Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back in Black....Berry

This weekend I participated in the Carolina Yard Gardening School, put on by the Tri-County Master Gardeners here in Charleston. Other than working with the Coastal Carolina Camellia Society, Projects and Outreach Committee and being a general floater, I was one of the instructors for the day. My subject, Growing Fruit in the Lowcountry. I spoke on growing some twelve different kinds of fruit, from Citrus to Figs and Loquats to Grapes. One of the fruits that I actually got many questions about though, was Blackberries. So I thought maybe there was something going on and it might be a good idea to discuss them here today.
The Blackberry is considered a herbaceous (characteristic of a herb) to woody perennial and belongs to the Rose family.
They are divided into classes by their growth habit and are described as trailing (where canes are not erect and require a trellis for support), semi-trailing or semi-erect (canes are partially erect but require a trellis for support) or erect (which produce self-supporting canes).

The trailing varieties (sometimes called dewberries) are thorny, the semi-trailing (semi-erect) varieties are thornless, and the erect varieties may be thorny or thornless.
As a rule, the erect varieties are more cold-hardy than the trailing or semi-trailing varieties. Erect varieties also fruit about one month earlier than other varieties.
Blackberries prefer full sun and a well-drained soil. Typically, they grow best in temperate climates and are listed as growing in Zones 5 through 10. However, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), some type of Blackberry species can be found in every one of the 50 states.
Plants should be set out at least 2 feet apart in rows 7 feet apart. Unless you do like I do and grow them in containers. Don't believe me?
I use a teepee type of support, there are many different types of trellis systems available. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, and most can be modified to suit your needs and growing space.
You will need to prune these very fast growing plants as they will take over a garden if not done. The first step in pruning Blackberries is to understand their growth cycle. Blackberries have crowns that produce biennial shoots (live for 2 years, then die). In the Spring, after the new flush of leaves start, I prune the spent canes all the way to ground level. I wait until the leaves come out so I can tell what is dead and what is alive.
A very important thing to remember is that a lack of water while setting fruit or during harvest can seriously reduce productivity. Water is the most critical factor for optimal fruit growth. It is also very important because it can negatively impact both the current seasons and the following years crops. They require about 1 inch of water per week, whether it be from the sky or from a hose. Nearly all of the moisture used by Blackberries comes from the top 6 inches of the soil, which is the primary rooting zone. That does not mean there are not deeper roots than that, so you still need to water thoroughly. Mulches can be used to conserve some moisture.
To get the pretty flowers as seen above and the soon to follow fruit, most Blackberries respond well to an early Spring fertilization with an all-purpose fertilizer such as a 10-10-10, or a 16-16-8. After they are done producing fruit for the season, add a small amount of nitrogen fertilizer, such as good dose of Fish Emulsion, to stimulate growth.
As long as I am talking about flowers, it is good to know that, nearly all Blackberry cultivars are self-fruitful, meaning that you only need one to get fruit.
The fruit is ripe and at peak flavor when they begin to turn a very dark, deep red/purple (black in appearance) lose their glossy shine and turn slightly dull.
You will want to pick your berries about every two to three days once they start to ripen, this will also help keep the birds from stealing your harvest.
As a general rule, insect problems on Blackberries are minimal. Pests like aphids, Japanese beetles and spider mites can be controlled on an as-needed basis with general pesticides.
Diseases include rusts, fruit rot and "double blossom." You can control fruit rots with a fungicide approved for Blackberries. Rosette, or "double blossom," is a disease that causes the shoots to have a bushy, broom-shaped appearance on the tips. These shoots produce abnormal blossoms that will not mature to fruit but will produce spores that infect the new growing canes. Again, fungicides can be used as a preventive spray.
Please follow all label instructions, it is the law!
There are many varieties of blackberries available out there, you will just have to check and see what is available in your area.
I mentioned earlier that there seemed to be a lot of buzz about Blackberries lately and maybe it is because of their health benefits. One serving of Blackberries (about one cup) provides 50 percent of your vitamin C, and 22 percent of your required daily fiber. Blackberries are also a good source of potassium, calcium, and iron. In addition, the compound ellagic acid, identified as an anticarcinogen, is found in Blackberries. I just like Blackberries because they are easy to grow, will produce berries for 15 to 20 years if you take care of them, make a fantastic jam, and just happen to have my favorite color in their name!
Happy Growing!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hosta La Vista

