Highlights

Temperature management is key when harvesting strawberries to promote a longer shelf life.

“Harvest at the coolest parts of the day, either early morning or early evening,” Black advised. “The best way to tell if your berries are ready is to eat a sample.”

Although the sugar and acid content of a strawberry may change after the fruit is picked, Black said, the flavor of the strawberry does not develop past the time it was harvested.

“From picking strawberries to refrigeration, the time should be no more than one hour,” he said. “Store strawberries at 32 degrees and 95 percent relative humidity.”

Blueberry plants require 1 inch of water per week.

“You don’t want to see redden foliage, wilting, browning leaf margins, thin or weak shoots or early defoliation,” Black said. “If you see these things, that means the plants are getting too much water.”

Properly pruning blueberry plants is necessary for optimum fruit production. The first two years after planting new plants, gardeners should remove all flowers.

“Fruit is produced on 2- to 4-year-old canes,” Black said. “Prune your blueberry plants in late winter, January and February, when they are dormant and before bud swell.”

Black advised removing all 5-year-old wood, as well as any dead or diseased canes.

“Make your pruning cuts at the ground because that will send a hormonal response to the plant to make the buds under the ground start to grow into new canes,” he explained. “Each year, you want one to three new canes to grow on each plant.”

Blueberry Advice

Blueberries are ready to be picked when they have a fully blue color and they are firm. Refrigerate the fruit within one hour of harvest to help extend the shelf life to two weeks.

“Do not store blueberries with apples, pears, peaches, melons or grapes,” Black stressed. “Store your blueberries in a separate fruit drawer.”

Trellising is essential for both blackberry and raspberry plants to maintain good productivity and healthy plants, he stressed.

“Trellises will increase growth rate, improve fruit quality and size, increase sugar content, reduce disease susceptibility and help with ease of harvest,” he added.

For red raspberries, Black advised, construct a T-trellis with a wire three feet off the ground and posts 25 feet apart. A four-wire trellis is recommended for black raspberry and blackberry plants.

“Put the wires at 2.5, 3.5, 4.5 and 5.5 feet off the ground and the posts 25 feet apart,” Black said.

“Since raspberries are heavy feeders, they need to be fertilized in the spring before growth begins and in May during berry development,” he said.

“Raspberries are one of the most fragile and perishable of the fruits, so they can be stored for two to five days,” Black reported. “After just one day at room temperature, you will have gray mold growth on raspberries.”

Martha Blum can be reached at 815-223-2558, ext. 117, or marthablum@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow her on Twitter at: @AgNews_Blum.

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