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Starting a backyard berry patch in eastern Idaho

Lance Ellis,
We are at the point in our growing season where starting a berry patch sounds like a great idea.
People are envisioning home grown fresh fruit being picked and eaten, or turned into homemade jam. With sufficient planning (and some work) this dream will become a productive reality.
Here are some guidelines to help be successful and have an enviable berry patch.

Select a site that does not have perennial weeds growing there in the first place. Weeds such as field bind weed or quack grass can overrun and doom a berry patch to failure if not controlled prior to planting. So, either choose a site that doesn’t have chronic weed problems or kill the weeds prior to planting. Be careful when managing weed problems, and select the right product for the location and the particular weed you are managing according to the product label. Part of this consideration process should include if the product will leave a soil residue that could injure the new berry plants. Since berry patches are a long term investment its important to get a clean location to start out with. Perennial weeds are very hard, if not impossible, to manage after they infest a patch. And you don’t want to have to start over after they get established just because you didn’t get the weeds out ahead of time.
Grow the right kind of berry that will survive and thrive in our climates rather than trying to force something to grow that will just struggle or have marginal performance. For example some purple and black raspberries may grow very well in the Pocatello and Idaho Falls area, but if planted more North can have dieback during a severe winter.
Amend and improve the soil prior to planting to increase organic matter and nutrient content. It is critical to improve the soil with compost and other sources of organic matter prior to planting since you can’t get organic matter down into the ground after your plants are established. If possible, develop a long term planting schedule to improve the soil for a proposed berry patch a couple years prior to planting it. Mix in organic matter to a depth of at least 6 inches and if you can get it down within the top foot of soil that would be better. A little deeper if possible is beneficial as well to help prevent a hard pan soil layer from forming.
Build up your patch through raised beds for good drainage. While conventional raised beds are great, they also have added expenses of walls and maintaining them year to year. Instead you can use mounded soil to form rows that are a couple feet wide and a foot or two tall. This give you the benefits of drainage and adding soil amendments to make the soil better, but without the added expense of walls.

Lance Ellis,
Use drip irrigation to water. Avoid overhead irrigation (meaning sprinklers and such) as this can cause fruit deterioration in raspberries and rot problems in strawberry fruit.
Get plant starts from a clean reputable source. Avoid getting berry starts from neighbors or friends even though they may be free. Strawberry crowns or raspberry starts sold in stores have to be inspected prior to sale and have to come from a virus free source by law. This prevents or lessens the likelihood that you will be bringing a disease onto your property or into the berry patch since these are a long-term investment.
Select a good variety that performs according to the purpose you want. An example being strawberries that bear fruit heavily in June / July and then are done for the season, and other strawberries that will bear throughout the summer. If your trying to get all your fruit produced at once so you can use it for jam making, then select a variety with a large harvest in a small time frame.
Create wide walk ways and use mulches. Remember that most berries will want to grow up and branch out or spread on the ground, and having a nice wide walkway will give you and the plants adequate room to not be crowded. Use mulches on the walkways to reduce weed issues, water loss, and keep the fruit from touching the soil surface.
Avoid planting the same berry crop back into the same location if you remove it. This reduces the impact of soil borne diseases by interrupting the disease cycle and prevents a new planting from becoming infected.

Wishing you the best of luck in your berry gardens, and if you have further gardening questions please feel free to contact Lance at (208) 624-3102.

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