Mark Diacono offers us some berry good advice for enjoying our breakfast favourites, whatever the season.
Most of us have a few breakfast favourites to which we return – my love of blueberries, yogurt and granola used to be a homegrown high-summer pleasure, but now I get to enjoy it for seven months of the year by growing three similar yet pleasingly distinct berries. Blue honeysuckle (also known as honeyberry) starts the blue-berry relay in spring, handing the baton to blueberries in summer and, as they fade, in come the Chilean guava.
Blue honeysuckle grows as a medium-sized shrub (rather than the common garden climber that shares its name) and, every March, it produces fluted yellow flowers that give the bees some forage when there is little about. In exchange, the bees will set about pollinating them for you.
Grow more than one variety, as they’re not self-fertile, and you’ll be picking small, elongated berries from May – their flavour is like blackcurrants crossed with blueberries, with more than a hint of honey.
Blue honeysuckle is very easy to grow – most varieties have been developed in cold climates such as Siberia and hence are very hardy. Thankfully, they don’t need the acidic conditions that blueberries favour and thrive in most relatively sheltered spots. They don’t require pruning, but they’re perfectly happy to be clipped for shape or size should you fancy.
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Blueberries are native to North America and arrived in the UK soon after the Second World War. They have become hugely popular in the shops in recent years; happily, they’re even better (and much cheaper) to grow yourself. They thrive in a well-drained, rich, acidic soil, ideally of pH5.5 or lower. As most of us don’t have these soil conditions, they’re best grown in containers: ericaceous compost is the perfect growing medium and widely available. Ideally, water them with rainwater, as tap water tends to be alkaline.
Blueberries fruit on wood that is up to three years old and are best pruned in winter: cut out old, damaged or dead shoots, about a quarter of the dominant ones and cut back any weaker shoots to half to encourage strong new growth.
They’re partially self-fertile, so I’d recommend three bushes or more, of different varieties, grown relatively closely – I have some in the same large pot – for the best chance of a heavy crop. There are many excellent varieties out there: Blue Sapphire, Chandler and Pink Lemonade (with pink berries) are all doing well for me this year.
Although few people grow Chilean guava, it’s nothing new – apparently, the berries were Queen Victoria’s favourite fruit. She had it grown in Cornwall’s mild climate and the berries sent to her table. Much more popular in Australia and New Zealand, where the fruit is known as tazziberries, it’s now getting quite a following with UK gardeners.
Chilean guava is an evergreen shrub that grows to 3ft high and wide, although it’s often smaller, and is similar in appearance to common myrtle. Its small dark-green shiny leaves may be irregularly dappled with red-pink.
I added a few young plants to the kitchen garden in early summer as their pale-pink and white bell-shaped flowers began to appear; a few days later, sowing salads 20 yards away, I was enveloped in a cloud of their intense floral perfume, which I couldn’t quite believe came from such a few young plants.
The flowers become pink/blue berries that ripen more darkly late in autumn and into winter. Although it seems a little strange to be leaving berries into the cold short days, don’t be tempted to pick them too early, as their flavour develops the longer they’re left. They taste like a deeper, winier version of a strawberry crossed with kiwi, with more than a hint of bubblegum. I eat most of mine straight off the bush or for breakfast, but if there’s a glut, as there was last year, I make a sort of Chilean sloe gin, with a little sugar (you can always add more), as the fruit is quite sweet.
Although Chilean guava is hardy to about –10˚C, it can suffer a little from dieback if left unprotected in harsh winters – a little fleece or a handful of straw in particularly cold spells helps it spring back as the temperature warms again. The bushes grow naturally on woodland edges, so give them both light and shelter if you can – the more they have of each, the more fruit they will produce.
Charles Quest-Ritson offers advice on this incredibly vibrant plant.
Charles Quest-Ritson offers his advice on taming this exquisitely flowered fruit.