Many ornamental and wild fruits are overly tart and seedy when eaten fresh, but become sweet and mellow when made into jelly. Here are five berry-producing plants that are easy to grow in the low-maintenance permaculture garden, and a few ideas for making and using a mixed-fruit jelly.
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Does your yard contain pointless (unappetizing — yet edible) fruit?
Many of us purchase properties that include at least one tree or shrub that produces seemingly pointless fruit: a crabapple or Bradford pear tree, to name a couple. For those of us with a hankering for productive landscapes, our first reaction might be to tear it out and replace it with something more appealing, such as a real apple or pear tree.
I totally understand this sentiment, and in small yards where the one tree is the only opportunity to grow edible fruit, I might do just that: replace it with a more appealing fruit for fresh-eating.
However, in other circumstances, we would do well to analyze the situation and ask whether removing a productive, low-maintenance tree or shrub would simply create unnecessary work for ourselves.
Another example is the privacy hedge. Many shrub species used for privacy produce a rather unappealing if eaten fresh—but edible—berry. Instead of replacing the hedge with a more tasty species, we could leave it (less work), maintain privacy, and reap a free and effortless harvest.
On larger properties there are often unappealing, edible fruits growing wild and abundant that seem like a total waste of time and space, save their wildlife value. So we leave them be and toil away in our gardens with our cultivated plants.
Take, for example, aronia. It is a native that grows wild in most of eastern North America. Foragers have been taking advantage of the berries for years, but for the most part, it has been mostly unheard of from enthusiast gardeners and landscapers. The reason is that the berries are not especially taste-worthy fresh off the bushes. But it turns out that these berries are quite the superfood, with an array of health benefits. Learn more in my article All About Aronia: Grow Your Own Superfood Berries.
With some creative power, we can learn to appreciate the abundance of fruits that produce without any help—or expense—on our part. In this busy world, why make more work for ourselves?
Warning: If you decide to harvest from existing plants, be sure you have accurately identified the plant to avoid poisonous berries.
Ever thought of a jelly garden?
I’ll be honest, the idea of creating a garden specifically for making jellies sounds really fun. I think kids could really get into a project like this. Mixing and matching fruits and their flavors to create the best jelly would be a lifelong journey of getting to know a place: a labor of love and a declaration of your terroir.
Your very special and unique jellies could be a great source of extra income or gifts: Who wouldn’t be curious about seeing the Bradford pear—that ubiquitous neighborhood tree—turned into a delicious jelly, for example?
Would you like to learn more about using berry-producing trees and shrubs to improve the biodiversity of your garden, reduce maintenance, and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Five Berry-Producing Plants for the Jelly Garden
There is an almost infinite number of edible, berry-producing plants, but if you’re planting a jelly garden intentionally, here are five plants to get you started. All of these berries pack a powerful, nutrient-dense punch.
Delicious jelly is only half of it: These shrubs and trees will also create biodiversity and benefit your local ecosystem.
1: Currants – Ribes spp. (hardiness zones 3-8)
Currants are harvested in bunches, like grapes. Black and red currants are the most common varieties cultivated for their edible berries. Musky and tart respectively, these seedy berries become a delight when cooked.
Currant flowers are a preferred source of nectar by both hummingbirds and beneficial insects. Songbirds and chickens both enjoy the fruit.
Currant bushes can be planted in a deer-deflecting hedge to keep deer out of certain parts of the yard, and they can also be useful in a windbreak hedgerow. They are even juglone tolerant and can be planted with walnut trees. They are even among a group of edible perennials that don’t mind wet feet.
Here is how we grow currants as a front yard hedge (plus some ideas for how we use them).
2: Elderberries Sambucus spp. (hardiness zones 3-10)
This summer berry is ripe for picking when it is dark purple and soft. Hint: When you see the birds going for the berries, they’re ripe! Raw berries can upset the stomach in some people, so cook before eating.
Here is a good demonstration of how to harvest elderberries.
Elderberries are another fruit that is beloved by both songbirds and chickens. The shrubs are a popular wildlife shelter and nesting site. Beneficial insects and hummingbirds are attracted to the nectar of the edible flower.
Elderberry bushes can grow in many kinds of environments, but they will do well in wet, low-lying areas and on the banks of waterways. They are juglone tolerant and can be planted with walnut trees.
If you’d like to learn more about using elderberries, here are some helpful links:
- Simple Homemade Elderberry Syrup
- Another variation on Elderberry Syrup
- Elderberry Syrup with Echinacea and Goldenseal
- Elderberry Jellies
- Elderberry Infused Honey
- How to Use Elderberries to Make a Tincture or Liqueur
- Elderflower Fritters
- Foraging for Elderberries
- Distinguishing Elderberry from Dogwood
- How to Make Elderberry Wine
- How to Make Elderberry Mead
3: Mulberries Morus spp. (hardiness zones 5-9)
Mulberries can be either white, black, or red. Make sure the fruit is soft and ripe before picking, as unripe fruit can upset the stomach. To ensure picking only ripe fruit, place a sheet on the ground underneath the tree and shake the tree to drop the ripe fruit. Here is more on this harvesting method.
