Berries, berries, and more berries!

The heat of summer is in full swing, and the berry season is starting to pick up. With such a strange winter and spring the ripening times aren’t ‘normal’, or more accurately aren’t as they’ve been in years past. With that being said, tis the season for berry picking! Take it when it comes and do your darndest to best utilize mother nature’s abundance of nourishing and tasteful summer fruits! I’ve been doing just that…

Several days ago on a bike ride with my friend Paris Rae, we came upon a lovely patch of Ribes odoratum, or clove currant. This is a black currant species  indigenous to NA with large, shiny black berries that are highly aromatic with a wonderful spicey-sweet flavor. A truly delectable roadside find!

Antioxidant-rich clove currants…
Clove currant gets it’s name from the profuse, clove-scented flowers which perfume the air in early spring. A few years ago I found this large and in charge specimen LOADED with flowers, once again on a roadside…

For the past 3-4 weeks I’ve been consuming plenty of European black currants (Ribes nigrum) of which I absolutely indulge upon and relish their complex ‘foxy’ flavor! Five varieties grow in my garden which all ripen at slightly different times, and today I picked the last of ’em from ‘Consort’. The bushes hold onto to their fruit quite well for the duration of picking season, which is a nice characteristic. This cannot be said for softer fruits like raspberries. I was meaning to make a batch of black currant jelly, but instead ended up eating them all fresh out of hand and mixed in salads. I love to let visitors try the black currants and observe their reaction. Most people enjoy them.

Handful of mixed black currant varieties.

On hot days like today I like to make a refreshing iced berry drink. Today I made one with black currants. It is a simple recipe and you can alternate black currants with any other berry. This is all you’ll need:

  • 1 cup fresh berries
  • 1 cup crushed ice
  • A spoonful of organic raw honey never hurts

I use a magic bullet with the heavy duty blade; you can use a blender, vita-mix, or whatever you’ve got! Mix the ingredients and blend. Sometimes you’ll need to add a small amount of water or other liquid to get the blending started.

I like to add a few sprigs of fresh mint! Yum…

Blackcaps, or black raspberries, are reaching their peak season. They happily grow wild around here and if you know a good spot then there is usually never a shortage of berries. I like to freeze them for use in pies and smoothies during winter. They also make a delicious low-sugar jam.

Black raspberries at different stages of ripening…
In just a short period you can collect a considerable amount of black raspberries. They go well with oatmeal in the morning!

I expect the next two weeks to be the ideal time to collect a lot of these gems for freezing and preserving. Once you familiarize yourself with these fruits you’ll learn that its all about timing and it surely pays to keep a close eye on whose ripening!

A subtle mutation gives these black raspberries a golden color. This was exciting to find growing wild around here, somewhat of a rarity.
Interestingly enough golden fruited variants often times express golden tinged foliage and stems. For breeders and selectors this is one way to tell if you might have a golden-fruited specimen before fruiting occurs. As the wood lignifies on these black raspberry floricanes it too gains a yellow hue.

In my garden it is an ‘in-between’ year for strawberries. My strawberry bed was renovated this spring so it won’t be in production again until next year. Fortunately I have a lot of alpine strawberries still producing. Alpine strawberries are the wild european strawberry. Similar to the woodland strawberries you find growing here. Small fruit that packs a serious punch. Red and white-fruited varieties exist and their everbearing tendency keeps fresh berries comin’ all season! The ones in the image below were picked from a local edible landscape installed by Roots To Fruits. Stay tuned for a coming article on alpine strawberries

These ‘White Soul’ alpine strawberries have a pineapple-like flavor and are extremely sweet.
These clove currants were intentionally planted in this edible landscape with alpine strawberries.
A better view of the edible landscape featuring alpine strawberry, clove currant, and birds foot trefoil (a nitrogen-fixing groundcover).
Speaking of white and golden fruits, my golden raspberries are just starting to ripen their first flush of berries. These are a real treat…still a week or two off from any substantial harvest.

One of the nice things about white-fruited berries vs. red,purple/blue hues is that they appear to be less noticeable to birds. Birds tend to recognize red and purple as something to go for where white and yellow, from my experience- are left alone. White alpine strawberries and golden raspberries are great from that regard. Another nice white-fruited berry is white currant. Technically white currants are just a variant of red currant (R.rubrum). I have a few varieties in my garden and most of them are all gone by now as they ripen much faster then reds(which are just starting to ripen). However a later ripening variety by the name of ‘Primus’ lives in my garden, and she is just now starting to ripen her berries(no currants are not dioecious!).

‘Primus’ has firm berries which ripen evenly and rate high in flavor and productivity…
My espaliered ‘Pink Champagne’ currant is covered with ripe fruit right now. They dangle in clusters like little jewels with the sun shining through them! Beauty…
Although this plant was labeled as ‘Pink Champagne’ when I got it four years ago, I have suspicion that it was mislabeled as the berries never really turn fully pink. Hmm…

It has been a sad season for my gooseberries. I set out nearly 15 new bushes this year and they’ve had a rough go thus far. But its mainly my fault. They were planted in an area where horses and deer live and apparently the fencing system was not adequate. Aside from being trampled on a few times, there’s also been a serious outbreak of small green worms which defoliate a plant in a number of days. Not sawfly, still needs ID. If anyone knows please share.

