The promise of summer raspberries and strawberries

One of our main lockdown projects this year has been the purchase of a new fruit cage and the planting of fresh strawberry and raspberry plants in a different area of the garden. We have grown strawberries and raspberries in the vegetable garden in the past but the plants have gradually got weaker and weaker and produced less and less. Time for a change we thought.

In the first lockdown back in March and April we decided to clear a new area on the edge of the orchard in full sun but also sheltered from the north winds by the hawthorn hedge.

The fruit cage

Having cleared the area we purchased a 5m x 2.5m peak roofed steel fruit cage from Harrod Horticultural in Suffolk. We were looking for something that would create an attractive feature in the garden rather than purely being a square box covered in netting. This certainly fits the bill.

With plenty of time on our hands and some nice weather we set about the task. The instructions were good and it all came together very well. With just two people and a large ladder we did manage to put it together ourselves although I think putting on the roof would have been much easier if more people had been available to help with the final lift. With only two of us the peak roof had to be carefully lifted into place in the centre by climbing up the ladder whilst the other bolted it into the frame.

We really only had one hick-up when we discovered that the two top finials were poorly welded and wouldn’t slide into place. It is always irritating to have to wait for replacement parts to come but there was no problem in getting them even though many were working from home at that time. In total it probably took us a week to put up with plenty of time for cups of coffee and lunch along the way.

The task that took most patience was whipping in all the netting to make sure there were absolutely no gaps that would allow the birds to get in. This took pretty much a whole day of careful sewing. The time has been well spent and we have had no birds inside during this first year.

Once complete we decided that half the cage was be put to strawberries and the other half to raspberries.

Strawberries

We were keen to get planting as soon as possible but recognised that we would have to wait until November to plant the bare root raspberry canes.

The strawberries were another matter and so we were able to get hold of cold stored strawberry plants from Ken Muir in early summer. These were lovely, strong, healthy plants and grew away beautifully once they were planted in the ground. Having prepared the soil we planted the bare root plants through weed suppressing membrane. As this was virgin land we knew that we would be fighting the weeds for some time and this gave us an opportunity to keep the weeds at bay as well as keep the strawberries off the soil. The theory was that the black material would also warm up quickly in the sun and aid ripening.

We planted three different varieties to give us a crop over a longer season. These were:

Vibrant – an early variety

Hapil – a mid-summer variety

Fenella – a late summer variety

In theory this should provide us with a crop from mid-June through to late July. What is particularly nice about planting cold-stored plants is that they crop in the first year – and it worked! There is nothing nicer than enjoying the fruit of your labours (with cream).

In this first year the three varieties grew quite differently. Vibrant produced the most fruit whilst Hapil grew a huge amount of foliage and produced less fruit. Our aim is to encourage plants with multiple crowns and so we spent a lot of time this year cutting out all the new runners that emerged.

Strawberries planted through weed suppressing membrane ( as the raspberries were not going to be planted until the autumn we kept the free area cultivated by growing courgettes and sweet corn)

Raspberries

In November we received our bare root raspberry canes from Pomona Fruits. In this instance we have gone for the two varieties Glen Ample and Tulameen. Both are summer fruiting varieties.

We did debate whether to have both summer and autumn fruiting varieties but concluded that we preferred to get one substantial crop and freeze any excess rather than risk never have enough for a good meal with friends. and family.

Prior to the canes arriving we prepared the ground and installed three strong upright posts and supporting cross wires. One thing we learnt for next time is that if the posts are too tall there is no enough room underneath the netting to effectiveky use the post rammer to drive in the supports.

One downside of planting summer fruiting varieties is that the fruit is produced on last year’s wood. Planting short, bare root canes this year means that we will not get fruit next year and only begin to crop in 2022. Far too long!

To overcome this we were delighted to see that Pomona Fruit provided ‘long canes’ of Glen Ample. We should therefore get our first crop of Glen Ample next summer whilst the Tulameen will grow fresh canes next year that will fruit for the first time in 2022.

Cordon Redcurrants

Browsing through the fruit catalogues is always fatal and as usual I was tempted by something we had not tried before. We do grow redcurrants and blackcurrants in the vegetable patch but the birds always get to the redcurrants before we do.

There was not enough room for a normal sized redcurrant bush in the new fruit cage but I did spot a cordon redcurrant Jonkheer van Tets. I convinced myself that there would be room to plant this alongside one of the end raspberry support poles. And so it was purchased. It looks great in the catalogue and it would be lovely if it can be kept well trained and produce lots of fruit. We enjoy redcurrants but don’t really need huge amounts so a single, productive plant (where we get most of the fruit instead of the birds) should more than suffice.

Photo credit: pomonafruits.co.uk
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New fruit cage for strawberries and raspberries

Although we have grown strawberries and raspberries over the years we have not had any decent plants for some time now.  After 25 years the old raspberry canes have become exhausted and the strawberries have just faded away.  In addition the birds always seem to get to the fruit first!

As a lockdown project we have therefore decided to set ourselves up in style; clearing a previously unused part of the garden, building a new walk in fruit cage and buying in a fresh set of plants.

Having cleared a sunny area at the edge of the orchard of brambles and weeds we have invested in a 5 x 2.5 metre walk-in fruit cage from Harrod Horticulture.   The orchard is a very attractive part of the garden and the location for my daughter’s wedding next year so we felt it appropriate to go for something that had a little more style and be an interesting feature.  We therefore went for the peak roofed steel fruit cage.

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Once the ground was dug over constructing the fruit cage was quite straight forward.   It took us (2 people) four days in total to put up.  You certainly could not have done the job alone.  Putting up the peaked roof required one person up a ladder to hold the roof in place whilst the other bolted it together.  My tall Niwaki Japanese Tripod ladder was invaluable.   The instructions were all very clear and we had no problem with these.  It did however take us a whole day to put up the netting and sow it tightly together so that there we no gaps.  I think (and hope) it was worth taking the time to do this very carefully to ensure no birds will be able to access our precious fruit.

Whilst we were constructing the fruit cage we ordered a number of cold-stored strawberry plants from Ken Muir.  I have to say that I was very impressed with the quality of the plants we received.  We were not quite ready to plant them out when they came so potted them up into compost first before they were put out.  Every single plant has grown away beautifully so no complaints here at all.  In addition to the plants you get a comprehensive and informative 46-page guide on how to grow strawberries effectively.

Cold-stored plants are runners that were dug in January and kept in cold storage until required for sale.  If planted out before July they should crop in the first year.  We have gone for three varieties (early, mid-summer and late summer) that will allow us to crop over an extended period.  The varieties we have chosen are Vibrant (Early), Hapil (mid-summer) and Fenella (Late summer).

The ground we have used has been uncultivated for some years and although we have tried to remove all the perennial weeds and bramble roots I am sure we are going to be troubled with annual weeds for sometime.  We have therefore decided to grow the strawberries through black weed suppressing membrane cutting individual circular holes for each plant.  Hopefully this will mean we don’t have to use straw either to keep our fruit clean.

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Half of the fruit cage has been put down to the 36 strawberry plants (12 of each variety).  The other half will be put down to raspberries which we will buy and plant later in the year.  Rather than just leave this half fallow we have planted corgettes and sweet corn purely to make use of the space and cultivate the ground to reduce the annual weeds ready for autumn raspberry cane planting.

Every day now I go out and look at how the strawberries are progressing.  The plants look very good and the early variety is now flowering (11 June).  Very soon I hope the berries will start to form and ripen. How exciting!