Odd and Unusual Edible Berries

Berries. Delicious delectable berries. These incredibly delicious little morsels of flavor have lately been on my mind. They are sweet, yet packed full of nutrients.

Maybe more importantly to my little tale of planning and planting a farm, I happened to purchase acreage in what is known as the “berry basket” of the California Central Coast. The farms in my immediate neighborhood grow endless amounts of berries in the fields surrounding us. These berry farms range in size from the relatively small independent growers to huge national giants like Dole and Driscoll with 1000s of acres of berries.


Now, we simply don’t have enough land to profitably grow a single mono-crop at scale and make a profit. Not to mention, mono-culture, well, it’s kind of boring. However, the thought of growing berries has been growing in my mind as a way to use the obvious climate and soil attributes of the land we happened to purchase. Strawberries in neat plastic wrapped rows as well as endless fields of hoop houses filled with raspberries and blackberries are all over the hills and flats of Pajaro Valley. Berry growing obviously works here.

Strawberry_Fields_by_Rosalind Mitchell
Strawberry Fields – Image by Rosalind Mitchell


And berry shrubs are tough little bastards. They are relatively pest resistant, disease free, will grow in sun to part-shade as well as a variety of soils. Fruit tees, by contrast, can be really finicky, demanding, and downright wimpy. Fruit trees seem to be quite attractive to all sorts of bugs, blights, scabs, worms, moths and other forms of pestilence.

So, I have been researching unusual types of edible berries that should grow around here, and have come up with a short list (mmm maybe not so short list) of 25 or so varieties I want to try. The research has been a blast, because there are just a ton of weird sounding edible berries out there, and they all can be mine! Goumi, aronia, salal, chernika, goldenberries, gaulnetya, whortleberries – all these things to eat that I have never eaten before, how crazy exciting!

One part of the general grand scheme for this property is to plan and plant out a few rotating test gardens, where I carve out an eighth to a quarter of an acre, and plant many varieties of a theme, to see what thrives and what fails. Edible flowers, rare culinary herbs and a hop and grape trellis are all in the experimental plans. But I shall definitely be starting these plots first with a berry patch, probably as soon as next month, February. There just happens to be a circular area in front of the house dominated by a beautiful old Monterey Cypress. I think it should cast the right amount of filtered shade that some of these berries crave, and also generate the acidic soil many of them prefer as well. Also, it’s RIGHT in front of the house, and the ground is looking kind of barren and sad at the moment.

So, I am not going to bore you with the minutae of each of the 26 or so berries and cultivars I plan to order (for those interested in the nitty-gritty details, the planting diagram and full list of berries are listed below). Instead, I’ll just briefly describe the three with the most entertaining names – salal, adonia and whortleberry.

Salal_berries_by_Darren Giles
Salal – Image by Darren Giles


Salal is actually native to the American West, and I have definitely seen it on trail hikes and wondered, can I eat that and will it be yummy? Or will I die a terrible and agonizing death? Now, I know – eat it. Both the berries and the young leaves are edible and supposedly tasty. The Latin for salal is lovely too, Gaultheria shallon.

Salal_(Gaultheria_shallon)_Leaf_and_Flowers_by_Wing-Chi Poon
Immature Salal – Image by Wing Chi Poon


Aronia is also known as chokeberry, but since that is a rather unappealing name, we will go with the latin. There are also often an astringent berry, but delicious when cooked or preserved. Aronia makes a for a pretty ornamental bush, and the berries themselves are lovely to see. The Wikipedia page for aronia also has some interesting factoids about their incredibly high levels of anti-oxidants and polyphenols.

Aronia – Image from Wikipedia


Whortleberry , well, the name alone had me, is the single item on my list that has actually been somewhat hard to track down for purchase. It is originally from Nepal and is related to blueberries and cranberries. It’s supposed to be tasty, and good for butterflies and bees as well. Also known as  Vaccinium nummularia for the purists, this berry is not available at either of two favorite nurseries for this kind of thing: Raintree and One Green World. However, a bit of deep searching led me to the quite charming Bovees Nursery in Portland, which has not only my elusive Whortleberry, but a few other edible vacciniums I have never encountered before. I think I will now add Red Bilberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), which they also carry,  to my complete unusual berry ordering list below.

