Ask any urban gardener about their favorite crops, they’ll likely boast of their overflowing strawberry patch, their blueberry bush that produces sweet fruit unlike anything you’ll find at the store, or their exotic currant shrub experiment.
Despite their size, small fruits are a big pleasure to those of us with limited garden space, and with careful variety selection, they won’t take up much garden real estate. Plus, growing them is a piece of cake.
“If you plan it right, there will be many sunny mornings when you can walk out your door and start the day with a handful of homegrown sweetness,” says Scott Meyer, an urban farmer near Philadelphia and author of The City Homesteader (Running Press, 2011).
Although you can expand your fruit options by growing dwarf-sized tree fruits, such as apples, lemons and peaches, it’s far easier to get your daily, homegrown sugar with small fruits. By growing an assorted mix of berries and the like, you’ll have something delicious to pick throughout the entire growing season. Here are six fruits to jumpstart your endeavor.
Strawberries are probably the easiest to grow of all the small-fruit varieties.
“Here in the South, I suggest planting where there is full sun from morning to mid-afternoon to avoid the extreme heat of the [late] afternoon, but in northern climates, all-day sun is best,” says Amanda Moon, a central Texas urban farmer and landscape designer. “I love to grow my strawberries in hanging baskets and in tall planters. Here in the city, I do most of my gardening in containers, and strawberries grow very well in pots.”
Strawberry varieties fit into two different categories: June-bearing and ever-bearing (also called “day-neutral”). The former produces berries that ripen within a period of a few weeks in early summer. In contrast, ever-bearing types spread a more moderate harvest throughout the gardening season, beginning in June and continuing through late September. Ever-bearing selections are perfect for families looking to have berries at hand every day.
If you live in the extreme North or South, contact your local extension service to find out which varieties are best for your particular climate. Gardeners in USDA hardiness zones 5 through 9 have an incredible range of choices. In my own garden, near Pittsburgh, I grow June-bearing and ever-bearing varieties in separate places. Three different June-bearing types grow beneath my blueberry bushes to save space, and two ever-bearing types grow in a 4-by-6-foot raised bed behind my vegetable garden.
Grow Them: Space strawberry plants about 8 inches apart and amend the soil with finished compost. Pinch off the first few flower buds of the plant’s first season to encourage good root growth. (Even after removing these initial flower buds, most ever-bearing types still produce berries their very first year!)
Plan to refresh your strawberry patch every four or five years by digging out the old plants and replacing them with new ones. Adding light mulch, such as an inch or two of straw, helps see the plants through the winter, especially in the North.
Blueberries fill several niches in the garden. They produce tasty berries, and they make beautiful landscape shrubs.
The many different types of blueberries include highbush, lowbush, rabbiteye and lots of assorted hybrids. Those of us with smaller backyards should consider growing half-high varieties, a hybrid of highbush and lowbush types. Half-high varieties grow only 3 to
4 feet in both height and girth, and they bear plenty of sweet-tart fruits.
Grow Them: Blueberries also extremely hardy—some varieties survive down to negative 35 degrees F, and they thrive in acidic soils with a pH range of 4.0 to 5.0 with full to partial sun. Test your soil’s pH level before planting, and use either elemental sulfur or a commercial fertilizer formulated for evergreens each season to maintain the ideal pH balance.
Two different blueberry varieties are needed to maximize pollination and berry set. Every three or four years, prune a few of the oldest, woodiest branches all the way down to the ground. This encourages new growth and keeps the plant productive.
“You should be aware that even in the city, you’ll find you aren’t the only one waiting for the berries to ripen,” Moon adds. “A little bird netting goes a long way.”
Raspberries are best for gardeners with some extra room to fill. The rambling nature of these plants has a tendency to take over smaller spaces, and it only takes a few years for two or three plants to spread into a thicket of canes. The thicket, however, will generate gobs of juicy berries.
“Twenty-one years ago, my wife and I received a pair of ‘heritage’ raspberry canes as a housewarming gift,” Meyer says. “Since planting them, I’ve done nothing more than cut the canes that have already fruited down to the ground once a year. We are rewarded with delicious berries for weeks in the spring and then again in the fall.”
Red raspberries come in two different types: summer-bearing, which produce their fruit all at once in early July, and ever-bearing (also called fall-bearing), which produce their fruit throughout the season from July through the first frost. Summer-bearing varieties bear fruit on 2-year-old canes (in other words, on canes that grew from the ground the previous season). Ever-bearing types produce fruit on old and new canes. They begin to produce a few weeks later than the summer-bearing variety, but they have a more continual harvest.
