I encourage you to start with small fruit like berries and grapes. They are usually easier to grow than fruit trees, and are naturally smaller plants. Some of them fit easily into a mini fruit garden – this includes strawberries, blueberries, and gooseberries.
But you may find brambles, such as blackberries and raspberries, difficult or impossible to confine to small garden beds as they spread vigorously through their underground root systems. In addition, you may find their yields in small areas very low compared to other fruit.
Vining fruit, such as grapes, can grow large, but you can control them to fit within small trellises by doing regular summer pruning. You can also grow them on arbors, where the vines can give shade to benches or patios.
Strawberries are the one fruit you can harvest within a few months of planting. Plant in April, and you can pick ripe fruit in July. You can also fit these plants into a variety of locations – containers, separate small garden beds, or tucked along the south side of trellised fruit beds.
I suggest growing day neutral strawberry varieties, like Tristar, Tribute, Seascape, and Albion. “Day neutral” means that these varieties will continue to produce fruit, no matter the length of the daylight hours. They can produce ripe fruit from late May until September or even October – though they may pause production during very hot weather. They usually flower heavily every 6 weeks or so. You will harvest about half your crop in June, and then the remaining berries will ripen throughout the summer and fall.
Day neutral strawberries also produce fewer runners, which makes them easy to control in small beds and containers. However, they tend to wear themselves out with constant fruiting, and I recommend that you replace the plants every 2 years or so.
I love having fresh strawberries available every week for months on end, but it means that I need to harvest my plants at least twice a week for the whole growing season. Believe it or not, that can sometimes get tiring after a while! This is another reason I love growing my strawberries in raised containers, so I don’t need to kneel or squat to harvest them.
Some people prefer to harvest all their strawberries at one time in June, and preserve them to eat the rest of the year. June-bearing strawberries often have higher yields than the day neutral types, sometimes twice as much. This allows you to pick a large harvest all at once and be done for the year. I’ve tried growing June-bearers a couple of times, but managed to get heavy rains during the harvest period both times and lost both crops due to mold!
When I grow an ever-bearing type of strawberry (such as the day neutral “Tristar”), I don’t risk losing an entire crop due to bad weather. I also had a terrible time trying to keep the June-bearers within a small bed, as my 50 plants produced hundreds of runners. In addition, you can’t harvest June-bearers until the year after planting.
I prefer to grow strawberries with the “hill system.” You plant the strawberries 8-12 inches apart, and remove all the runners throughout the year. You also remove all the blossoms for the first 6 weeks or so after planting. This encourages the plants to become large and vigorous, and produce larger, better quality fruit. You should expect to harvest about one pint of fruit per plant each year, possibly more.
I always mulch my strawberries – to keep most weeds from growing, and to keep the soil moist. It also reduces the number of strawberries that rot from being in contact with wet soil. I prefer to use dry grass cuttings for this, as it’s easy to tuck between the densely growing plants.
If you grow strawberries in containers, it’s a good idea to give them extra protection during the winter. Plants growing in containers feel like they are in a much colder zone during winter, because their roots are exposed to the cold air. Either tuck the containers into a cold frame, or set them on the ground and cover them with a mulch – pine needles or straw does a good job for winter protection.
When I am ready to start a fresh bed of strawberries, I allow a few runners to take root in the old bed, and then transplant those young plants into the new beds.
Blueberries are my second favorite fruit in my mini fruit garden. Other than keeping them well mulched and watered, pruning them once in winter, and adding sulfur occasionally to keep the soil pH between 4 and 5, there really isn’t much work involved in maintaining them. In addition, these bushes should live for over 20 years.
Most blueberries that thrive in my area are the high bush types. They usually grow about 4-6 feet high, and about 4 feet wide. They don’t spread by runners, so they are easy to confine in small beds. You can expect to harvest about 4-6 quarts of berries each year from full-grown bushes, although some sources quote as much as 5-10 quarts.
Blueberry bushes are attractive enough for you to include in an edible landscape, but they are pretty picky about their soil requirements, so I usually prepare a separate bed just for them. The other advantage for having a separate blueberry bed is that you can cover all the bushes with one piece of bird netting when the berries start ripening. I pick the berries about once a week. Don’t expect to harvest many berries without a well-constructed cover of netting. The bird scare devices usually don’t work very well.
