Growing Cold-Hardy Berries and Small Fruits in Montana
Currants, gooseberries, dwarf sour cherries, aronia, and haskaps (or honeyberries) are hardy fruits that can be grown almost anywhere in Montana.Last Updated: 01/21
by Zach Miller, Assistant Professor and Superintendent MSU Western Ag. Research Center (WARC); Bridgid Jarrett, Research Associate and Berry program manager WARC, Cheryl Moore-Gough, Extension Horticulture Specialist
NOT ALL FRUITS ARE HARDY TO ALL MONTANA
conditions, but several berries and small fruit are. These include currants, gooseberries, dwarf sour cherries, aronia, and haskaps. Strawberries and serviceberry are also well adapted to Montana and are covered in other Montguides (see the MontGuides MT199320AG, Strawberries in the Home Garden https://store.msuextension.org/Products/Strawberries-in-the-Home-Garden-MT199320AG__MT199320AG.aspx and MT201821AG Growing Serviceberries https://store.msuextension.org/Products/Growing-Serviceberries-MT201821AG__MT201821AG.aspx. The fruit species in this guide tolerate our cold winters (zone 3), can grow in neutral to slightly alkaline soils, and ripen consistently in shorter, cooler growing seasons. Also, they are shorter-statured bush fruits that allow easier management and harvest. These fruit plants vary in uses, flavor, time to fruit maturity, and amount of pest management and pruning required (See Table 1).
Many aspects of caring for these fruit bushes are similar among these species, specifically, site selection, watering, fertilizing, weed control, and bird protection. Providing for the plants’ needs during the first few years after planting is particularly important in these perennial fruits as early stress can stunt the plants and reduce their production over many years. This means providing adequate fertility and water and ensuring that weeds do not rob these critical resources from newly-planted fruit plants.
Table 1. Uses, harvest period, required pest management and pruning of cold-hardy berries and small fruits.
|Fruit Type||Uses||Harvest||Pest Management and Pruning Requirements|
|Dwarf Sour Cherry||Fresh, frozen, processed||Late summer (late July to early August)||Must manage insects. Little or no pruning.|
|Occasional but damaging insect pests. Requires annual pruning.|
|Haskaps||Fresh, frozen, processed||Early (late June to mid-July)||No common insect pests or diseases. Little or no pruning.|
Early fall (late August to September)
|Some easy to manage insect issues. Not preferred by birds. Little or no pruning.|
These fruit plants will grow almost anywhere, but are best adapted to rich, well-drained soils. Avoid heavy, poorly- drained clay soils. Prepare your soil prior to planting. Use soil tests to determine if fertilizer should be added and if soil organic matter is low (e.g. <2 %) consider turning under compost. Plant dormant, one- to two-year-old bushes in autumn or early spring, spacing them about 3–5 feet apart in rows 7–9 feet apart (see specific recommendations below). Set the plants about an inch deeper than they were in the nursery to promote suckering and a dense bush. Pack the soil around the plant roots and water well after planting to ensure that roots have good soil contact.
Fertilizer recommendations are generally similar among these fruit types. Apply fertilizer in the spring, ideally around budbreak, so fertilizer is available to plants when they begin flowering and growing. Fertilizer needs to be spread evenly around the plant and incorporated into the soil with rain (>0.25 inch) or tillage. For most garden plantings, an annual maintenance fer t i l i z er r e g i me i s recommended with a fertilizer that contains nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK), but if soil tests show sufficient levels of phosphorous and potassium, apply a nitrogen fertilizer alone. The levels of fertilizer and water required will increase each year as the plant grows to mature size (typically by year four or five after planting, see Table 2). These rates are based on bush-sized fruit species (currants, serviceberry, blueberry) and may need to be increased for fruit types such as aronia and dwarf sour cherry as they grow larger than five feet tall. Micronutrient deficiencies may occur as plants age or in more acidic (pH<6) or alkaline (pH>7.8) soils. These deficiencies can be diagnosed through leaf symptoms or leaf tissue testing (see resources).
