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Backyard Elderberries

Low-maintenance elderberries for an effortless, bountiful harvest.

Fruit of the native elderberry. Photo by D. Fried.

Fruit of the native elderberry. Photo by D. Fried.

By David Fried of Elmore Roots

Using our experience from 36 years of growing elderberries on a rugged hillside, in Elmore, Vermont, Zone 3, we offer this effortless recipe for a successful start to a fruitful ending, for growing this nutritious, native berry.

Start with well-rooted plants either in pots or freshly dug with lots of roots. We use three gallon pots or the equivalent. The height of the plant is not as important as abundant, healthy roots.

Choose your area where you are going to plant them. Along a stream bank they will double as a riparian zone native plant and a shelter and food source for birds and other beings. As a hedgerow or screen planting they will soften the view and sounds from the road or from the neighbors.

Plant them about six to eight feet apart and know that they will take a few years to fill in.

The elderberry bush will put up shoots as far as six feet from its base. The shoots look for light and when they find it, they thrive there, and you will have a new large bush in a few years.

A row of elderberries just planted in a field with a high water table at Elmore Roots organic fruit farm. Photo by D. Fried.

A row of elderberries just planted in a field with a high water table at Elmore Roots organic fruit farm. Photo by D. Fried.

Tips:

We always put rock minerals in the bottom of the hole when planting our elderberries. A combination of rock phosphate, greensand or another natural potassium source, kelp meal, Sulpomag or an equal works well. Sulpomag is a potash fertilizer containing potassium 22%, 10.8% magnesium, and 22% sulfur. It has a very low percentage of chloride (under 2.5%), which minimizes the potential for fertilizer “burn.” Add about two full trowels to each planting hole.

For wetter areas, please do not dig hole to plant but use this method we developed. Place the root ball you have slid out of its pot right on top of the earth where you want it, and pin it to its spot with a five-foot bamboo or wooden stick which also serves as a marker. Then dump some good earth and compost around the base to cover all the roots. These plants will now have well drained conditions for a couple of years until they are more established and more vigorous and can send their roots deeper into wetter earth.

You only need to keep the grass competition down for about two to three years. After that, they are tough enough to make it on their own by having extensive roots and by shading out competition. We put a wheelbarrow of compost around the base of each bush, spring or fall, then a layer of cardboard box or newspaper, and then bark mulch on the top. Earthworms and soil fungi love this “sandwich” and the bushes will need a lot less water and a lot less coddling to take off and grow.

After three years, you should be getting some nice crops that should continue for 25 years or more. At first it is good to mow around the outside of the mulched bases, but after they are well-established, they will not care. We have been harvesting our elderberries for 35 years from the same bushes and doing nothing for them for the last 30. This is a fruit that is native in Vermont and therefore requires less than most berries for success. Plant, harvest and enjoy!

 

 

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