Soft fruit is one of the easiest and most rewarding things to grow at home. It can be squeezed into a small space, and needs minimal care. Soft fruit also freezes well, helping to avoid the ‘courgettes with everything’ glut scenario that can happen when growing your own food.
Growing your own soft fruit gives you a far wider choice than is available in shops, where fresh gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants are hard to find. And the just-picked flavour is so much better than something that’s been sat on a supermarket shelf!
Here are some tips for growing a handful of delectable soft fruits you’ll be enjoying fresh from the plant in no time.
Top tip: remember that birds also love soft fruit so it pays to give them some protection. Net individual plants or invest in a fruit cage, but make sure pollinating insects can get in.
This is one of my favourite soft fruit crops and I grow both green and red varieties. One bush will provide enough fruit for a few pies and they freeze really well, so save them for a taste of summer in the depths of winter.
Gooseberries grow well in borders or containers. If you need to free up space underneath they are happy to be trained as cordons or standards.
They like a sunny position and soil that doesn’t get waterlogged. Add compost or well-rotted manure before planting – bare root from late autumn to early spring, container-grown all year round.
Prune gooseberries in winter, taking out old wood and crossing stems. Shorten long branches by about a third. Aim for a goblet shape, as an open centre will allow good air circulation, which helps to stop fungal disease.
Feed the bushes with a general fertiliser in late winter, add mulch to conserve moisture and water them well in dry spells.
There’s something rather magical about clusters of shiny red, white and blackcurrants hanging like strings of brightly coloured jewels.
Black and red currants are high in vitamin C, while the high pectin levels of white currants make them perfect for adding to jam to ensure a good set.
Blackcurrants are best grown as bushes, although you can choose a compact variety and put them in a pot. Red and white currants can also be grown as cordons. All like a sunny spot sheltered from cold winds.
Prune in mid-winter when the plants are dormant. Blackcurrants fruit on younger stems, so take out older wood. Red and white currants fruit on old wood so you only need to remove damaged or diseased stems. Stop the bushes sprawling by cutting new growth back to a couple of buds in early summer.
If you have a bit more space, raspberries are a must. Choose carefully and it’s possible to be eating home-grown raspberries from mid summer to autumn.
Grow summer and autumn fruiting varieties to get as long a season as possible, and a yellow raspberry for something a little different.
Plant canes in spring, about 45 to 60cm apart in ground that has been well weeded as this is difficult to do once the raspberries are established.
Summer-fruiting raspberries will need some support – stakes and wires are the usual method. Autumn-fruiting varieties don’t need tying in.
When it comes to pruning, autumn raspberries are the easiest as you simply cut them to the ground over winter. Once the fruit is picked on summer varieties, cut those stems down to ground level, leaving the new growth to fruit the following year. That should then be tied to the supports.
One warning about raspberries: they can travel and will rapidly spread. Any unwanted canes are easily removed – or passed on to friends.
Summer wouldn’t be complete without a bowl of tasty strawberries. The good news is they’re simple to grow at home with early, mid and late season varieties to give a long picking season.
They’re also ideally suited to containers – try a strawberry pot or hanging basket if space is tight. Just remember to keep container-grown plants well-watered.
If you’re planting in a border, a sunny spot is best and add plenty of compost or well-rotted manure. Space plants around 35cm apart with 75cm between rows. Plant during spring or autumn, and avoid planting when ground is too cold and wet.
You can get potted plants or runners and both should be planted level with the soil – too deep and they may rot, too high and they will dry out.
Cover plants with fleece if frost is forecast in May when the fruit is developing, and put straw or matting under the berries to keep them clean. Remove this when you pick the fruit.
Replace strawberry plants every four years – easily done by rooting runners that are sent out from the parent plants. Be sure plant them in a new location to avoid the build-up of disease and to make sure your soil has some variety.
Check out our handy video guide to growing your own strawberries:
If you get a taste for soft fruit, there are lots more to try: blueberries, tayberries, loganberries and blackberries, and even more obscure fruits like boysenberries.