There are many undeniable truths about gardening, they need water (even Cactus), they need some kind of medium to grow in or on, and they get bigger, just to name a few. The problem with the last one is, when they get bigger, they produce more shade, which can be a good thing in 95 degree weather, but not when you want to have a garden. So, what do you do when there is more shade? Grow shade loving plants!
Hostas,(a.k.a Plantain Lily) are native to China, Japan and Korea, they were introduced into the United States in the early 1800's. The name Hosta is in honor of the Austrian botanist Nicholas Thomas Host (1771-1834).
These shade loving plants are one of the most popular perennials. They are very easy, adaptable, and relatively fool-proof. They have a very wide growing range, Zone 3 to Zone 9. Hostas do need a brief period of cold weather to go dormant. Insufficient Winter chill and dry air, such as in western deserts, are chief limiting factors for folks out there.
A Hosta plant can reach maturity in 4-8 years, and its size depends on the cultivar. Cultivars are "cultivated varieties" or "played with by man", that have been developed for some desirable or improved feature such as plant form, size, flower, leaf color, variegation, pest resistance, etc. The largest measures 4 feet in height with 20-inch-long leaves. The smallest miniatures may be only a few inches across. Most Hostas range between 1 and 2.5 feet tall.
Like I said earlier, Hostas are considered shade-tolerant plants, but most do not thrive if grown in deep shade. Hostas grow best in an exposure with morning sun and afternoon shade and will change color or fade if they are in too much sun. They grow by underground stems called rhizomes. They prefer well-drained,slightly acidic soils,and will not tolerate soggy conditions, especially during the Winter months. They do like to be kept moist however, their native habitat is as an understory plant. A good layer of mulch will keep them happy and some supplemental irrigation in dry weather, especially if growing under trees which take up so much of the soil moisture.
Hostas respond to light fertilization. It is best to get a soil test from your local extension office to find out what is lacking in your soil. Slow release fertilizers, 10-10-10 or 5-10-5 can be applied early in the Spring followed by another application six weeks later. Be careful not to apply slow release or granular fertilizer on top of or touching the new growth, eyes, or leaves of the plant, it can burn or kill the plant. For those of you that prefer, Liquid fertilizer is used for both soil and foliar application. It is applied every 10 to 14 days or according to the fertilizer label instructions.
Planting, transplanting and dividing should be done in early Spring when the leaves begin to emerge. Dividing Hosta plants is very easy. Basically, you dig up the clump and cut it into as many pieces as you want, as long as there are roots and an "eye" or leaf shoot, it will produce a new plant. This is why it is easier to do it in the Spring, just as the shoots are beginning to emerge. Unlike many perennials, Hostas do not need regular dividing to keep them growing strong. Established Hosta plantings have been in place for 30 years and longer with no need for dividing. Matter of fact, Hostas may outlive their gardeners if given a good spot to grow.
These little beauties are mainly grown for their beautiful foliage. Hosta leaves come in many shapes, colors, sizes and textures. The leaves grow as clump-like mounds in colors ranging from yellow-green to dark green to blue-green. Variegated varieties are also very common. The variegation can come in white, cream, or yellow and can occur on the edges of the leaves, in the centers, or streaked throughout the leaf. Even with all this great color,there is another side to growing Hostas, their flowers.
Hosta flowers, are produced from early Summer to Fall depending on the species and cultivar. They are lily-like flowers which may be white, lavender or purple. Some Hostas are even fragrant. There are some newer hybrids that can produce 50-75 blooms per spike. You will want to remove flower stalks after bloom to encourage vigorous growth, rather than seed production.
There are a few pests of Hostas, but for the most part, they can be controlled.
Slugs and snails are night time foragers and are the most common pest of Hostas. They eat small round holes in the leaves. Look for silvery slime trails in garden beds to determine if these pests are present. Thin-leafed hostas and those with leaves growing close to the ground are most susceptible to injury. Chemical slug and snail pellets and baits that contain metaldehyde are widely available commercially, however label directions must be followed carefully. I've heard of several cases where these poisoned and almost killed family pets. Beer traps are widely used, albeit with only moderate success. Place a small shallow container, such as a deep jar lid, level with the soil and fill with beer. Slugs are attracted to it, crawl in, and drown. I don't know if they have a preference of beer, I would start with a cheap one and work your way up until you find one they really like.
Other controls include handpicking, Copper plates and deterrents like a layer of diatomaceous earth or crushed eggshells spread underneath the plants. Though these last few are also only moderately successful.
Deer can also eat all your Hosta plants in one evening, leaving just the stalks standing.
Ten-foot tall fencing, electric fences and trained guard dogs are about the only reliable method to keep them out of the garden. Deer repellants may give temporary control, but these need to be re-applied after a couple of waterings or rain showers.
As far as diseases are concerned, Hosta anthracnose can cause large whitish spots with brown edges to form on leaves and stalks. Remove the damaged leaves and discard in the trash, not your compost bin.
When it comes to what to choose from, there is not near enough room on this blog to list them all. There are some estimates that list 7,400 cultivars and more being introduced every year.
They all have names too. Some are very formal sounding like: ‘Regal Splendor’, 'Royal Standard' and 'Elegans'.
Some give you an idea of their color: 'Gold Standard','Blue Cadet', 'Sun Power' and 'Guacamole'.
Then there are the ones that, well, I will let you decide what they were named for: 'Love Pat', 'All That Jazz', 'Blazing Saddles' 'Captain Kirk' and 'Striptease'.
Interestingly enough, and I DON'T recommend this, unless you know what you are doing, Hostas are edible by humans. They are called "urui" in Japan where they are commonly consumed. The parts eaten and the manner of preparation differ depending on the species; in some cases it is the shoots, others the leaf petiole, others the whole leaf. Younger parts are generally preferred as being more tender than older parts. The flowers are also edible.
Just like almost all other plants, Hostas have their own society. The American Hosta Society can be found at this link: The American Hosta Society
I will leave you with this bit of wisdom from a man that calls himself "The Hosta Guy" (catchy name). One final word of caution: Many "casual" Hosta users thought they could stop whenever they wanted. What begins as an innocent interest can quickly develop into a full-blown addiction. If you routinely tell your spouse you paid less than you really did for a new Hosta introduction, or brag about how many Hosta cultivars you have growing in your garden, you may need help.
Happy Growing!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why So Blue, Berry

