Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Small Farming: Berries

The climate of the High Molonglo Plains is suited to a wide range of berries – but provision must be made for supplementary water in a dry year. 

Thornless Blackberries

Brambles grow naturally in the area.  Growing around the high streams is a native bramble that produces small sweet fruit.  Likewise, an introduced species, the Blackberry will rapidly choke streams and despoil pasture if not controlled (a tethered goat is a good cure for blackberries).
Many nearby farmhouses have stands of brambles and/or bushes.  Two decades ago, a neighbour showed me an amazing planting of Boysenberry vines.  Acting on their advice, I started planting a range of different berries – and I have persisted now for two decades.  Most have produced consistent crops each year with minimal effort by me.  Some have required more care.

Market

Unlike the similar farmlands around Mount Canobolas, at Orange, no long term commercial berry venture has emerged in the area to date.  A decade ago a friend established a large planting of Raspberry bushes and had some success until a debilitating drought cruelled the crop. 

Still, the lack of an established industry is a little surprising because there is a ready market for these products:
·         in the nearby weekend town markets;
·         in emerging fine food shops and restaurants that actively seek local produce; and
·         the Canberra Food Cooperative might be considered outlet for excess fruit.

Apart from the pleasure of eating berries yourself – they command worthwhile prices. Because, they have a very limited life after picking, consideration might be given to snap freezing the fruit for later use or sale.

Growing

Berries require a cool and moist climate.  Generally, the High Plains meet these criteria.  However, for a couple of weeks each year, temperatures can scorch the vines unless they are protected.  Supplementary water must be made available during dry or hot periods – if the brambles become heat affected, damage can persist through the season and into the following season.

Some of the healthiest vines I have seen encircle the large concrete tanks that farmers use to hold household water.  A similar result might be obtained near to a creek, dam or pool – particularly if sunlight can be partially blocked by a larger tree (I have had great luck with a thornless blackberry/chestnut combination).  Large bodies of water, like tanks, mediate both cold and hot days – providing an ideal environment.  If planted in the fields, provision for irrigation and shading should be made.




I try to encourage bees - by planting natives, cornflowers and carnations in the berry patches.  I loose some berries to the resident swamp wallabies... but I like having them around.



I have planted lots of different varieties during the years – and lost a lot to the seven year drought in the early 2000’s.  After two decades of trial an error – this is what I have ended up with.  This mixture provides me with an extended period of fruiting.

Brambles

General: Brambles require rich soil and frequent applications of fertilizer.  New vines emerge from January onwards, should be ‘put up’ onto a wire support in late autumn, fruit from or after December and can be removed once fruiting ends (or late Autumn).  During the fruiting phase, the brambles can become a little chaotic – with new vines growing into old vines – some people use a 2-wire system to try to separate the vines.   
Thornless Blackberry: Profuse extended period of fruiting from January through February.  Large black berries. 
Boysenberry:  This produces large black berries during January.  Be careful of the thorns.
Youngberry: This produces profuse large purple-black berry during December.
I have also tried my hand at Silvenberry and Fruit of the Forest.  Unfortunately, a large brown snake has taken up residence in the mound on which they grow, and my interest in cultivation there is luke-warm.  I leave the fruit there for the small wrens that nest in the tangle.

Bushes

Raspberry – various varieties: Different varieties have slightly different fruiting period.  Some varieties will produce two crops a year.  I try for varieties with a December main crop and an April secondary crop.  Requires rich soil and frequent applications of fertilizer.  Like brambles, Raspberries will throw a new cane each year – and after final fruiting (noting that some varieties have a light tip fruiting in the first year and a heavier main stem fruiting in the next year), old canes need to be removed and the new canes kept weed free.  Raspberry canes are heat sensitive – growth can be dramatically slowed by a string of hot days – temporary shade shelter and drip watering can be important during these periods.
Blueberry: A permanent bush requiring about 3 years of growth which produces multiple small fruit in December.  Requires an acidic soil – an essential element that will require some careful preplanning.
Strawberries: Small bushes that need to be replaced every couple of years.  I try to get a couple of different varieties – some of the small heritage varieties produce very small fruit – with fantastic flavours J

Peter Quinton

Palerang  April 2014
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