Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Soft Fruit

Since 2004 we have been using organic food in the hotel sourcing quality local and organic products when ever possible. One of the problems we had experienced was sourcing good organic soft fruit. So when in 2007 we started looking at growing and producing as much food as possible on the farm for the hotel restaurant, growing our own soft fruit seemed an obvious choice.

In the autumn of 2007 we planted several different types of soft fruit including; raspberries, blackberries strawberries, tayberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries and blueberries. When available we planted several different varieties of each of the different fruits with the idea of seeing which ones were best adapted to our conditions. Two and half years later we are now enjoying the fruits of our work and have gained a lot of experience about growing soft fruit.

We decided to dedicate the largest area of the soft fruit beds to growing raspberries; planting 5 different varieties with different harvesting times. Its the third year we are cropping raspberries and now all the varieties are in full production.
The raspberry beds in their first season (2 years ago)
The raspberry beds a couple of weeks ago
This year we started picking the raspberries in mid June and should keep on harvesting them till late September. On average we pick about 1 kg of fruit every other day. Over a 3 month period that adds up to a lot of fruit and a lot of raspberry desserts in the restaurant. We use about two thirds of what we pick fresh and freeze the remaining third for the times of the year when we don’t have fresh raspberries available. The raspberries have been very successful and the abundance of them has inspired many new recipes such as raspberry gazpacho!
Hazelnut meringue biscuit served with raspberries and kirsch cream, one of the many desserts made with our raspberries.
We originally planted 3 strawberry beds with the idea of having them as a permanent perenial bed. We had very good production the first year but noted the production was dropping in the 2nd year. So we decided to plant a new strawberry bed every year and only keep the beds for 2 years, pulling the old plants out at the end of the second year. This means we now have to incorporate strawberries in to our crop rotation cycle, but are getting a better continual crop of strawberries as a consequence.
Strawberry fruit waiting to be picked.

The blackcurrants have also been very successful, producing a good crop in early July. We started of with only one variety but have since planted 2 more different varieties to extend the season. We freeze most of the blackcurrants and then use them in desserts as needed.
Healthy blackcurrant bushes.

Blackberries, Tayberries and Boysenberries
We planted two different thorn less blackberries; an early and mid season variety. The mid season variety “Chester” is particularly good showing drought tolerance and producing large lovely tasty fruit. (It also happens to be the most planted blackberry variety in the world!) The early variety Loch Tay is quite good, but the fruit can be a little sharp. Both varieties have a good upright habit making them easy to train.

Mid season blackberries

The hybrid berries have been less successful. The tayberry is very early, fairly good eating but has a rather weak plant which never seems to be able to cope with the amount of fruit it produces and the fruit and plant can end up looking rather poorly. This is the first year we cropped the boysenberry (which is also supposed to be draught tolerant,) but on our farm it produced a rather small inferior fruit. Both the tayberry and boysenberry have straggly plant habits which are more difficult to train. I will keep them both for another year or two to see how they perform with time and then decide whether or not to grub them.


Gooseberries and Blueberries.
The gooseberry bushes are now three years old, but we still haven’t eaten a single gooseberry! On our farm the bushes suffer from a continual attack of saw fly. This wasp like fly lays its eggs on the leaves and then hundreds of small caterpillar hatch out and proceed to leave the bushes leafless. I refuse to spray the bushes so I think we will dig the gooseberry bushes out at the end of this year having decided 3 years is long enough to say they are not suitable for our site.
A leafless gooseberry bush!
Blueberries is the other disappointment, though it’s come as no surprise to me. They require an acid soil which we don’t have. However Joe loves blueberries and wanted me to try them on the farm. The bushes always look sick and chlorotic and practically produce no fruit. So those will be a few more bushes which we will be soon removing.

A rather poor blueberry bush (on the right) with lettuce and peppers planted in the same bed.

At present Joe goes to a pick-your-own farm about 30 kms from the hotel for the blueberries, where she picks all the blueberries we need for the restaurant. We will carry on doing this for the near future as the blueberries are not adapted to our site and Joe loves using them in the restaurant.

Site Specific

What I think is important to realise is that with small diverse systems a lot of the success and techniques are site specific. So for us (and other people setting up small diverse holdings) it is important to learn from traditional practises in the surrounding area but at the same time be open to new crops, varieties and practices. We believe it’s important to conduct trials and experiment so as to find what best suits your own conditions in your own location and be aware this can vary from year to year. With respect to varieties and variety trails, however good a single variety might seem at a particular moment we mustn’t be tempted to put all our eggs in one basket but always grow a few different varieties. This helps towards building a more resilient system and you never know when that will pay dividends!

The hotel vegetable garden with the soft fruit beds to the left and the mountains in the background, a rather lovely site!

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Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.