For me, at least, it’s been a bumper year for berries.
In some years, I harvest only sparsely from the various fruit plantings in my landscape. Black raspberries, in particular, get snatched by birds before I can get to them. Not this year. I had them all to myself until this week, and they’re now pretty much done anyway. My guess—and I haven’t seen any science to back this up, but it makes sense—is that the birds have been too busy scarfing down cicadas to bother with berries. Now that the cicadas are gone, they may turn their attention to my fruit-bearing bushes, but I’ve had a head start.
Periodical cicadas are not an unqualified blessing for fruit growers, of course. Female cicadas lay their eggs in branches of a certain diameter, which are abundant on a lot of fruiting plants. This can cause dieback at the ends of these branches. The affected branch tips will fall off naturally over time; you can prune them if they bother you, but remember that cicada eggs are inside slits in the branches, and won’t hatch until probably August. I’m just going to leave mine alone.
Below you can see dieback on blueberry and pawpaw plants caused by cicada laying.
I didn’t bother covering most of my fruit plants, but here in Germantown we didn’t have a huge number of cicadas, either, so the damage has been minimal and the plants will recover. Some growers used netting to keep the bugs out, which is of course really inconvenient if the plants fruit during the same period. I was startled a number of times while harvesting when I moved a branch and suddenly encountered staring red eyes. The cicadas found my blueberries early on, as you can see by this nymph exoskeleton still clinging to a berry that ripened underneath it.
But they are not competition for the fruit itself, and since the birds have been ignoring the berries for the most part, my freezer is full of blueberries, black raspberries, and blackcurrants. I’ve made blueberry chutney, blueberry syrup, and blueberry-lavender shrub (from this book). Shrubs are refreshing drinks made from fruit, sugar, and vinegar, ready in a week or less to be enjoyed mixed with sparkling water or in various alcoholic and nonalcoholic blends. I have plans for jam, cassis and other alcoholic infusions, baked goods, and more.
Fruit-bearing shrubs and trees fit into a home landscape very well. Raspberries and blueberries are great starter plants; I also recommend currants for a shadier spot, though you will not be eating them fresh off the plant, so add in some processing time in addition to harvesting time. (Also be sure that you buy varieties resistant to white pine blister rust, for which the currant family is a host.) Pawpaws are wonderful native trees that add dramatic flair to a landscape; you need at least two genetically-different trees for cross-pollination. They will take several years to start bearing, depending on the size of the trees you plant, and mature trees do sucker prolifically, so you will end up with a pawpaw grove that needs some maintenance to keep under control. But the fruit is not commonly available for sale commercially, and it has a great banana-mango flavor that’s unusual in our temperate climate. You can also try blackberries, gooseberries, and figs. All of these are easier to grow in our climate than tree fruits like apples, peaches, and pears, but if you like a challenge, those are possibilities as well. You can find advice on all sorts of fruit growing on the HGIC website.
I’m wondering how next year will go in my fruit-growing adventure. All these cicada-stuffed birds are laying more eggs and raising more youngsters this year, so the population will be higher in 2022, and there won’t be any periodical cicadas to fill their bellies. So I expect I’ll have to be more vigilant about protecting the plants I can protect in order to have much of a harvest. But I’ll probably still have some leftover blueberries in the freezer, and plenty of jars of jam and chutney. Every year is different in gardening, and 2021 will definitely stand out in my memory for noisy cicadas, happy birds, and plentiful berries.
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener