I know Christmas is the last thing on your mind now but for the berry growers of Nelson it is top priority. The berry farms are springing back to life and lets face it berries go with Christmas like chook goes with stuffing. In Nelson, going berry picking before Christmas to get the topping for the pav and trifle is a long standing tradition. Local berry farms get busier than Pak-n-Save on Christmas Eve. Even the local Lions club turns out to ensure orderly parking as the hordes descend.
And when in Nelson at Christmas there is only one berry on everyone’s list and that is the boysenberry. A fresh sun-ripened boysenberry will see off the best strawberry in any battle of the berries. They melt in your mouth with a floral sweet flavour that is rich and lingering. No wonder kids can eat their own weight in boysenberries. Ask any berry farmer and they will tell you they’d love to have a set of scales to weigh PYO patrons on arrival and departure.
When we moved to the Nelson region ten years ago, we were so well served with berry farms that I saw little point in putting in a berry patch at home. Two trips a year to the “pick your own” farms for the pre-Christmas boysenberries and the autumn blackberries and late blueberries was all that I needed to fill the jam jars and freezer for the year. Someone else tended the crop and all I did was turn up, pick and pay.
But sadly we’ve seen 3 out of our 5 local berry farms close in recent years. I could get outraged and on my dignity and say there should be a law against it, but seeing as the returns from berry farming are unlikely to match the returns from land development, I think my protest would fall on deaf ears.
So although there are a couple of great PYO berry farms still left in the region, it looks as though in the near future I may have to add a berry patch to the home orchard. Boysenberries are relative newcomers on the berry scene. They don’t even get a mention in my 1953 edition of the Yates Garden Guide, which covers Loganberries in some detail. They are a cross between a loganberry, blackberry and raspberry. They were bred in the USA in the 1930’s and made their way to New Zealand where they weren’t grown commercially on a widespread basis until the 60’s. Nelson was at the forefront of growing them and still produces the majority of the crop, although they are grown throughout the country.
A bit like the feijoa, we took to them with gusto, breeding many different varieties that you will not see outside of New Zealand. When I lived overseas I would have walked through a blackberry patch to get my hands on some boysenberry ripple ice-cream. The good news is that they are quite easy to grow at home throughout most of the country with a few simple tips.
Boysenberries like a slightly acidic soil, like most berries. If you’re not into testing the pH of your soil you can always just add plenty of pine needle mulch and good amounts of garden sulphur, along with your regular organic matter, lime and rotted manure. Most manure and organic matter is going to raise the pH of your soil whereas for berries you really want to aim for a pH of between 5 and 7 so sulphur and pine needles are a good investment.
Berries like well drained, deep worked soil. Once you’ve put your berry bed in it is going to be there for a while, so preparing the soil well, before planting, is a good investment in future harvests. Apply a good lot of mulch around the canes each spring to keep the weeds down and the moisture in over the growing season. Berry canes that are planted in poorly prepared soil and don’t get enough moisture, produce miserable wizened crops.
Build a fence to support your berries. A 3 or 4 wire fence around 6ft high provides the best structure to train canes onto. It allows good airflow to prevent mildew, doesn’t take up a load of room in the garden, gives you a good structure to put bird netting over, and lets you get to the fruit easily to pick it. Allow four feet between canes, or 1.2m in new money.
How many will you need? Depends how much you like them. One mature boysenberry plant will yield enough fruit to generously decorate 6 pavs, or 2 kilos of fruit if you’re not working in pav weight. For fresh eating, jam and freezing around 3-4 boysenberry plants will do most households.
Pruning is easy. Each winter remove the old fruiting canes at ground level and tie up the new canes that have grown the previous summer. They will fruit the coming summer. You can see in the photo above and below, how the new canes have been would up and over the wires and tucked back down again to the second wire. They are just springing back to life now (mid-September).
There are many varieties of boysenberry on the market but being from Nelson we love the Tasman and Mapua varieties for their reliable fruiting and production of fruit from December through to late February. Mapua is less prickly and slightly later, Tasman is reliably early.
Judging the perfect moment of ripeness for boysenberries is also a bit of a dark art, one that the blackbirds have complete mastery over. Boysenberries look ripe well before they are and a deep red boysenberry can still be mouth puckeringly sour. Wait till the fruit turn a slightly dull, dark black before picking. The slightest pressure should see it come away from the cane into your hand.
So now you know how to grow your own boysenberries I hope you have a new appreciation for the efforts that the berry farmers go to for you each year. Now all you have to master is how to make the perfect pav. I might be a berry beginner, but thanks to my Mum I make a mean pav.
Here is a copy of her recipe for the perfect marshmallow pav and trust me, its a lot easier than growing boysenberries. Oh and she’s thrown in her never fail sponge and trifle for good measure.
The holy trinity of Christmas fare. All you need is the berries!