Table 2. Fertility recommendations for bush-sized fruit species
Available NPK (ounces)
|Water required (gallons/plant/ week)|
* Fertility recommendations based on Extension guides: http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edComm/pdf/BUL/BUL0855.pdf, http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edComm/pdf/BUL/BUL0866.pdf, http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edComm/pdf/BUL/BUL0815.pdf
Most areas in Montana don’t receive enough rainfall during the growing season to support perennial fruits and irrigation will be required. The general guidelines for irrigation is to keep the soil moist but not saturated (muddy), increase amounts of water and reduce irrigation frequency as plants grow larger, use more water, and grow deeper roots. Water more frequently (e.g. twice a week) when plants are small and have small, shallow root systems. Table 2 provides the amounts of water used for irrigation in berry plantings at MSU Western Agricultural Research Center (WARC) https://agresearch.montana.edu/warc/index.html. Plants will use more water when it is hot and windy or if they grow larger than 5–6 feet tall. (e.g. 12–15 gallons/plant/week).
Young perennial fruit plants are very susceptible to weed competition. Weeds will compete for water and nutrients, stunting the growth of these young plants. Be sure to control (i.e. remove) rhizomatous, spreading, perennial weeds such as quackgrass, field bindweed, and Canada thistle prior to planting. Remove weeds and other vegetation from the planting area (2–3 feet around the plant) before planting. It’s important to be very diligent about weed control for the first 3–4 years after planting. Once plants reach mature size, they’ll be better equipped to handle weed competition.
Multiple options are available for weed control and combining (integrating) several often provides the best control. Each option has benefits and drawbacks.
Herbicides are effective if used correctly, and often provide the lowest cost weed control. To use herbicides effectively, read, understand and follow the label. Only certain products are approved for use in cold-hardy fruits and this information can be found on the pesticide label. Herbicide-based weed control for fruit plantings often combines two types of herbicide, pre-emergent and post-emergent. Pre-emergent herbicides kill annual weeds before they emerge and are applied in the late fall or early spring while fruit plants are dormant and require incorporation into the soil with water (rain or irrigation) or tillage. The active ingredients Dichlobenil (Casoron), Sufentrazone, and Flumioxazin (e.g. Chateau) are pre-emergent herbicides that are approved for use in most of these fruits. These pre- emergent herbicides cannot be used in the first year after planting, but are safe and effective for established plantings. Pendimethalin (Satellite Hydrocap) can be used in new plantings for most berry species.
Post-emergence herbicides are applied to actively growing weeds. There are several types of herbicides that will control grassy weeds that are labeled for these fruit plants including Clethodim and Fluazifop-p-butyl. The most effective way to control broadleaf weeds with herbicides is spot spraying with contact herbicides. Contact herbicides kill the green plant tissue they contact but are not taken up into the plant and thus provide lower risk of crop injury if you accidently contact the crop. These include organic herbicides such as Glufosinate-ammonium (e.g. Rely, Cheetah). Glyphosate is approved for spot spray use in most berry species, but, like pre-emergent herbicides should be used when the bushes are dormant. Glyphosate is a non-selective systemic herbicide (taken up and moved within plant tissues) and can be an effective tool to control perennial weeds like thistle, quackgrass, and field bindweed.
Mechanical weed control options include hand weeding, hoeing, and tilling around the base of the plants. These options are more labor intensive and tillage can damage shallow roots. Like all weed control methods, mechanical weed control is most effective on small weeds. Don’t wait until the weeds are large to remove them. They are hard to remove and have done most of their damage to the berry plants once they reach mature size.
