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Growing berries in the North Country

Professor of entomology Greg Loeb works with doctoral students at a Cornell AgriTech strawberry low tunnel field in 2018.  (Provided photo —Justin Muir, Cornell University)

On Saturday Nov. 9, you’ll have an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of home garden and small scale berry production, when Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County and Bonesteel’s Gardening Center, in North Bangor welcome retired CCE regional horticulture specialist Amy Ivy for a morning of relaxed, informal learning and casual, lively discussion.

This is an exceptional opportunity to ask questions and share experiences about varieties, fruit quality, cultural practices (site selection, establishment and maintenance), pest management, and harvest and handling, and to examine the techniques and marketing methods used by North Country growers. CCE community educator Jessica Prosper, who will also be there, can serve as a resource for information and assistance related to regulations, small farm operations, alternative agriculture and diversification.

    There are several types of cultivated berries grown in northern New York. Among the most popular are strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, although several other minor fruits (e.g. currants, gooseberries) are grown as well. Starter plants are relatively inexpensive and once established, the plantings are reasonably easy to maintain. They last for years, and the fruit is incredibly flavorful when picked fresh. What’s more, you can make some pretty good money growing berries. In fact, berries can return the highest dollar value per square foot of any garden crop you can plant.

    Before you dive in, however, there are a lot of factors that require consideration. First, you need to choose the best possible site and varieties. Soil type can greatly affect plant growth and susceptibility or resistance to insects and diseases. So can weather conditions. For example, berry crops don’t like “wet feet” and are rather susceptible to diseases associated with wet soil conditions. What’s more, the preferred conditions for, say, strawberries and raspberries are quite different than those for blueberries.

    And you also need to consider planting times, spacing, mulching, pruning, training, weed management, pests and pesticides (insects, diseases, birds, animals, weeds), intermixing fruit plantings with vegetable and flower gardens, turf and landscape plants. And if you plan to sell at least some of your berries, marketing and economics.

Two unusual Cornell raspberry varieties: Double Gold bears deeply blushed, golden champagne-colored fruit in two crops per season, and Crimson Night produces heavy crops of shiny, dark fruit. (Photos provided — Berry Breeder Courtney Webber, associate professor and Horticulture Program leader, Cornell AgriTech)

    There just might be a little more to growing berries than you realize. For example, knowledge of the selected growing site’s history and weed pressure, and the techniques used for controlling specific weeds in established plantings, along with an understanding of cover crop management before planting, can significantly improve production efficiency.

    Then there’s the use of disease- resistant cultivars, which cannot be emphasized enough. The most widely acknowledged disease-resistant hybrid berry varieties are the result of decades, sometimes centuries of improvements made possible through natural selection and breeding. They offer superior flavor, texture and color, and can be grown by home gardeners and small-scale producers with moderate ease. They’re popular with consumers and widely utilized by the food processing industry.

    Interestingly enough, a number of the smaller-market and home gardeners that I’ve talked with over the years say they take little or no action to manage insects in berry plantings. Some claim that intermixing fruit plantings with vegetable and flower gardens, landscape plants and/or turf helps keep insect populations at readily manageable levels. This type of companion planting appears to reduce the spread of disease organisms as well, which gives home and smaller-scale market gardeners a distinct advantage over larger commercial growers.

    In fact, with few exceptions, larger berry plantings always require some pesticide treatment to control disease. The pesticides needed and the frequency of application depends on the cultivars. Commercial growers generally rely on scouting, knowledge of pathogens and disease biology, sanitation and other specific cultural practices and the use of pesticide applications or biological agents as needed.

    Proper management is essential for successful production (and marketing) of high-quality fruit. Insect pests, diseases and weeds can all quickly become costly problems for growers of every ability. But insects, diseases and weeds can all be controlled. And retired extension specialist for eastern New York Amy Ivy can show you how. This is a great chance to learn from and meet with a highly respected horticulturist and an opportunity to share your ideas and concerns with Amy, Jessica, the Bonesteels and other gardeners and producers.

Cornell’s berry breeding program recently released a new strawberry variety, Dickens. (Provided photo — Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

    Whether you’re a seasoned berry grower or just considering growing berries at home, you won’t want to miss this event. We look forward to seeing you there.

If you go …

When: Saturday, Nov. 9,

10 a.m. to noon

Adult spotted-wing drosophila (SWD) is seen on a on blueberry. Cornell researchers first discovered SWD in New York in 2011. (Provided photo —Tim Martinson, Cornell AgriTech)

How much: $10

Where: Bonesteel’s Gardening Center, 2689 State Route 11, North Bangor 12966

Info: 518-483-7403 or Jlr15@cornell.edu

Registration: franklin.cce.cornell.edu/program-payment