I have been meaning to do a blog on Blueberries for quite some time. They are fairly easy to grow, if you have the right soil. They are good for so many things, pies, jams, syrup. They are full of antioxidants, for those of you that know me, this one probably does not really fall onto my radar. And of course, they are just down right tasty eaten right off the bush. There is one more good reason why I needed to write about Blueberries, I found out this past weekend that my little niece (almost two) can not get enough Blueberries to eat......for her to shovel them into her mouth is probably an understatement. So Sarah, when you are old enough to read this, probably next year at the rate she is going, you can grow all the blueberries your little heart desires!

There are three main types of cultivated blueberries that can be grown, Rabbiteye, Northern Highbush and Southern Highbush. Here in South Carolina, Rabbiteye and Southern Highbush are the recommended varieties. The Northern Highbush is more suited for major areas of production in the upper South(Arkansas), Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
The Southern Highbush Blueberry is a relatively new type of Blueberry and is a hybrid of the Northern Highbush and native Southern species, mainly Darrow's evergreen Blueberry.
Depending on where you live will determine which is the best for you to grow. Check with your local extension agent to find out.

Here in the Lowcountry, the best varieties are:

Early season cultivars:

Climax: Plants require 450 chilling hours. This cultivar has a concentrated fruit set with small to medium sized fruit. Recommended cross-pollination with Premier or Austin.
Vernon: PP19291. Requires 450 hours of chilling. Flowers 7 days after Climax, but ripens before Premier. Fruit are large, firmness is excellent, and have good flavor and color. Recommended cross-pollination with Alapaha.
Alapaha: PP16266. Requires 450 to 500 chilling hours. This cultivar has a medium-size fruit with good firmness and flavor. Flowers 7 to 10 days after Climax, which helps avoid spring freeze damage to flowers. Recommended cross-pollination with Vernon.
Austin: Plants require 500 chilling hours. Plants are productive and produce medium-large berries. Recommended cross-pollination with Climax or Premier.
Premier: Requires 550 chilling hours. Plants produce medium to large sized fruit. Recommended cross-pollination with Austin or Alapaha.

Midseason cultivars:

Brightwell: Requires 400 chilling hours. Fruits are medium to large in size but may split during wet weather. Recommended cross-pollination with Austin or Premier.
Powderblue: Plants require 600 chilling hours. Plants have good production of medium-sized, light blue fruit. Recommended cross-pollination with Tifblue or Brightwell.
Tifblue: Requires 650 chilling hours. Plants produce small to medium size fruit, which must get fully ripe or they will be tart.