Physical barriers such as mulch or weed barriers (e.g. landscape fabric) are an effective tool to control weeds. Mulch must be 4–6 inches deep to control weeds and is only effective on annual weeds. It is also important to move mulch 2–4 inches away from the base of the plants to prevent suffocation and pest accumulation. Weed barriers can control both annual and perennial weeds. Barriers are expensive on larger scales and can interfere with fertilizer application. Mulch and weed barriers also can provide habitat for small mammals like voles and pocket gophers. These small mammals can damage berry bushes, especially in the early stages of establishment, by feeding on roots and trunks and digging out the young plants.
Once plants are producing fruit, usually in the second or third year, the most consistent pests are birds. Remember, plants make berries to attract and feed birds in order to spread their seeds. If you want berries, you’ll probably have to keep the birds out. There are two types of bird protection, deterrents and exclusion. Deterrents are designed to scare birds away with noise or visual cues. These can be effective for a short period of time, but over time birds will become acclimated to these cues rendering them ineffective. Bird netting mechanically excludes birds from the berry bushes and provides consistent protection. Bird netting can be draped over the bushes or suspended above the bushes. Draping netting over the row is less expensive but if fruit is close to the netting, birds will peck through the net and damage or remove berries. Lifting the bird net off the plants prevents this issue. See the WARC website for additional bird netting information.
Currants and Gooseberries
Currants and gooseberries are hardy fruits that belong to the genus Ribes. They can be grown almost anywhere in Montana. Gooseberries have an arching habit, growing up to 5 feet tall when mature. Currants form more upright plants than gooseberries and are thornless. Both have been widely grown for centuries in other cold climates around the world. While most Montanans may be familiar with native currants such as the clove currant (Ribes odoratum), European species of black (Ribes nigrum) and red (Ribes rubrum) currant are better suited to commercial production. These species tend to exhibit larger fruit, higher yields, more even ripening, and potential for mechanized harvest. They’re very popular in Europe, which is where most of the commercial breeding and production occurs. Black currants are less well known in the U.S. as cultivation was banned early in the twentieth century to control the spread of white pine blister rust, a fungus that moves between Ribes and white pines. This is no longer a concern. Modern varieties are resistant to this fungus, we now know the fungal spores only travel short distances (less than 1 mile), and the bans have been lifted in nearly all states.
The fruit makes wonderful preserves, jellies and pies. Three or four plants often produce enough fruit for the average family (each plant can produce 10–15 lbs. of fruit), and a properly cared-for planting should continue to produce for 10 years or more.
Currants and gooseberries bloom earlier than most fruit, so in Chinook (warm wind that raises winter temperatures) and frost prone areas, plant on a north-facing slope where flowering is delayed until later in the spring. Most cultivars are self-fertile, but cross-pollination will produce higher yields and larger fruit. Therefore, plant more than one cultivar. Space plants at least 3 feet apart in the row.
Ribes flower and fruit on younger shoots and will need to be pruned to maintain vigor and productivity. Always prune in the winter or spring before growth starts. Begin by removing canes that droop onto the ground, and any canes that are dead or infested with cane borer (see below). Wood older than 3 years produces inferior fruit and should be removed. A well-pruned, vigorous plant should have about 9–12 canes. Certain types of Ribes differ slightly in how they’re pruned. Gooseberries, red currants, and white currants bear fruit on short spurs on 2- and 3-year-old canes. The goal is to leave 3–4 for each age (1-, 2-, and 3-year old canes). Black currants bear fruit on last year’s growth and are pruned to have about half 1-year-old canes and half 2-year-old canes with lots of growth from last season (1-year-old wood).
Currants host a variety of pests, mostly insects, which can be devastating if not controlled. Control pests by clean cultivation, proper pruning, and spraying if necessary.
The white pine blister rust fungus can spend part of its life cycle on both gooseberries and currants. The older varieties of black currant (Ribes nigrum) are highly susceptible to the disease, but new varieties are resistant.
Leaf spot diseases may be common. The spots are small and circular with gray centers. Leaves later turn yellow and drop. These diseases can cause premature defoliation of the bushes in summer. Pruning and disposing of infected leaves is usually adequate to control these diseases.