Mulberries are beloved by birds of all kinds. Songbirds will often prefer these summer berries over tree fruits (saving your more valuable harvests), and chickens and ducks also enjoy the berries. The trees, which are fast growing in disturbed areas, will quickly become shelter and nesting sites for birds.
Mulberry trees are also known to be tolerant to juglone, and can be planted with walnut trees.
photo credit: Flickr Rastoney
4: Rose Hips Rosa rugosa (hardiness zones 2-7)
According to this website, rose hips have 60 times more vitamin C than citrus fruits. Harvest the red berries after the first frost.
The old timey rosa rugosa is a heavenly-scented rose. Unlike its cousin—the modern, hybridized rose that lacks pollen and needs a ton of maintenance to stay healthy—rugosa rose is a low-maintenance shrub and important nectar source for beneficial insects and hummingbirds.
It provides shelter and nesting sites for birds and other wildlife and winter fruit for the birds. It is even known to be juglone tolerant, and can be planted underneath walnut trees.
More on rose hips:
5: Tart Cherries Prunus cerasus (hardiness zones 4-8)
Tart cherries are excellent for fresh eating when ripe in my opinion, but many people find them extremely tart. They mellow when pitted and cooked.
Cherry trees of all kinds are a popular insectary during their spring bloom time, and the berries are a favorite wildlife food.
According to Lee Reich in Landscaping with Fruit, tart cherries grow best east of the Mississippi, while sweet cherries grow better west of the Mississippi River. We’ve done well with tart cherries here in Ohio.
Cherry trees make a beautiful privacy screen. We grow our cherry trees in the parking strip and get about nine pounds of cherries per dwarf tree each year. That’s because we planted them in guilds for natural pest control. Read more about fruit tree guilds here.
Cranberry Cherry Sauce anyone?
Looking for more berry ideas?
Plant a Hedgerow or Food Forest
If you’re thinking about planting a jelly garden on purpose, I think it would look fantastic grown as a hedgerow or food forest, which is a narrow strip of mixed plantings. A small hedgerow or food forest would be something like a 6-x-12 foot, or 10-x-20 foot space. Here are some ideas for planting your jelly garden as part of a hedgerow or as part of a food forest.
It is entirely possible to mix and match all of these berries (or any other edible fruits you’ve foraged) to make a mixed-fruit jelly. Simply follow the guidelines on the package of your pectin. I use Pomona’s Pectin because it works with low-sugar and sugar alternatives like honey.
If you prefer to experiment with each berry separately, the pectin box will have you covered with that, too, but I also use my canning book as a guide for recipes, Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. The only fruits this book doesn’t cover are mulberries (see this recipe for mulberry jelly) and rose hips (see this recipe for rose hip jelly).
Although autumn olives are not on the above list of berries, they are another tree that is widely dispersive with free berries for the picking. Harvest the berries, make a delicious jelly or try autumn olive thumbprint cookies, and keep fewer seeds from spreading!
Mixing fruits, rather than using a single berry, will give the jelly more depth of flavor. I love making a mixed berry jelly with red currants, black currants, and black raspberries. Divine!
Some people prefer jam over jelly for the same reason—depth of flavor. Jam includes the whole fruit, which creates a richness of flavor. However, in this case, I prefer the jelly because I don’t like the seeds in many of these berries. If you don’t mind seeds, consider making a jam instead—there are fewer steps involved in the cooking process, and it will have a deep flavor profile.
Because most of these berries can perish quickly, it will be important to either make jelly right away after harvesting or preserve them for later. I like to freeze berries on the spot, and thaw them later when I have time to make jellies and jams. The only berries that will not freeze well are the rose hips. They prefer to be dried if not being used right away, so if jelly is your preferred preservation method, you’ll want to make rose hip jelly right away.
Black currants and mulberries can be dehydrated as an alternative to freezing.
Uses for Jelly
Aside from peanut butter and jelly, my favorite ways to use jelly are:
- on thumbprint cookies
- mixed in plain yogurt with granola
- on pancakes
Here are 50 more ways to use jelly.
Other Uses for “Pointless” Fruits
Using these “pointless” berries for jelly is just the tip of the iceberg. I use the frozen berries (mixed!) in smoothies. I use the dried berries to make chocolate-berry-nut bark, in homemade granola, baked goods, and tea blends. Fresh or frozen berries can be turned into fruit syrup, pies, tarts, and other pastries.
I hope you’ll add the unique taste and nutrient content of “jelly” fruits to your diet, and feel happy that you can grow plants that will also benefit the wildlife.
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture
- Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture
- The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- Implementing Your Dreams on the Permaculture Homestead
- Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?
- Why We Don’t Keep Chickens (Yet)
What “jelly” fruits do you grow? How do you use them?