Late season cultivars:

Baldwin: This late maturing cultivar requires 450 to 500 chilling hours. The plants have moderate yield and high vigor. The fruit are large, of good quality and very dark blue color. Cross-pollinate with Brightwell, Powderblue, and Centurian.
Centurian: Centurian plants need 550 to 600 chilling hours for fruiting. The fruit is very good quality, medium-sized, firm, and darkish-blue. The fruit may crack with heavy rainfall. Pollinate with Brightwell, Ochlockonee, and Powderblue.
Ochlockonee: PP17300. Requires 650 to 700 chilling hours. This cultivar is very productive with fruit larger than Tifblue. The fruit has good color, firmness, and flavor. Recommended cross-pollination with Powderblue.
Onslow: This cultivar has fruit slightly larger and darker than Powderblue. For fruiting, the plants require 500 to 600 chilling hours. The plants are productive and vigorous. It has been reported that Onslow may tolerate soils of a higher pH than other cultivars. The fruit is large, with very good firmness and a medium blue color.

However, for the most part, they all require the same general cultivation, just watch your chill hours.
To start, this is a great time to stress one of the Master Gardeners all time mantras...Have your soil tested! Especially if you are going to plant Blueberries.
They must have a very acidic soil, with a pH of 4.8 to 5.5. To give you a point of reference, 7.0 is considered neutral. The soil pH scale commonly in use ranges from 0 to 14. As examples of either end, Lemon Juice and Vinegar are on the acid side, Baking soda and Milk of Magnesia is on the alkaline side. I won't get into the really technical data here, just remember, that Blueberries like it on the acidic side. If you have any doubts about your soil, you can always add a heap of peat moss and mix it into your backfill.
Blueberry plants require excellent soil drainage. Not sure if your spot has good drainage? Here is an easy little trick. Dig a hole or holes, 6 to 8 inches deep and fill them with water. The water should not remain in the hole for more than 24 hrs, if it does, select another site or plant them on raised beds. Just as a side note, Blueberries can be grown in large containers, this is a VERY easy way to control the soil pH. After creating the raised beds, check for drainage again. With this type of planting, you are still going to need to water thoroughly two to three times per week during dry spells in the Summer and early Fall. The soil should be moist to damp at all times, just not wet...that is an invitation to root rot.
Full sun is best. This is usually anywhere from 8-10 hours, or more. Blueberries can be grown in areas that do not receive this much light, but the harvest will suffer dramatically.
When it comes to feeding your Blueberries, they are easily damaged by excess fertilizer. Apply the recommended amount from your soil test report and allow 4 inches of rain or an equivalent amount of irrigation between applications. A balanced fertilizer of 10-10-10 or something labeled for acidic plants is best.
Blueberries are produced from buds on 1-year-old wood, pruning should be severe enough to encourage the production of vigorous new growth each year. With this being said, however, during the first five years, little pruning will be required. You will want to remove the lower twiggy growth, dead or damaged shoots, and weak, spindly growth during this time.
With good care, mature plants should produce more than 10 lbs each year. That much fruit production is a good thing because you will have competition for the berries. Birds love Blueberries too. They can consume the entire crop from a small planting. Plastic or cloth netting draped over the bushes or supported on a framework, while the fruit is ripening, is the only practical control. Please don't use the old CD or pie plate on strings as a deterrent, they only laugh at those. And scarecrows? They usually end up being given pet names by the birds and then mocked. Netting really is the only good deterrent.
Something else to consider is mulching. This is the best form of weed control.
Blueberries may also be troubled by fungal leaf spots, fruit rots, root rot and gray mold. The primary insect problems are cranberry fruitworm (which ties the berry clusters together with silk), Japanese beetles and the Oberea stem borer.
Fungicides labeled for Blueberries will take care of the fungal problems, and insecticidal soaps or insecticides labeled for Blueberries will handle the bugs. ALWAYS read the label, I have said it before and I will say it again, IT IS THE LAW!
You will get the best quality of fruit when it is picked every 5 to 7 days, depending upon temperature, the warmer the temps, the more often you need to pick.
This has been a very brief description of growing Blueberries. I hope I have spurred you on to read more about these tasty treats. I have only touched the tip of the iceberg. If you have any questions or would like more in-depth information, please feel free to e-mail me,
As for my niece, Sarah, I hope to have a little surprise for her in a couple of years. Yes, she loves her Blueberries and as a loving uncle, I want to give her all she wants. What she doesn't know is, I have a variety that I am growing that, while they are called Blueberries, and they are supposed to taste like them, they sure don't LOOK like them. Introducing, Pink Lemonade Blueberries.

Look for them online or at a good nursery near you.
Feel free to ask me questions about this, or any of my other articles, e-mail is
I can be found on my WEBSITE or FACEBOOK as The Citrus Guy.
Happy Growing!