Vaccinium_parvifolium_jko0928107-by_Wallace W. Hansen
Red Bilberry – Image by Wallace W. Hansen

The little diagram below is a rough sketch of how I plan to lay out my berry patch. The actual planting will probably vary a bit, based on where we run irrigation, but I did want to at least make sure my planned orders would make sense.

Berry Patch 2

And this is my complete ordering list with links to their sources. If anyone else plans to order these berries, or other varieties, please let me know so we can compare growing notes.


plant in shade 4 ft apart

Highbush Cranberries:
8′ feet apart


Blue Honeysuckle:
plant 6 feet apart

full sun 4-6 feet apart

full sun 7′ apart

Sea Berries:
7′ apart in full sun


Goji Berry:
full to part sun, 8-10 feet tall
order 4 plants

Currants, Black Red, Pink & White:
4′ feet apart, sun or partial shade

sun or part shade, 3-4′ apart

10′ feet apart in sun or part-shade

Chilean Guava:
part shade, 3-4′ apart

3′ apart, 1/2 day to full sun

Chilean Wintergreen (3 varieties):
2-3′ apart, part-shade in hot climates

Pilgrim Cranberry:
6′ apart, full sun to part shade

3′ apart, part-shade

Early Blooming Honeyberry:
4-5′ apart, part shade in hot climates, full sun further north

Late Blooming Honeyberry:
4-5′ apart, part shade in hot climates, full sun further north

1′ apart, part shade in hot climates, full sun further north

Part shade, 1′ apart

Red Bilberry
Part shade, 4 ft apart


Winter Cover Cropping

All of this earth moving we have been doing is to get ready to plant our winter cover crop. We are late in doing this, but the winter rains are late in arriving, so the fates are smiling on us in a weird sort of way.

Cover crops are essential to organic farming for a few reasons. The basic point of a cover crop is to plant seed, not for harvest, but to improve the soil. Cover crops are generally planted and then just tilled under a few months later. This process adds organic material to the soil, fixes nitrogen (an essential nutrient for plants), and prevents erosion. We had originally planned to plant a mix of vetch, legumes and oats, but when I spoke with the guy at the seed store, he highly recommended we just plant organic cayuse oats at first to crowd out competing weeds.


So, right now, we have 750 pounds of cayuse oat seeds sitting in our barn. It’s a lot of seed, not particularly exciting in some ways, but it is the first thing we will actually plant on this property, which makes me do a little happy dance of joy. Before we actually plant this seed, the nicer guys with big machines will disc our property with this amazing looking machine:



The point of discing is to open up the soil for oxygen and water penetration and till under any existing weeds.

Next, they will rip our property with this even more impressive machine.

ripper ripping

Ripping is hopefully and probably not something we will have to do often. But right now, there is a clay pan, essentially a hard layer of impenetrable clay, sitting right under our 6-12″ of topsoil. This clay pan will make it hard for tree roots, water or nutrients to penetrate down deep into the ground unless we break it up first. So ripping is a specific farm implement and process for braking up this clay pan.

It’s funny, before we actually moved here and started getting more knowledgeable about soil workings, we were all excited to buy a tractor. And we STILL might buy a tractor. But we have quickly learned that we are surrounded by folks with Serious Machines, and it is easier and cheaper just to rent these machines and operators. It would be silly for us to acquire all of this machinery for our little acres and just use them once or twice a year. Again, I am so glad we moved to an area when agriculture has been a way of life for 100 years.

If you are interested in learning more about cover crops, I found these resources useful:

Cover Crop Basics from Wikipedia
Cornell University has a Cover Crops Micro-site
Winter Cover Crops from Purdue University


Dreamings, Schemings & Schematics

Although we are wannabe farmers, Jason and I have been designers forever. So, how do we start a new project? We examine our constraints, then start making diagrams and wireframes of course!

The land we bought comes with an old house, a horse barn, an office/workshop/garage and a requisite crappy shack. There are a few trees already there, but otherwise, it’s just acres of dirt. Very rich dirt, I should add, and some of the best in the country according to local lore.

not much there now ...
not much there now …

For a few months now, Jason and I have been reading every book about gardening and farming we can get our hands on, and collecting list of what we want to grow. Now that our offer on the property has been accepted, Jason drew some really neat before and after diagrams of what is already there, what we want to add and where it all will go.

This is what is on the property now:


And this is our dream for the future (so far):