If you are looking for hardy additions for your edible landscape, elderberries and goji berries are two top choices. Both berries are edible and medicinal, allowing the homesteader to use their land efficiently. Any plant that serves more than one purpose is always welcome! Both berries are healthy—goji berries have the distinction of being a superfood. Elderberry plants and goji bushes are easy to grow, very hardy, and easy to propagate. Start with one or two plants and propagate from them, growing your edible landscape in a slow, more manageable fashion.
Elderberries are one of the easiest plants to grow in an edible landscape. There are two main species: the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). The American elderberry can be found growing wild on the side of the road and in meadows. It can grow to 10 feet tall and is hardy in USDA zones 3-8.
Plant your elderberry tree in full sun to partial shade. The soil should be slightly acidic and high in organic matter. Keep your tree consistently moist until it is well established. Although the elderberry is not terribly fussy, it will do much better if you place it in well-drained soil. Set your trees out in spring, 8 feet apart. Because the roots are shallow, it is a good idea to mulch around your tree so it does not have to compete with weeds for water and nutrients. These plants fruit best if you plant two varieties within 60 feet of each other. You can expect your tree to begin producing fruit when it is two-three years old.
In late spring to early summer, your elderberry tree will produce clusters of tiny white flowers. During the first year, collect all the flowers in order to allow the plant to focus energy on creating a strong root system. After year one, you will still collect flowers for your pantry and medicine chest, but you will want to leave quite a few flower clusters, as these will turn to dark purple berries later in the season.
Visit your tree each day beginning in early August to harvest the berries. The elderberry has a neat trick to ensure self-propagation. It does not ripen at the same time. You will see flowers and berries at all stages of development from early August to September.
To harvest the berries, prune off cluster of ripe (dark purple) berries. Once harvested, you have less than 12 hours to process them. Swirl the clusters of harvested berries in a sink of cold water to rid them of dirt and bugs. Rinse again under cold running water and allow them to drip dry on a towel for at least 15 minutes.
Removing the berries from the stems is the most time-consuming part of processing elderberries but it must be done, as the leaves and stems are toxic. The easiest way to do this is to freeze the entire berry cluster on a cookie sheet. Once the cluster is frozen, the berries will come off easily. If you want to freeze your harvest for future use, re-freeze the berries on the cookie sheet until each berry is solid. Transfer berries to a freezer bag and store in your freezer until you are ready to use them. Frozen elderberries will keep indefinitely.
If you want to dry your elderberries, allow individual berries to thaw on a cookie sheet. You can either use a food dehydrator set at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 10 hours, or you can dry them in your oven at a very low temperature for approximately 24 hours. Once they are thoroughly dried, transfer to an airtight container and store in a cool, dry place. You can rehydrate the dried berries before using, or use them like raisins.
When you see how tiny the berries are you may wonder whether it is worth your time to process them. Yes! Elderberries are inedible raw, but they are an incredible source of vitamins A and B, and they have more vitamin C than oranges. They are high in antioxidants and have traditionally been used to treat respiratory problems, colds, and the flu. You can expect 12-15 pounds of fruit per mature shrub. That is a lot of food to let go to waste.
Once you have completed your harvest, allow the tree to go dormant. In late winter, prune out any branches that are more than three years old. Prune out any dead, damaged, or diseased branches as well.
You can take cuttings for propagation in early spring. Use pruning shears to cut an 8-inch section of green stems that are as thick as your pinkie finger. Place your cuttings in a mason jar and fill with water until the cuttings are halfway submerged. Place your jar of cuttings in a sunny window for 6-8 weeks. Change the water often. Once roots have developed, plant in containers filled with good-quality soil and good drainage. Transplant the cuttings into your garden the following spring.
Goji berries are another terrific plant to have on your homestead. The berries are high in antioxidants, protein, as well as vitamins A and C. They contain all eight essential amino acids and their carbs are complex, meaning they slowly raise the blood sugar level and will not cause a sudden spike or crash. The berries are expensive to buy, but the plants are easy to grow, hardy and easy to propagate.
These shrubs can tolerate partial shade but will be more productive in full sun.
Your goji berry bush will start producing fruit in the second year and yields will increase each year thereafter, peaking in five years. You will see small purple flowers in midsummer which eventually result in green berries. These green berries will turn a deep reddish-orange color by August and will continue to produce until the first hard frost.
Pruning is required for good fruit production. Pruning allows you to limit the height of the plant, encourage the penetration of sunlight into the center of your plant, help foliage dry quicker and encourage the formation of lateral branches for the best berry production.
There is pruning to be done in both the dormant and the growing season. During the growing season, prune back the upright branches to encourage lateral growth and remove any new shoots. Remove any side growth that appears between the ground and 18 inches up. When the bush is dormant, remove any spindly canes and get rid of any dead or damaged wood. Shorten your lateral branches.
Dig up any suckers you see. These can be planted directly into your garden for easy propagation.
It is time to harvest your berries when they turn a deep reddish-orange color. This happens approximately 35 days after they are in full bloom. Because goji berries have a very short shelf life, pick small amounts to eat fresh. Harvest large amounts when you are ready to process them.
Once you have harvested the berries, pick out any stems and leaves. Throw away any berries that are over or under ripe, as well as any bruised or damaged fruit. Rinse the berries under cold running water. If you are going to freeze the berries, allow to dry on a towel for 15 minutes before placing on a cookie sheet in a single layer and placing in the freezer. Allow to freeze until solid and quickly transfer to a freezer bag. Frozen berries will store indefinitely.
If you are going to dry your goji berries, put your washed berries in a pot of boiling water for 60 seconds. Remove them with a slotted spoon and transfer them immediately into a bowl of ice water. The rapid temperature change will cause the skin of the berries to crack. This will help speed up the drying process.
Preheat your oven to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread the berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Do not allow the berries to touch or they will dry in clumps. Put the sheet of berries in the oven on the center rack and leave the door ajar. You can rotate the sheet every few hours to facilitate even drying. The berries are ready when they are shriveled and have shrunk in size. They will feel firm to the touch and their color will have darkened. This generally takes around 12 hours.
Once the berries are completely dry and cool, transfer to an airtight jar and store in a cool, dark place. If dried properly, goji berries will keep like this for up to one year.
Goji berries have a sweet, slightly sour flavor. You can eat them as is, add to baked goods or throw a handful into a smoothie. They are also delicious in savory dishes such as dressing. Because goji berries are so expensive, they are a great value-added product to take to market.
Both elderberries and goji berries are easy, interesting additions to your homestead. If you are searching for perennial, easy-to-propagate, hardy plants that consistently produce heavy yields of healthy fruit, I encourage you to give one or both of these plants a try.