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Honeyberries & strawberries: Earliest fruits of the season

Honeyberries are one of the first fruits of spring, even before strawberries. Bushes were in full bloom and buzzing with pollinators a few weeks back already.

Honeyberries are a great addition to the landscape. Compact bushes grow 4 to 6 feet tall and produce small, yellowish white, funnel-shaped flowers in early spring followed by elongated, dark blue berries. Honeyberries will grow in most soils, sometimes found performing better in clay than in sandy soils and handle a wide range of pH levels. These plants can be grown in sunny or shady locations; best in full sun in northern climates. The bushes themselves are hardy to -55 degrees F and the blossoms can withstand 20 degrees F. Honeyberries do require another unrelated honeyberry plant for pollination. Other good qualities of honeyberries in the landscape is that they are disease and pest resistant and do not send up suckers.

Wildlife will enjoy your honeyberries before you do, if not protected. Bushes need to be netted soon after the fruit set. Hopefully, you still have time to place bird netting over your bushes. It is best to raise the netting off the bush by a foot or more to prevent birds from sitting on the bush and feasting on the ripening fruit. I place stakes in the ground around the bush, then slip empty water bottles over the tops of the stakes. This ensures the netting doesn’t slide down the stakes. Once stakes with “caps” are in place I drape the netting over, making sure there are no openings. If there is an opening, the birds will find it and make their way in. Deer and rabbits also nibble on unprotected honeyberries.

The fruit turns blue before fully ripening, which takes another three weeks. Harvest by letting taste be your guide. You can hand pick the ripened fruit or do the shake method – place a sheet or cardboard under the bush to catch the falling fruit as you gently shake the bush.

The flavor of honeyberries is very hard to describe. Many just say it is a “mystery berry” flavor. Some people are reminded of blackberry or cherry flavors and others even taste grape or kiwi flavors. No matter the “mystery berry” flavor, the zesty berries melt in your mouth and they have a very thin skin. Honeyberries are high in antioxidants and can be eaten right off the bush or frozen for later use in your favorite blueberry recipe.

Like honeyberries, strawberries are also an early spring fruit. Just a few weeks ago, they were also buzzing with pollinators and are now beginning to share their sweet, red fruits. Strawberries are one the most prized fruits used in North Dakota and according to the USDA, Americans eat 3.4 pounds of fresh strawberries and 1.8 pounds of frozen strawberries per year.

Varieties of strawberry cultivars are grown worldwide, varying in size, color, flavor, shape, and ripening time. Plants are mostly propagated from runners. Under certain conditions, strawberry plants have been known to form matted colonies that live up to 50 years.

A strawberry blossom averages five to seven petals and are often white. However, some hybrids have pink to reddish colored blossoms. A typical fruit has 150 to 200 seeds on its surface. Each seed needs to be pollinated, otherwise the fruit will be misshapen. Even though strawberries are often referred to as berries, they are in fact not; they belong to the rose family.

When it comes to being disease and pest resistant, strawberries are not as lucky as honeyberries. There are roughly 200 species of pests known to attack strawberries, both directly or indirectly. Slugs, moths, fruit flies, and aphids are the most common pests in North Dakota gardens. Strawberry plants can fall victim to a variety of diseases as well; powdery mildew, leaf spot, and leaf blight to name a few. The fruit, itself, is also at risk, as it can rot or get gray mold while on the plant. The main culprit however, is wildlife; birds are the biggest thief. Strawberry crops will benefit by netting the plants early on.

Harvest fully ripened, red strawberries because once they are picked, they will not continue to ripen.

If you want to enjoy these sweet, springtime fruits, get them covered now. Once the wildlife gets a taste, the fruit could be all gone in just a matter of a day.

Happy Gardening!

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