Eat + Drink » The Drunken Botanist

Put a Berry in It



Before we get started with the next installment of our Year of Cocktail-Themed Gardening, I have an announcement to make. Flavored vodkas are an abomination that should be stricken from cocktail menus worldwide, but particularly here in Humboldt County. I made my round of the bars this holiday season, and I was horrified to see one cocktail menu after another dominated by blueberry vodka, black cherry vodka, green apple vodka, and, I'm sorry to say, fluffed marshmallow vodka.

Putting flavored vodka in a glass with some canned fruit juice or soda, artificially flavored cocktail syrup and sugar on the rim does not a cocktail make. These drinks look like they were invented by people who had their first adult beverage at Applebee's and never looked back. Please, people, learn how to make a proper drink. Explore the possibilities of good whiskey, fine vermouth, real bitters, 100 percent agave tequila, barrel-aged rum and handcrafted gin. There are plenty of good, pure vodkas out there, and if you want to introduce the flavor of, say, blueberries into a drink, you know how you do it? You put some damn blueberries in it.

OK. Speaking of berries, they're available at the garden center now in bareroot form, so go get some. Here's what you need to know:

Blueberries. The trick with blueberries is that they put out very shallow roots that form a mat of fibrous threads very near the soil surface. Most of us know that blueberries like acidic soil, but what we forget is that they need a great deal of organic matter and regular watering.

So before you even think about bringing blueberries home, choose a site that gets plenty of sun and that you will realistically get around to watering, even in the summer. Putting them right in the middle of your vegetable garden might be a good way to go.

It's a common practice to use peat for blueberries; if you're concerned about depleting a peat bog, the manufacturers of Canadian sphagnum peat would like you to know that their peat is harvested sustainably and renewed constantly. However, if you're not happy with that solution, ask at the garden center for a few bricks of compressed coco fiber. Be sure to pick up a dry organic fertilizer intended for acid loving plants while you're there.

Soak the peat or the coco fiber in buckets of water. It takes a few hours for them to absorb the water and be ready to go into the ground. Prepare the ground by digging a wide, shallow hole. Add the wet peat/coco fiber, mix well with an equal amount of native soil, add fertilizer according to the package directions and integrate as much organic matter as you can. Compost, decomposed leaves or grass clippings, worm castings and aged manure are all good options.

If you've done it right, you have a loose, rich pile of soil to plant into. Get your plants in the ground and keep the roots covered in organic mulch. Plan on watering them weekly in the summer and add a ring of fertilizer about a foot away from the plant in June.

There are lots of varieties to choose from. One popular cultivar is called "Draper" -- it grows 3 to 4 feet tall and is popular on U-pick farms throughout the Pacific Northwest. I'm also very excited about a new container-sized blueberry called "Peach Sorbet," which has just been introduced by Fall Creek Nursery. I've been growing one in a large pot for a year and it looks fantastic all year long and produces a surprising number of berries for such a compact plant.

Raspberries. There is just nothing better than fresh raspberries out of the garden and they are ridiculously easy to grow. If you don't have any in the ground yet, this is the year. Give them rich soil with plenty of compost and stand back. They do need a little water year-round and they prefer the cool summers that we have on the coast. There are easier to handle if you put up a simple trellis such as a post at either end of the row with sturdy wire strung between it. (Warning: If there are Himalayan blackberries growing in the area where you want to plant your raspberries, dig them out or find another location. Keeping the two separate will drive you crazy.)

Now, there's one trick with raspberries that you need understand before you go shopping. Raspberries are broadly divided into two categories: summer-bearing and everbearing. The summer-bearing varieties produce more fruit, but over a shorter season. The ever-bearing varieties will give you less fruit, but you'll be harvesting from June through September. Regardless of the variety you choose, you'll need to do one pruning job during the winter. Just cut down the canes which have already fruited, which will be fairly obvious because there will be bits of dried stems and flowers where the raspberries once were. Just cut those down to the ground, but leave the young, green canes alone.

And by the way, the people at Fall Creek also have a container-sized raspberry plant called "Raspberry Shortcake." You can grow a regular raspberry plant in a large container (like a wine barrel) as well, but plan to use stakes or trellises to keep the canes confined.

Blackberries. What's that you say? You want me to actually buy blackberries? What's wrong with all the blackberries taking over my back yard?

Well, those are Himalayan blackberries, an aggressive Asian invader, and in addition to those incredibly painful thorns, the fruit is full of unpleasant seeds and not particularly tasty. You can do much better. Follow the same general instructions as raspberries, but make life easy on yourself and choose a thornless variety that will be easy to tell apart from any Himalayan blackberries that try to sneak in. You might also try loganberries, which are a cross between blackberries and raspberries, and tayberries, which are a cross between loganberries and black raspberries.

Now, how are you going to drink all these berries? You can make your own flavored vodka by filling a jar with clean, loosely packed berries and then pouring in as much vodka as the jar will hold. Gently crush them with a wooden spoon to release the juice, then seal and store in a cool dry place for a week. Strain it and use it in your favorite cocktails, or add simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, heated until the sugar melts and allowed to cool) to taste to make a liqueur. Either way, keep it refrigerated and enjoy it within a few months -- like anything fresh, seasonal, and handmade, it's not meant to last forever.

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