Powdery mildew may infect the leaves with a white powdery growth that results in abnormal leaves and stem tips. A contact fungicide will control this.
Currants and gooseberries have several common insect pests in Montana. The currant fruit fly or gooseberry maggot (Euphranta canadensis) is a small fly that lays eggs in green, immature fruit. The larvae feed in the fruit. The fruit will ripen early, often dropping to the ground, or rotting on the plant. The larvae exit the fruit and overwinter in the soil. Heavy infestations can occur (infesting most of the berries). There’s one generation a year, so if you notice an infestation, the only thing to do that season is remove and destroy infested fruit and larvae. Placing a barrier under the plants (e.g. a tarp or sheet) can prevent larvae from getting back into the soil and makes collecting infested fruit easier. Infestations can be prevented by scouting for adult flies at the end of bloom and treating with appropriately labeled insecticides or covering plants with floating row cover at the end of bloom.
Currant cane borer (Synanthedon tipuliformis) is another common insect pest that affects currants and gooseberries, but they are difficult to see. Their presence shows up as less vigorous canes with small leaves and early coloring fruit. When these canes are cut out, the center of the cane will be dark where larvae have been feeding. Cane borers are typically managed by removing and destroying infested canes, applying a drench of parasitic (“beneficial”) nematodes to the crown of the plant, or with labeled insecticides (e.g. spinosad, malathion, spinetoram).
Currants and gooseberries have a similar upright form when pruned (left.) The fruit of black and red currant, and gooseberries (top to bottom on right) are well-suited to processing. CREDIT PLANT FORM, RED AND BLACK CURRANT BRIDGID JARRETT. GOOSEBERRY FRUIT PETER ALLEN.
Imported currant worm (Nematus ribesii) is a sawfly larvae with a voracious appetite that feeds on the leaves and defoliates the plant. Inspect plants early in the spring, April–May, for signs of larval feeding. The larvae are green with black spots and yellow near the black head. Early in the season they feed in the center of the plant. They can be controlled by hand or with labeled insecticides (e.g. Spinosad, Malathion, Spinetoram).
Currant aphids suck the juice from the undersurface of leaves and cause reddish discoloration and crinkling of leaves. Wash the aphids from the leaves with a strong stream of water or use an insecticide recommended to control this pest. Dormant oil can be applied to smother aphid eggs early in the spring before currants leaf out.
Gooseberries are usually picked at the firm green stage, when they are too tart to eat fresh, and made into pies or preserves. Let them ripen on the bush and they may remain green or turn pink or purple when ripe. Strip gooseberries from the branches with a gloved hand and process or freeze them immediately. Harvest them singly and carefully to avoid puncturing the fruit on the thorns if they are to be stored for any length of time. Gooseberries sunburn easily, so store harvested fruit in the shade until they can get into the cooler.
Currant fruits are borne in clusters called a strig. When ripe, currants may be black, red or white (yellow). Modern varieties have been developed that ripen all berries on the strig at once. Pick currants by stripping them off the strig or pulling the strigs off the plant. These stems can be picked out or skimmed off in processing. The stems do not impart any bad flavor.
Many currant and gooseberry cultivars have been in cultivation for years. Newer cultivars have been developed that have improved berry size, disease resistance, and in the case of gooseberries, reduced spines. See WARC website, the University of Idaho bulletin, or the North Dakota State University Carrington Research and Extension Center’s website for recommended cultivars for Montana.
Haskap (Honeyberry, Blue Honeysuckle, Yezberry)
Haskap, an edible honeysuckle (Lonicera caerulea var. edulis), is a hardy new fruit that can be grown in much of Montana. Also known as honeyberries, yezberries, and blue honeysuckle, haskaps can be used just like blueberries. Unlike blueberries, honeyberries grow well in slightly acidic, neutral, or slightly alkaline soils (pH 6 –8). The flavor of the fruit can be described as a blend of blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry and can be eaten fresh, frozen, dried, juiced, or used in winemaking. Haskap berries are higher in vitamin C and antioxidants than many other berries including blueberries and raspberries.
