Found in hedgerows nationwide, blackberries can be unbelievably expensive in the shops, yet amazingly easy to grow yourself to add to crumbles, mousses and pies. Even if you don't have much space, there's a blackberry for you as you can buy compact varieties and one plant is usually enough to provide a harvest of around 3.6kg (8lbs) of berries. Allow a 2m (6ft) run of fence for compact varieties and water well until established, adding well-rotted organic matter every spring. They will need wires to tie in the canes. In the first spring, prune the strongest stems to within 25-30cm (10-12in) of soil level to encourage new, vigorous shoots. With established plants, prune by removing old stems which have already borne fruit, which makes space for new fruiting canes. The annual prune should be done when the fruit has been picked. Training in a new set of canes should be done at the same time. They should be ready for picking from late summer, when the fruits are jet black and slightly soft. Good varieties include the thornless 'Loch Ness', a compact type which produces berries from mid-August, and 'Fantasia', which bears huge berries in late August.
Apricot trees are hardy but they hate frost so throw old net curtains or fleece over a flowering tree if a cold night is predicted to stop the flowers being nipped by frost. It's often best to hand pollinate the flowers if there aren't many bees about in early spring by dabbing a small paintbrush into all the open flowers throughout the flowering season. They are self-compatible so you don't need a partner for cross-pollination. If you have limited space, buy a dwarf variety for a pot but remember to water frequently, especially in summer when they are carrying fruit, or the fruits may fall off prematurely.
Although technically a vegetable most of us consider rhubarb a fruit. However, you brand it, one thing for sure is that the good old rhubarb has undergone something of a revival in the last few years, with restaurants serving up good old fashioned rhubarb crumble, maybe with a hint of ginger, and a little work now can ensure a good supply of strong, tender stalks. It's extremely easy to grow and you can start now, planting dormant crowns in a richly manured spot with fairly heavy soil. It often does well near compost heaps, making the most of the rich run-off in the soil. If you can find a spot in full sun, even better, as the sun will encourage the stems to develop a redder hue and a sweeter flavour. It can be picked as required between April and July. Established rhubarb crowns can be forced now for the earliest tender stems. Forcing excludes light from the growing crown, by the use of a rhubarb forcer or just an up-turned bucket. Keeping the crowns in the dark encourages the plant to send out tender young stems, which are forced upwards looking for light. Heaping compost, straw or well-rotted manure around the forcer or bucket will generate a bit more warmth and they will start producing even sooner. Pull the stems as you need them until the end of March, but then uncover the plant, allowing it to grow naturally, for the rest of the season.
If you have overcrowded raspberry canes and you want a good harvest, it may help to thin out unwanted shoots in spring. By allowing too many new canes to develop, the plants' energy will be channelled into developing these new canes rather than boosting the fruit production. Overcrowded rows will make it more difficult to access the plants and will reduce the amount of sunshine the fruits receive. Congested canes also lead to poor air circulation, which can make the plants more susceptible to fungal diseases such as grey mould (botrytis). Cut back fruited canes on summer-fruiting raspberries to ground level after harvesting and do the same in February with autumn-fruiting varieties.
Strawberries are so easy to grow and the home-grown harvests taste so different to the shop-bought ones, it's worth devoting a little patch of your garden or even a simple strawberry planter to have a go. Ideally, it's best to plant them in August or September to allow them to establish to give you a good crop the following summer. Strawberries should be planted in a sunny, sheltered spot in humus-rich, fertile, well-drained soil. Don't plant them close to where you've grown potatoes, chrysanthemums or tomatoes or they may succumb to verticillium wilt. Space the plants 45cm (18in) apart in rows 90cm (3ft apart), although they can be much closer in containers. In early spring, apply a sprinkling of sulphate of potash to the bed and when the first fruits appear in early summer, spread straw to make a collar around the plants, suppressing weeds and stopping the fruit from being splashed, which can make them go mouldy. You can also cover the fruit with netting to protect it from the birds. Once the harvest is over, use shears to clip the plants to remove old fruit stems, leaves and runners, and feed the bed with a general purpose fertiliser, to encourage them to crop again next year.
If you want a good crop of delicious gooseberries this summer, pruning them in in March or early April will not only keep them in shape but will help them grow back more strongly, as the air can circulate more easily, so avoiding mildew problems. Fruits form on old wood and around the base of last year's growth, so prune back the previous year's growth to two buds, cutting out dead wood and any crossing branches and cut back by a half any new growth shooting from the main branches. Aim to create a plant with a wine glass shape, cutting back sideshoots to 5-7.5cm (2-3in), cutting just beyond an upward-facing bud. After mulching, feed and mulch your plants. Gooseberries are notoriously prickly bushes, so to make picking less painful, look for thornless varieties such as 'Captivator' or 'Pax'. For a delicious dessert variety which you can enjoy as fresh fruit rather than in cooking, try 'Hinomaki Yellow', which has a rich flavour which ripens in July.
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