Choosing What to Grow – Part V

If you’ll remember back in Part I, Gardener Jane included some fruits on her list of food her household frequently ate, which were apples, peaches, pears and strawberries, blackberries and blueberries.

Fruit trees are a relatively long term investment and even the most precocious take about 3 years to begin bearing.  Large nut trees like pecans and walnuts can take 10 years or more.  While those big nut trees may produce for a 100 years, peaches only produce until they are 10-15 years old.  Depending on the disease and pest pressure in your area, they may require frequent spraying with a variety of products on a schedule to stay healthy.  While Jane correctly identified the fruits they eat which can be grown in her area, the apples and peaches will, for her, require a fairly high level of commitment and attention.  Jane decides to put off considering fruit trees for a year while she focuses on her garden.

Small fruits, on the other hand, often begin bearing the second year, and in the case of strawberries the very first year.  Like most produce, berries are sold by the pound and at a fairly steep price.  It’s to the benefit of the growers to pump their berries as full of water as possible before selling since water is heavy, but this dilutes the taste.  And somewhere along the line Americans have been conditioned to perceive larger berries as more desirable, so the berries get larger and larger while acquiring no extra taste.

Since there are many blackberry bushes growing wild, Jane decides to begin with a bed of strawberries this year, and maybe work on blueberries next year.  Potted strawberry plants usually cost about $1.50 each, and are a bit cheaper in flats, but Jane asks around and finds something with an existing strawberry patch that needs it thinned.  So armed with a garden trowel, an old kitty litter bucket and some garden gloves, Jane acquires about 50 plants which are well-adapted to her area for the price of a hour or two of labor and some dirty knees.  Strawberries prolifically reproduce themselves be creating daughter plants on runners; in a couple of years Jane will have extra plants to pass on to another gardener, to use to expand her strawberry production or to sell.

Under good conditions, a single strawberry plant will produce 1 quart of strawberries per year.  At the cheapest in season prices, one quart of strawberries will cost $2.50, so even if Jane had purchased plants she was likely to at least break even with the first spring crop.

Small fruits are one of the best ways to get a lot of bang for your gardening buck.  They are low-maintenance, perennial, taste better than store-bought and pay for their investment quickly.  There are other perennial crops that can continue rewarding you year after year, especially if you live in a warmer climate, as part of a practice called permaculture, or “permanent agriculture.”  Because they are perennial, they can be integrated into your landscape instead of requiring dedicated space.  I grow strawberries as a ground cover under blueberries as a foundation planting on the shady side of the house, much as a another house might have azaleas and vinca.  While they are less productive than they would be in a more ideal spot, they turn what would otherwise be a non-productive spot into several quarts of berries each year.

A few of my favorite resources for getting started with edible landscaping are linked below and may be available from your local library or on intra-library loan.

Perennial Vegetables

Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape

Landscaping with Fruits and Vegetables

(By Nicole Castle)

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