Growing Berries in Wyoming
Deep in the throes of the pandemic, while so many Americans were stockpiling toilet paper, my family indulged in our own special luxury - fresh, organic berries. Really, is there anything more delicious? And they are so versatile and bring a touch of the special to just about anything - fresh berries in a yogurt parfait with granola, berries on ice cream, berries on a torte, pavlova. My personal favorite? The simple decadence of fresh berries and a sprinkle of sugar, and swimming in fresh cream (I am particularly fortunate in this arena as my family keep Jersey milk cows who produce decadent cream), and a sprinkle of sugar, is heightened by the memory of my father indulging in this treat when I was a little girl. Having grown up in a family with little material wealth at the end of the Depression, I imagine that this dessert was more common on his Wisconsin childhood table than any other. Perhaps his enjoyment was also heightened by the memory of his boyhood. Now that I hopefully have your tastebuds tingling, let’s discuss the berries themselves. Fresh organic berries are not inexpensive. And since for those of us in Wyoming they must come from Mexico or California, they do not last long. They have spent so much time in transit, I have found that a couple days in the fridge is the longest I can expect. There is nothing more frustrating than to have spent hard earned money on gorgeous berries only to discover that my planned breakfast or treat has been sabotaged by mold on the berries! My solution? Why, to grow the berries myself, of course! But Wyoming’s climate can be very unforgiving for all but the hardiest of, well, anything, but especially fruit. I also wanted to ensure that my berries were organic. Due to their attractiveness to insects and their susceptibility to various fungi and other plant diseases, conventional berries are highly sprayed. I have no interest in feeding my family pesticides and fungicides for breakfast. Add to this the challenge of raising berries that taste good. Sometimes the hardy fruits that we can grow in this area turn out to not be the juicy, flavorful treats we get from California. I wanted fresh, organically grown berries that also tasted good. This was going to take some experimentation! So with the assistance of a Specialty Crop Grant through the USDA and the State of Wyoming, I set out to do just that. My plan involved planting six varieties each of strawberries and raspberries, growing them with organic methods, and then evaluating them for their hardiness, survivability, and, of course, good taste. My family started preparing the ground the spring of planting. This, sadly, is not the best way to go about it. I tend to rush in where angels fear to tread, and once I set on this path, I was full-speed ahead. I would have saved us much trouble in the end if we had prepared the ground the year before. Everyone says you should do this, and I am here to tell you - seriously - prepare your ground the year before! We planted where grass had grown for pretty much forever and it was determined to keep growing there. Tilling the grass the year prior to planting, as well as again in the spring, would have gone far in keeping us from the tedious weeding of grass amongst berry plants and canes. The other weed management tactic I would highly recommend with strawberry plants is the use of plastic mulch. I did not want to use this material as I try to avoid plastic as much as possible and just didn’t want to deal with it. However, there are biodegradable plastic mulches available, and I assure you that in hindsight, I would definitely have used them. For the raspberries, a light mulch of wood chips is recommended, but since raspberries spread by suckers underground, you must remove this by the second year. The challenge of keeping these berries free of grass simply can’t be overstated. I will add the caveat that we had very extensive berry patches, along with a myriad of other responsibilities on our diversified farm, so perhaps these methods would not be necessary with a smaller planting and sufficient time to keep up with the weeds. But really, unless you really enjoy weeding, I would suggest these methods to make your berry endeavors a little less frustrating! MANAGEMENT I have to be honest, part of my experiment involves which berries would thrive under almost negligent care. We simply do not have the time to baby large plantings of berries. I don’t believe any commercial grower of local berries wants to spend any more time managing the plantings than necessary as that will cut into profitability. I suspect that if you choose to devote more time to the cultivation of your plants, that you will experience greater yields than I did, so what I will share that we did is probably the bare minimum you can get away with. For the first year, we planted the bare-root strawberry plants and raspberry canes in tilled rows prepared with about an inch of compost worked in to the soil. We planted them as early in the year as we felt we could safely do so, around mid-May. A light frost does not seem to harm them, which we in Wyoming may still expect up until June. I will not write much about the daily maintenance of strawberries and raspberries - There are many resources available which are far more knowledgable than I am. I will note that although I recommend drip irrigation highly for its efficiency, we have put up our system incrementally and have often used sprinklers. Although we used sprinklers on a crop susceptible to mold, we did not experience any problem with that. I attribute that to our relatively arid climate. So drip irrigation is very important for efficiency of both time and water, but sprinklers won’t ruin your crop. PESTS
In our experience, we did not have any trouble with plant diseases. Our biggest challenge once the berries were planted were protecting them from pests. Those came down to three: deer, ants, and birds. Along with preparing the ground, the other project I would recommend before planting your berries is fencing. Raspberry canes and strawberry plants are not cheap, and you want to protect your investment and hopefully, make some money selling berries. Deer fencing is quite expensive, but absolutely necessary. I thought I would have the summer to get deer fencing up, before the deer population came in close for fall, but I was wrong. Just one deer can do a tremendous amount in just one night. Don’t underestimate their ability to get in where those delicious berry plants are and invest in fencing that is at least 6 - 8 feet high. Ants are a big problem on our farm. They will eat parts of every strawberry on the plant if you let them. Since we do not use poison on our farm, our control methods involved teenage boys and a flame thrower. If this does not sound like a great idea to you, ant traps placed around hills close to the berry patches will also be effective.
