Berry Different

A fruit farmer in New York state shares her knowledge of growing some of the best berries you've never tasted.

By Sue Smith-Heavenrich


Creeger wanted to offer a wider variety of berries to her customers so she planted a row of elderberries.Reaching Up

Wanting to offer her CSA members a diverse range of berries, Creeger put in a few rows of elderberries (Sambucus canadensis). Elderberries tolerate a wide range of soils—as long as those soils are not too wet or too dry—and have few pests. Being shrubs, they need a bit more space, about 6 to 10 feet between plants, and require more than one variety to ensure adequate cross-pollination for fruit development.

Elderberries send up new stems, also called canes, each year, which branch out during their second year. The wood weakens with age, so a good pruning strategy is to remove canes older than 3 years, leaving equal numbers of 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old canes. Elderberries also have shallow roots, so they shouldn’t be cultivated any deeper than a couple of inches. A combination of hand weeding, mowing, and mulching works well

Creeger grows ‘Adams’, ‘York’, and ‘Johns’ varieties that extend her berry season into September.

Creeger warns that the entire elderberry plant, including underripe and uncooked fruit, is mildly toxic, so elderberries are best used cooked. Their distinctive flavor is enhanced by the addition of sweetener and lemon juice, making them perfect for jellies, jams, and pies. Their flowers, too, are edible and are turned into elderflower wine or fried in fritters—although harvesting the flowers means there won’t be berries. Elderberries are also reputed to have antiviral properties.