Haskap (clockwise from left) form, fruit, and flowers. CREDIT BRIDGID JARRETT
Haskaps are extremely cold-hardy (zone 2), typically flower from late March through early June, and produce relatively early in the season (late June–July). Haskap plants will flower their first season, but take 3–5 seasons to produce full yields. Ten pounds of fruit can be expected per plant at full maturity.
Earliest varieties flower before strawberries, with the flowers being hardy to 15°F. Haskaps require pollination by insects, so in cold springs, fruit set may be impacted by the lack of active bees, although bumblebees are active in cooler springs. Like many fruit species, they do not self-pollinate, so be sure to purchase a pollinator plant and plant at the rate of one concurrently blooming pollinator per 5–10 productive plants. Compatibility charts are available from most breeding programs (e.g. University of Saskatchewan Fruit Program).
Haskaps or honeyberries mature size ranges from 2–5 feet tall, depending on variety. They are typically planted at least 3 feet apart in the row with some recommendations up to 5 feet apart. Haskap plants can grow 12–18 inches of new growth (green wood) that will darken as the season progresses. This growth is where the haskap will bloom and fruit the following spring.
Pruning is not required beyond cutting out dead stems and the branches that are close to the ground. Pruning out older wood can make harvest easier but will reduce production in the following season.
Haskaps have few pests, but powdery mildew (Sphaerotheca spp.) on leaves in late summer can cause leaf drop. This disease has not been common or damaging in Montana. Haskaps are a cool season plant. They enter a summer dormancy where growth is limited and heat stress impacts on leaves may make plants look unhealthy. Haskaps generally perk up as the temperatures cool, but will drop leaves in the early fall.
Be patient with harvesting haskaps. The berries turn blue 2–3 weeks before they are ripe. When the berries first turn color, they are very sour. Wait to harvest until they’ve sweetened and taste good. Harvest individual berries by hand, or shake the plant and allow the berries to drop onto a dropcloth or other surface.
Research is ongoing and new cultivars are introduced each year. ‘Indigo Gem’ has been the best early maturing variety in Montana trials. ‘Aurora’ and ‘Borealis’ are excellent tasting, mid- maturing varieties that pollinate each other. There are several good tasting, productive (8–12 lbs. per bush), late- maturing varieties. See WARC website and the NDSU-Carrington Research and Extension Center’s website for recommended cultivars for Montana.
Dwarf Sour Cherries
Dwarf sour cherries are well suited to production in the Intermountain West. They provide a good combination of cold hardiness, dwarf stature, and good fruit quality. Dwarf sour cherry bushes are typically 8–12 feet tall at maturity and are cold hardy to Zone 2. These bushes may produce multiple trunks and may require pruning. Fruit can be hand-picked or mechanically-harvested and is dark red (wine red) when ripe. Some varieties produce fruit sweet enough to be eaten fresh.
Dwarf sour cherry (clockwise from left) form, fruit, and flowers. CREDIT BRIDGID JARRETT
Dwarf sour cherries should be planted at least 4–5 feet apart. Deer prefer to browse on cherries, especially on shoots during the winter, and will cause significant damage if they’re not fenced out.
Pruning is not required beyond cutting out dead stems. Pruning out older wood can make harvest easier but will reduce production in the following season. Dwarf sour cherries tend to grow as a multi-trunked bush. They are often pruned to 6–8 main trunks to keep the interior open to facilitate pest management and harvest.
In Montana, aphids and pear sawfly are common but don’t do much damage and are easy to control. Western cherry fruit fly is also common and can ruin the fruit. Spotted wing drosophila may also infest fruit in eastern parts of the state. Management requires regular monitoring and maintaining a spray schedule utilizing either conventional or organic insecticides, typically beginning as fruit begins to turn pink to a few weeks before harvest.
