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Small fruit can harvest big rewards

By Amy-Lynn Albertson

Rowan County Extension Director

When it’s cold and wintery out, I like to spend my time perusing seed catalogs and magazines about gardening.

Edible landscaping is very popular right now, and it’s easy to incorporate into your current landscape.

In the horticulture world, when we refer to “small” fruit we mean fruits that grow on vines, bushes and canes. In our area, that means strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, table grapes, muscadine grapes and wine grapes. Sometimes I incorporate figs in that mix, too.

Table grapes often intimidate people, because you have to train them and prune them annually. However, once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard.

The variety selection of table grapes is critical. Many people think Concord grapes are the ones to grow, but it’s one of the hardest grapes to grow with quality. Concord grapes are more susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases, making an aggressive fungicide program part of their production system.

I recommend the cultivar Mars from the Arkansas breeding program as a replacement for Concord. Mars is a reddish-blue colored, seedless grape with a foxy flavor (a flavor often associated with Vitis labrusca grapes). Berries are medium in size and are slipskin. Skins are thick, and fruit cracking is seldom a problem.

Yields of Mars can be 10 or more tons per acre. It is extremely cold hardy with a very vigorous growth habit. It is the most disease resistant of the Arkansas cultivars.

Blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are three of the most popular berries at the farmer’s market every summer. The demand for fresh market berries has increased as the medical fields have found some impressive news about these fruits.

Blueberries are full of antioxidants and may reduce the build-up of so-called “bad” cholesterol that contributes to cardiovascular disease and stroke, according to scientists at the University of California at Davis.

In another USDA Human Nutrition Center (HNRCA) lab, neuroscientists discovered that feeding blueberries to laboratory rats slowed age-related loss in their mental capacity, a finding that has significant implications for humans. Again, the high antioxidant activity of blueberries probably played a role.

Blackberries and raspberries are also high in antioxidants and delicious to eat. These berries are relatively easy to grow in Rowan County and can be produced organically without too much trouble.

In our area, the Rabbiteye blueberry is better suited for heavy clay soils. The Rabbiteye blueberry varieties can be harvested from late May to late June. For blackberries, harvesting of some varieties begins about a week or two after the strawberry season — about the second or third week in June — and can go on from there until late July. Traditionally raspberries have not performed well in the Piedmont, but new cultivars on the market are showing a lot of promise.

Blueberries and grapes take about three years before you will have a full harvest, while blackberries and raspberries will have a full yield the second year after planting.

For a small farm operation, there is considerable market potential for pick-your-own, roadside stands, farmers markets, wine production and selling to restaurants and smaller, locally-owned grocery stores.

If you are interested in learning more about small fruit production, the N.C. Farm School is presenting a workshop on Small Fruit Production as part of the “Putting Small Farms to Work” series. The class is on Feb. 20 in Lincoln County from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

We will spend the morning learning about site selection, production systems, variety selections, etc. After lunch, we will travel to a berry farm and see how they manage their crop and listen to their farm story.

The cost of the workshop is $25, and you can register online at http://go.ncsu.edu/puttingsmallfarmstowork.

This workshop is the first in a series; the other classes will be on pastured poultry, sheep and goats, and pastured hogs.

If you are looking to buy some small fruit plants for your landscape or farm, the Rowan County Extension Center has a plant sale going on now. We have table grapes, muscadines, blueberries, blackberries and figs for $10 per 1-gallon pot. You can order online at http://go.ncsu.edu/2018springplantsale or call 704-216-8970.

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