Berries for the Northeast

Warm weather, fresh peas, and blossoming roses are all welcome in June, but neither they nor the solstice make me truly feel that “sumer is icumen in.” It’s my berries—both the common and the uncommon kinds—that do.

‘Earliglo’ strawberries get the season underway, quickly filling bowls with large, glistening red fruit. But my favorite strawberries, even if they are low yielding and small fruited, are the alpine and musk varieties. Dainty, decorative, nonspreading alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) make a perfect border for the path through my vegetable garden, and all season long I pluck ripe, white fruits in passing. Yes, white fruits: these cream-colored gems can ripen fully on the plants without attracting birds—so we get the chance to taste the flavor that earned them the variety name ‘Pineapple Crush’. Musk strawberries (F. moschata; also called hautbois strawberries) are ugly, a white-blotched purplish red when ripe, but their taste is a happy mingling of strawberry, raspberry, and pineapple flavors—to me, they are the best of any strawberry. Besides this unique flavor, the plants have upright flower stalks that hoist clusters of white blossoms above a sea of green foliage. They runner prolifically, so they need frequent thinning to prevent overcrowding.

True to their name, in early seasons, come Juneberries (Amelanchier spp.). But contrary to most nursery descriptions, these juicy blueberry look-alikes taste nothing at all like blueberries. Juneberries have their own flavor; they offer the richness of sweet cherry along with a hint of almond. Juneberries don’t fruit well on my low-lying ground. Fortunately, they are often grown as ornamentals, and I can pick my fill from a row of bushes planted on the nearby college campus.

Juneberries and strawberries nudge me into summer; blueberries, in abundance by the middle of July, put the season into full swing. Bowlfuls of blueberries are as reliable as summer itself. In my 20 years of fruit growing, the droughts, deluges, pests, and late frosts that occasionally caused other fruits to fail have never deprived me of even one good crop of blueberries; with 14 bushes of a few different varieties of highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), my family and I eat blueberries practically every day from the end of June to the middle of September.

Blueberries are easy to grow if their unique soil requirements (moisture, high acidity, abundant humus, and low fertility) are met. Use pelletized sulfur to adjust the soil pH to 4.0 to 5.0 before planting, dig a bucketful of peat moss into each planting hole, and mulch after planting with three inches of some organic material. Water regularly. Replenish mulch, prune the plants, and fertilize (I use soybean meal) annually. Follow this prescription, and you will also want to net your bushes—so that you, not birds, reap their large crops of thoroughly ripened berries.

But man can’t live by bread (read: blueberries) alone. Black currant (Ribes nigrum) season starts and ends with the first of the blueberries. Black currants are followed by raspberries, then gooseberries (two dozen dessert varieties: all sweet, some red, some green, some white, some hairy, and some smooth) and red, white, and pink currants. Aromatic, sweet-tart clove currants (R. odoratum) ripen sporadically through August, and then summer’s waning ripens blackberries, lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), and the late crop of raspberries. And did I mention mulberries (Morus spp.), gumis (Elaeagnus multiflora), and lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium)? All these, too, contribute to the essence of summer.

All season we enjoy berries in morning cereals and evening desserts, and grab them by the handful from bowls set on the kitchen counter. But summer and its embodiment in berries can’t last forever, and so we plan ahead. We levy a berry tax, putting a portion of each day’s harvest into the freezer, an easy and toothsome way to capture a bit of summer’s warmth for wintry days to come. 

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