And, of course, birds love the beautiful red berries as much as we do. We used flexible hail/bird netting. It is important to have trellises on which to drape the netting above the berry plants or the birds will just peck through the openings in the netting. It is also important to ensure the netting goes all the way to the ground or some will find their way inside.
Isn’t this the section you have actually been waiting for? I probably do not want to know the number of hours I have spent on reading books and internet reviews in order to select the best cultivars of fruit, for every fruit variety I have planted on our farm over the last few years! It is fun, though, and fills me with anticipation for the delicious fruit forthcoming! STRAWBERRIES As I mentioned, I selected six different cultivars of strawberries. There are two main divisions here: June-bearing and everbearing. Junebearing produce one large crop annually, everbearing produce two smaller crops that tend to run into each other, hence the term “everbearing.”
I chose three everbearers (Day Neutrals) and three June-bearers. For the Junebearers, I chose cultivars known for fruiting at different times of the season - an early season, a mid-season, and a late, respectively. Those cultivars were: Gallette, Jewel, and Sparkle. For my everbearers, I chose Seascape, Mara de Bois, and Albion. In my experience, I found the more heritage Junebearers to be the most robust. Additionally, the plantings can retain their vigor for 3 - 5 years. If you are looking for a large crop that ripens all at once for making jam or for freezing, Junebearers are definitely the way to go. My suggestion, if you have the room, would be to do something similar to what I did, by having several varieties that will produce their main crop at different times of the seasons, thus insuring a somewhat consistent crop over the course of the summer. . I have to say that I felt that all three of the varieties I chose, as well as Honeoye (which I have grown previously), are all delicious. My family has done blind taste tests, and although we each had our favorites, all were quite good. Gallette was definitely the most vigorous for us, which has its own challenges as you will do well to prune some runners to keep your berry quality high.
As for the everbearers, those all did quite well, too. They just seemed to be a little less robust than the Junebearers. The plantings of everbearers should be replaced every couple years if you want to maintain high productivity. However, there is something special about wandering through the strawberry patch in late September and still finding a handful of sweet strawberries, which makes ever bearers a treat. Certainly if you would prefer to only grow one variety, and don’t want a large single crop for processing, the varieties I tested were all quite good. I do have to note one flavor standout - Mara de Bois. It tastes as sweet as candy! If you are looking for large berries, this is not your berry, but if you are looking for taste, their small size is worth it. RASPBERRIES Again, I selected six varieties of raspberries. The mix is a little different here. Raspberries fall into two categories, as well, floricanes and primocanes. I can never remember which is which, but essentially, they are fall bearers and summer bearers. For summer bearers, I again chose varieties that fruited at different times of the season. For early season, I have tried both Prelude and Boyne. To me, Boyne’s flavor far surpassed that of Prelude. For mid-season, I chose AAC Eden. For fall bearers, I chose Joan J, which ripens earliest, then Caroline. I avoided any that fruited too late in the year because of our chance of frost. Both were delicious! For fun, I chose two yellow raspberries, Anne and Fall Gold. Both are fall bearers. I have had good success with Anne, which has a slightly tropical flavor to it. I was pushing the envelope a bit with Fall Gold, which is rated for Zone 5 instead of our Zone 4. Although Anne has done well, and I enjoy the flavor, I have found neither of them to be as hardy as red raspberries. Nevertheless, if you are growing for market, or just want the variety of a yellow raspberry, Anne is definitely worth a try. Although having raspberries early in the summer is a wonderful thing, I much prefer fall bearers for their ease of management. Fall bearers simply need a mowing when the canes are dormant. However, summer bearers require you to prune the fruiting canes after harvest, but since it bears on second year canes, you can’t just mow the canes like you can with fall bearers. With a small berry patch for personal use, that is definitely an option. For commercial production, I found the selective pruning of the summer bearers to be too laborious.
Growing fruit in Wyoming can be challenging, but it can be done. I believe all the cold hardy cultivars I trialed to be excellent in flavor and really quite easy to grow, as long as the proper preparations are made and your crop is adequately protected from pests. With some investment and a little sweat equity, you can soon be enjoying the sweet fruits of victory!