Big flavors are delivered in sweet little packages when it comes to the diverse tastes that summer fruit offers.
Strawberries and cherries are ripe right now in Central Kentucky. Blueberries, and brambles like raspberries and blackberries, will plump up and ripen later in the summer.
If you've never tasted home-grown, fully ripened fruit, find out what you've missed. If you want to grow your own berries or cherries, here's a primer. Much of the information is from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and the agriculture college's horticulture department.
Strawberries are easy to grow, either in the ground or in special containers. Small-scale experiments with popular upside-down hanging bags, clay strawberry jar pots that have side pockets to contain the runners, and even the classic circular, 3-tier pyramid of raised beds about 6 feet in diameter at the base, can be fun ways to get going.
The low-growing perennial plants produce berries and leaves from a central crown sitting at soil level. Many varieties spread by sending out runners that eventually root in new locations.
Some standard cultivars are classified as "June-bearing," blooming to produce a large crop in late spring. Others, called "day-neutral" and "everbearing," produce berries periodically through summer until there's a frost.
Yet another choice, Alpine strawberries like Mignonette and an unusual yellow berry called Pineapple Crush, are generally smaller and more perishable, but they have superb flavors sought after by fruit gourmets.
Commercial berries are bred to withstand shipping, but they sacrifice some of the delicate flavor that home growers can capture. The choice of which strawberry cultivars to plant depends on how you intend to harvest and use them. Try a few choices to see which succeed for you.
Whichever you choose, here are some basics. First, strawberries do best when grown in well-drained loamy and even slightly sandy soil, to prevent roots and crowns from rot and other diseases. The heavy clay soils found in many suburban neighborhoods here might not drain adequately, so preparing raised beds or using planters is a good option. Strawberries love organic animal compost, hate weeds and prosper in a location with full sun and daily watering. Look for disease-resistant plants to set in prepared beds in late March or April. When you plant them, spread out the roots and set the crowns just at soil level.
Prepare your beds this fall to be ready to plant next spring. For better berry production in the following seasons, pinch off and remove blossoms during the first year of growth for June-bearing varieties like Earliglow, and until July for day-neutral types like Tristar. To avoid frost-heave damage in winter, cover the plants with a few inches of insulating straw mulch, raking it between rows in the spring to prevent weeds, cushion the berries and protect the roots from heat.
Why plant flowering ornamental cherry trees when you can have a front-yard supply of glowing red cherries every year instead?
Sour or tart cherry trees like Montmorency and dwarf North Star in residential landscapes not only produce fruit high in healthy anti- oxidants; they provide birds and other animals with habitat and forage.
As with other fruit crops, there is sometimes a race to harvest, which might require covering the tree with webbed netting to prevent birds from eating the cherries before you can pick them.
Unlike sweet cherry varieties, tart cherries generally survive well in this area without heavy pesticide use. The fruit is too sour to enjoy straight from the tree, but combined with sweeteners in jams and jellies, and in baked goods like pies and muffins, they are a rare taste treat.
Plant cherry trees in well-drained soil in a sunny location. Dwarf varieties, which grow to 8 to 10 feet tall, generally fit well into city settings and keep fruit within reach. Spring pruning and fertilization will maintain health and productivity.
How do you tell raspberries from blackberries? Raspberries have a hollow center when picked; black berries do not. Both grow on often-thorny canes and can be found growing wild on sunny Kentucky hillsides.
To plant them in your yard, establish a bed this year in well-drained, loamy soil in a sunny location, to be planted in spring with your choice of bramble. Be sure to buy certified disease-free plants. Some brambles take one year to produce; others take two.
Folks have their favorites. Former Fayette County Cooperative Extension agent Candace Harker loves the large, late-summer raspberries called Autumn Bliss. Master gardener Abe Fosson, who has grown brambles for decades in Woodford County, said the best raspberries to grow are those that bear on canes the first year.
"There is a variety called Caroline that does this and has a strong raspberry flavor," he said. "These canes fruit in the fall, and you mow them down the following spring to initiate new growth. You can expect to harvest a few berries the first year and many more in subsequent years."
Maintaining a bramble patch means knowing how and when to prune, cut back and support the canes for the varieties that you grow.
Blueberries not only require a year or two of soil preparation to assure good drainage, structure and organic content before planting, but like azaleas and rhododendrons, they also need soil amendment.
Blueberry plants need sulfur or aluminum sulfate to create an appropriate acidic pH level, and testing is needed to be sure the level is maintained in our limestone soil environment. Pine needle mulch helps to keep down weeds while helping to acidify the soil.
Once you meet those specifications, our climate is great for growing blueberries. Some popular cultivars include Duke and Darrow.
For more details, check out the UK College of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service publication HO-60, "Growing Highbush Blueberries in Kentucky." For more information about growing and maintaining all sorts of fruit in Kentucky, go to www.uky.edu/Ag/HLA/homefruit.html.