Grow Them: One way to grow these delicious fruits without having the canes take over the entire yard is to grow them in a strip down the middle of the lawn. Use a support system of T-shaped wooden posts and two lengths of wire to keep the canes upright. Simply mow down any canes that pop up in the lawn. This solution works like a charm.
Gooseberries are a delightful addition to the urban garden. Although many tart-flavored varieties exist, try one of the many sweet gooseberry selections on today’s market. They are perfect for fresh eating and grow anywhere in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 8.
Gooseberry shrubs reach 2 to 4 feet in height and produce a substantial amount of berries. Although many gooseberry plants are spined, thornless varieties are a better choice for easier harvests and for gardens where kids do some of the picking.
Plant Them: Gooseberries thrive in average garden soil with little or no extra care required. The pruning requirements are minor; only a few of the oldest canes need to be removed every year or two to keep the plant structure open and easy-to-harvest. Gardeners who grow this amazing little fruit know how wonderful it is. In my opinion, gooseberries are the small-fruit world’s best-kept secret!
Currants are a smart choice for the urban landscape, not only because they are attractive, but also because they mature at only 3 to 5 feet, making them an exceptional choice for smaller yards and gardens. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and ripens in mid- to late-summer. Currants are fully hardy to negative 40 degrees F and are resistant to most diseases and pests. Plus, the flowers are attractive to hummingbirds, and many species of songbirds enjoy the ripe fruit. (You’ll need to protect the fruit with bird netting when it begins to ripen.)
Currants come in many beautiful colors, including red, black, white and pink, with most hardy in USDA gardening zones 3 through 8. Be aware that in some states, certain gooseberry and currant varieties (particularly black currants) are restricted, due to the plants’ risk of carrying white pine blister rust, an introduced pathogen that infects all varieties of white pine—a particular concern for the logging industry.
Grow Them: Currants require full sun to partial shade and need no special soil conditions other than decent drainage. Most currants are self-fertile, meaning that a single shrub will form fruit without a pollination partner, though most produce better yields when partnered with a different
Even though they’re trees, most people would agree that figs grow excellently in small spaces, particularly in containers. In the North, figs must be carefully overwintered, making container culture a perfect choice for the small tree.
“Fig trees treat you with dozens of soft, sweet fruit,” Meyers says. “If you live where it’s too cold for figs to survive the winter—north of USDA zone 7—you can move the plants, pots and all, into a garage or cellar each autumn, and take them back outside come spring.”
Grow Them: Be sure to select the fig cultivar best suited to your climate. Growers in warmer zones can plant fig trees directly in the garden, but be aware that the plants can grow very aggressively. Because of this, even southern urban farmers should consider growing figs in containers, simply to save on space. “Watch out for squirrels,” Moon warns. “They’ll strip the bush clean before you can enjoy any of the fruits!”
Honeyberries are a personal favorite. Also known as blue honeysuckle, this lovely shrub is a close relative of ornamental flowering honeysuckle and produces white, tubular flowers in very early spring that are followed by oblong, blue fruits in late spring.
Honeyberries are the first fruit to ripen in my garden every year—well before even the earliest strawberries. The flavor is reminiscent of cherries and grapes—just divine! My plants began to bear in their third year. Honeyberry bushes continue to bear fruit for 50 years and more, and they are extremely tolerant of poor soil conditions. To improve pollination rates, be sure to plant two or more varieties and lightly prune the plants each spring, removing only a few of the arching branches to prevent overcrowding.
Grow Them: Mature honeyberry shrubs reach 3 to 8 feet in height, depending on the variety. Honeyberries are just catching on here in North America but have been grown in China, Russia and other parts of Asia for years. The plants are very hardy—down to USDA zone 2—and can be grown as far south as zone 8.
Try growing these other small-space crops:
- 10 Mini Melons to Grow in the City
- 14 Container Plants for Your Container Garden
- 7 Easy Container Fruits
- 7 Great Plants for Your Micro-garden
- 9 Tips for Growing Container Trees
About the Author: Jessica Walliser grows seven different kinds of blueberries, five varieties of strawberries, three honeyberry varieties, two red raspberry cultivars and one gigantic container fig tree just outside of Pittsburgh. She’s the author of Grow Organic: 250 tips and ideas for growing flowers, veggies, lawns and more (St. Lynn’s Press, 2007) and co-hosts KDKA Radio’s “The Organic Gardeners”. Learn more about her gardening adventures at www.jessicawalliser.com.