Blueberries require well-drained soil rich in organic matter. If you have clay soil, fill a raised bed with loam or sandy soil, and blend a generous amount of peat moss into it. Peat moss will add organic matter and help lower the pH at the same time. Before you plant the bushes, have the soil tested and be sure to use sulfur or other acidifying products if the pH is above 5.5. On established plants, always check the soil pH if the leaves are yellowish with green veins.
Blueberry bushes have very shallow roots, and they need a steady moisture level, so they greatly benefit from a layer of mulch at least 4-6 inches deep. As the mulch decomposes and shrinks, it’s very important to keep adding mulch once or twice a year. It would also be a good idea for you to set up a watering system for your beds. I usually wind a 50 foot section of a soaker hose back and forth within my 3′ x 16′ fruit beds.
Not many gardeners in the United States are familiar with gooseberries, mostly because there used to be Federal and state bans on growing them. This was an effort to prevent the spread of white pine blister rust. The federal ban was lifted in the 1960′s, and most states now allow the planting of gooseberries and some types of currants. Be sure to check into your state laws before purchasing any plants.
Gooseberries prefer a cool, moist, well-drained site. I am probably at the warmer limits for successful gooseberry production, so I make sure that my plants receive some afternoon shade and I keep a good layer of mulch around the roots. Although these bushes bloom very early in the spring, I haven’t noticed much frost damage and I still pick a good crop of berries each year. You can generally expect to harvest 4-6 quarts or more from mature bushes.
Gooseberries respond well to a variety of training methods. I have grown them as large bushes, or pruned into a tall and narrow shape. My biggest challenge is trying to harvest the fruit without getting badly scratched by their thorns. In my opinion, they are worse than thorny blackberries, partly because much of their fruit is deep within the bush. I am currently experimenting in pruning the bushes in a way to make the harvest easier for me.
Many of the common varieties sold by nurseries today, such as Pixwell, have very poor flavor compared to the better varieties. You may have to search a little more to find varieties with great flavor, disease resistance, and less thorns, but your effort will be well rewarded. I offer links under “Additional Resources” to two online articles with more information about gooseberries. My neighbor’s boys love eating gooseberries straight off the bush.
Brambles – Raspberries, Blackberries and more
In general, I don’t recommend growing brambles in a mini fruit garden. This type of plant loves to spread and can be very difficult to keep confined to small beds. I remember trying to confine a patch of wild blackberries at my previous home. Even though I carefully mowed around the patch every month, they still managed to spread their roots into a flower bed over 20 feet away!
In addition, the yield of fruit per square foot of bed is often quite small – though I have seen some domestic blackberry plants so heavily covered in fruit that it looked like the ripe berries weighed more than the plant supporting them!
That said, I’m experimenting with growing Purple Royalty raspberries. They are not supposed to spread as vigorously, though I still needed to remove several dozen shoots this year from the small bed they are growing in. I suspect that I may eventually dig them up and replace them with more blueberries.
Gardeners often neglect grapevines after they are planted. The vines become massive over time and overwhelm the arbors they are growing on – which ends up overwhelming the gardeners, too!
You don’t need a large arbor or trellis to successfully grow grapes, but it will take frequent pruning to keep the vines manageable on a small trellis. You can train and support grapevines in many ways. The best resource I’ve found so far on this topic is the American Horticultural Society Pruning and Training book that I list in my Recommended Books.
It is quite easy to grow one grapevine in a small 4′ x 4′ bed, and train it up two small trellises – one on the north side of the bed and one on the south side. Plant the grapevine in the middle of the bed, and train two vines from the main trunk, one up each trellis. You should be able to harvest somewhere between 16-32 bunches of grapes from this tiny bed.
If you are interested in growing grapevines in containers, Stella Otto in The Backyard Berry Book: A Hands-On Guide to Growing Berries, Brambles, and Vine Fruit in the Home Garden offers two pages of details on how to do that. She says that a vine in a 5-gallon container could produce about one dozen bunches of grapes – not bad!
Diseases are often a big issue with grapes. The best way to deal with diseases organically is by selecting disease resistant varieties, providing the vines with adequate ventilation, and following good sanitation rules. I prefer to grow seedless grapes, but I noticed during my research that seeded grapes offer more disease resistant varieties.
Small Fruit in the Home Garden (PDF file) A 12-page publication from Virginia Cooperative Extension
Next page: Dwarf Fruit Trees