When cherries turn red, wait. The fruit ripens and sweetens as it turns a wine-red or burgundy. The fruit is easily hand- harvested and can be shaken off into sheets or trays. A productive bush will produce 10–30 lbs. of fruit.
‘Carmine Jewel’ has been the most productive and has a great pie cherry flavor. ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’ have good productivity and taste sweeter than ‘Carmine Jewel’. ‘Crimson Passion’ survives in the Northern Great Plains but has had inconsistent or no fruit production in Montana and North Dakota trials.
Aronia berries are a very healthy fruit, loaded with antioxidants, with a flavor that doesn’t appeal to as many palates as a fresh berry. High in tannins, they make it feel like they dry out your mouth, similar to chokecherries. These berries are excellent in juices, baked goods and jams. They are an excellent addition to wines or hard cider, where they are often blended to add color and depth of flavor.
Mature plants of the fruit production varieties reach 6–12 feet tall and should be planted at least 4 –5 feet apart.
Pruning is not required beyond cutting out dead stems and crowded branches.
In Montana, aphids and pear sawfly are common but don’t do much damage and are easy to control. The fruit is not preferred by birds until winter (like mountain ash) and, unlike most berries, does not require protection from birds.
The dark purple fruit is borne in terminal clusters that ripen in the late summer to early fall. The fruit can be hand-picked or shaken off the plant.
Aronia (clockwise from left) form, fruit, flowers, and fall foliage. CREDIT BRIDGID JARRETT
There are two main types of aronia, fruit types and ornamental types. The type used for commercial fruit production are hybrids between the native Black Chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, and European Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia. The commercial varieties have much higher (almost two times) yields and much larger berries than the ornamental type, which are selections of the native Black Chokeberry. Unfortunately, both are marketed by nurseries as aronia. The ornamental aronia are also edible and varieties include ‘Autumn Magic’ and ‘Iroquois Beauty.’ The more commonly available commercial fruit production varieties are ‘McKenzie’, ‘Nero’, and ‘Viking.’ Commercial varieties have similar production, hardiness, and flavor. Both commercial and ornamental varieties have dark green, glossy leaves that turn bright red in autumn.
Leaf symptom/tissue testing: http://www.hort.cornell.edu/fruit/nybn/newslettpdfs/2012/nybn1108b.pdf (in the Intermountain West, consider Agvise or Midwest labs)
Montana State University’s Western Ag Research Station: https://agresearch.montana.edu/warc/research_current/fruit_introduction_page.html
North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research and Extension Center’s Northern Hardy Fruit program website: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/CarringtonREC/northern-hardy-fruit-evaluation-project/fruit-project-results
Nutrient Functions, Deficiency and Toxicity Symptoms: http://landresources.montana.edu/nm/documents/NM9.pdf Publication: Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens (Sara Williams and Bob Bors, 2017)
Managing bird damage on fruit farms, Erin Lizotte, 2019 Michigan State University https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/managing-bird-damage-on-fruit-farms
Bird Damage Prevention for Northern New England Fruit Growers, Alan Eaton, University of New Hampshire Extension: https://extension.unh.edu/resources/files/Resource001797_Rep2514.pdf
Alternatives to netting directly over the plant. Low netting system (left). Over-orchard netting (right). CREDIT BRIDGID JARRETT.
Growing Currants, Gooseberries, and Jostaberries, Dan Barney and Esmaeil Fallahi, University of Idaho Extension BUL 855: https://www.extension.uidaho.edu/publishing/pdf/BUL/BUL0855.pdf
Currant fruitfly/Gooseberry maggot, Pacific Northwest pest management handbooks: https://pnwhandbooks.org/insect/small-fruit/currant-gooseberry/currant-gooseberry-currant-fruit-fly-gooseberry-maggot
Currant and gooseberry-Currant borer: https://pnwhandbooks.org/insect/small-fruit/currant-gooseberry/currant-gooseberry-currant-borer