Ripe gooseberries…but whats missing? FOLIAGE…yikes!
On a better note, about 95% of this seasons apple grafts have successfully took and are putting on oodles of new growth!
My ‘Frontenac’ grape vine wasn’t phased by the shifty spring weather. Nice fruit set…
BUT, the foliage is covered with these Japanese beetles…yikes.
Wild hazelnuts growing on the side of a dirt road…lets see if we can get them before the squirrels!
Beautiful image of  bumble bee ecstatically burrowed within a purple-flowering raspberry blossom…

Comfrey For The Garden & Orchard

Comfrey is a plant with a multitude of uses not only in the home apothecary but also in the garden. There are several species in the genus Symphytum, all of which merit special attention, but generally S. officinale, or common comfrey, and a hybrid species S.x uplandicum are most often used. The ladder of which is particularly suitable for the home garden because it is sterile and doesn’t spread by seed. The most available variety is called ‘Bocking 14’. These are upright comfreys which can grow 5′ tall. There are also rhizomatous species which only grow 6″-1′ high and spread to form a dense groundcover.

Comfrey is prized amongst herbalists for its incredible healing powers. Comfrey leaves and roots

Comfrey leaves and roots chopped for making an herbal salve.

contain a high concentration of allatoin– a substance that speeds cell renewal. It got the colloquial name ‘knitbone’ for its use in treating wounds and reducing inflammation from broken bones and sprains.  It’s not a surprise that comfrey fulfills a similar ecological niche working to heal wounded and degraded soils. Comfrey is referred to as a mineral accumulator or dynamic accumulator for its ability to mine nutrients with its deep roots (which also loosen compacted soils). Those nutrients are then deposited in the aerial parts of the plant; being especially high in potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and nitrogen. When the aerial parts die back in the fall those nutrients assimilate into the surrounding soil. Gardeners can facilitate this process by intentionally cutting the plant down at strategic times for use as mulch around fruit trees, berry bushes, or in the veg garden. In the permaculture world we

Close up showing comfrey mulch around trunk of tree.
Comfrey mulch chopped around the base of a young peach tree.

refer to this process as ‘chop-n-drop’. Plant comfrey at the base of your fruit trees and simply chop-n-drop the material right in place; breaking the leaves and stalks into smaller pieces will accelerate decomposition but is not necessary. This is an effective way to build topsoil rapidly and reduce off-site inputs. From my experience I’ve been able to get anywhere from 3-5 cuttings throughout the season. One fella recently told me he cuts his back 7-8 times! I like to wait for the first flush of flowers in early summer because they provide excellent bee fodder.

Preparing comfrey tea brew.
Finished comfrey tea will be slimy on top. Discard slimy material and use as mulch or add to compost.

Another strategy for utilizing comfrey’s amazing mineral accumulating capacity is to brew a fermented comfrey tea. This is a very easy procedure which entails chopping up a few handfuls of comfrey leaves and placing them in a 5 gallon bucket with water. Cover with a lid and let the mixture ferment outdoors for 1-2 weeks. Alternatively, start the batch by pouring boiling water over the plant material and letting it steep for a few hours then adding room temp. water to fill the rest of the bucket. The hot water method seems to extract more of the nutrients. You will know its ready when it has a strong stank…a good stank! Apply with a backpack sprayer diluted or undiluted. This fermented tea can be used a foliar feed or applied directly to the soil.

‘Dwarf Yellow’ comfrey

I grow comfrey around my compost bins and periodically add it to new piles or existing piles to jump-start the decomposition process. I also like to think that the comfrey roots capture any leached nutrients from the compost pile. One reason some people bash on comfrey is because its nearly impossible to get rid of as the tiniest piece of root will put on adventitious buds and sprout into a new plant. Easy to propagate? Ooooh yes! Aside from comfrey’s amazing medicinal qualities and numerous garden uses, it is also a very beautiful plant that can tolerate almost any soil type and will grow well in partial shade. Some ornamental varieties include ‘Goldsmith’, ‘Hidcote Blue’, and ‘Dwarf White’. I would love to hear how you’re utilizing comfrey in your garden! Cheers.

Short video clip: Comfrey Chop-N-Drop Timing

Since adolescent pawpaw trees require dappled shade, comfrey is a great multipurpose companion.
Comfrey and mint at base of young persimmon tree.
‘Bocking 14’ comfrey flowers
Comfrey showing itself in early spring by a compost bin.


The Holistic Orchard: Growing Tree Fruit and Berries the Biological Way

Michael Phillips, the author of The Apple Grower, recently released his latest book titled The Holistic Orchard: Growing Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way. After purchasing this newly published book I’ve struggled to set it down!  Phillips presents an approach to orcharding that extends beyond the realms of organic agriculture into the ideas of maintaining and vitalizing the health of the entire ecosystem— the trees, the bees, the fungi, and all other organisms. He analogously compares conventional and organic practices to allopathic medicine, whereby symptoms are treated instead of root causes. Alternatively, the holistic approach seeks to involve the whole system and discover underlying reasons for systems problems such as pest or disease outbreaks. You can think of it as antibiotics vs. probiotics. Antibiotics kill and eliminate problem-areas where probiotics encourage increased health of the whole organism as preventative means for reducing disease onset. By employing a slew of practices such as  applying herbal foliar sprays(‘tree probiotics’) and maintaining high levels of woody organic matter VIA ramial woodchips, Phillips has developed a way to grow nutrient-dense, tasty fruit without the use of any toxic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. You can buy the book and learn more at Michael’s website: www.herbsandapples.com. For now, check out the following videos of Michael explaining his exciting work:

Lost Nation Orchard – the Holistic Approach from Chris Conroy on Vimeo.

Lost Nation Orchard – Groveton, NH from Chris Conroy on Vimeo.