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Q: What can you tell me about growing haskaps, the berries that I am reading about?

A: I have no hands on experience with growing haskaps; what I can give you is a summary of what other growers have learned. Haskaps are the latest "new" berry in this area, and trials are ongoing at the Agricultural Research Center in Corvallis. Haskaps have long been grown in Japan, and the name comes from the Japanese. Haskaps also are called honeyberry, blue berried honeysuckle, and fly honeysuckle.

A different strain of the berries comes from Russia. The Japanese types ripen about the same time as June bearing strawberries, the Russian types about two weeks earlier. Early flowering and berry formation might be a problem in some local gardens if they are prone to late frosts. Gardeners might find it worthwhile trying haskaps if they can grow early strawberries as opposed to day neutral ones.

Considerable breeding of haskap varieties is being carried out in Canada, particularly in Saskatchewan and Ontario, although there are a number of growers in Nova Scotia also. (Additionally, the berries are grown in Poland.) Haskaps have been grown in Saskatchewan for at least 15 years, and there are now five named Canadian varieties. The wild plant from which new cultivars are derived is a honeysuckle, Lonicera caerulea.

Haskaps are very cold hardy, so that low winter temperatures are not a problem for growers. Late spring freezes are. The wild plants grow on the peat soils of boreal forests, in mountains, and along both coasts of the northern Pacific Ocean. In gardens they need soils with plenty of organic matter and at least half a day of sun. The plants are quite tolerant of wet soils, though.

Haskap plants are long-lived perennials, and they need ample growing space. Plants eventually reach four or five feet in both height and width; the usual recommendation is to plant them six feet apart. At least two varieties must grow near each other because bushes must cross-pollinate to produce berries. The newer cultivars are considered to have the best flavor, and all the cultivated types bear bigger crops than their wild ancestors.

Haskaps fruit on one year old stems; that means three years is required from planting time to a sizable harvest. Once established, however, plants often are productive for 30 years. Some berries are oval, some are cylinders; all are about a third of an inch across.

Berries turn from green to blue about ten days before they are ready to eat. When the inside of the berry turns from green to purple, it is ripe. A whole bush will ripen at the same time. But even when ripe, the berries are very tart and are not eaten fresh. The flavor is variously described as a mixture of elderberry, black currant, and raspberry, with perhaps a little apple thrown in.

Haskap berries are most often made into jam or pastry filling. They also flavor yogurt and ice cream. An important new product from haskaps is wine; the plants will grow north of areas in which it is possible to grow wine grapes. Nova Scotia growers, for instance, hope to establish a local haskap wine industry. The berries have seeds, but edible ones, and they freeze well.

Haskaps seem to be free of diseases and pest insects, but both birds and deer are problems. If the berries are to reach harvest time, they must be protected from berry eaters both hoofed and winged.

Q: If we are going to plant our first vegetable garden this spring, what should we start with?

A: What do you like best to eat? If your friends grow a tomato plant and some green beans because those are their favorite veggies, that is all to the good. If you really crave green onions and peas popped out of the pod and eaten raw, guess what you should plant! No vegetable is impossibly difficult to grow, and most can succeed in a western Montana garden. Sweet potatoes and okra probably are best left until you have a few years' experience growing southern crops in a northern climate.

I am reading a book by Valentine Low, a beginning gardener who says that his garden has "salad, of course. My wife is very big on salad. We eat salad several times a week, almost every day during the summer, and I sometimes think that my wife won't ever really be happy until we are having salad with every meal. One of these days I think I might investigate Eliza's family tree, just to make sure that there isn't a rabbit in there somewhere, a few generations back." It sounds as if he might choose to grow a few different vegetables also. For salad lovers, greens are quick and easy crops to grow. They also give a good economic return. Salad greens are expensive to buy, compared to other vegetables.

The most important idea for a beginning gardener is not what to grow but how much. By all means start small. An amazing quantity of vegetables will come from a garden just 4 x 8, the size of a sheet of plywood. In that space there will be many good meals, but the garden will not require all the spare time of every family member whether they like it or not. And the weeds will not have enough space to take over that size plot by midsummer. It will be a success. If you become a diehard gardener, there will be plenty of years in the future to expand operations.

Mulch

Anyone who reads this column, regularly or occasionally, will remember seeing the word "mulch." I bore even myself with my constant recommendations that mulch is a cure for most garden problems—drought, heat, cold, to name a few.

Anna Pavord, the British garden writer, describes still another use for mulch in her book The Curious Gardener. She suggests that it is the secret to creating perfect garden soil. The ideal soil, she says, "is the fabled loam, and you can magic it into being by adding humus to your soil at every possible opportunity. The easy way is by mulching heavily over the surface of the soil, leaving the earthworms to drag the humus underground. Humus opens up heavy soils and adds bulk to light ones. Few remedies work with equal success on diametrically different problems but humus is, as I said, magic."

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