Spruce up your garden with these flowering, fruiting shrubs

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Why do we cling to rigid rules when it comes to deciding what goes where in the garden?

We often assume that fruiting and nut-bearing woody plants and vines must go into the orchard while vegetables and nonwoody plants like strawberries and raspberries go into the food garden. Pretty flowering or visually interesting plants — annuals, perennials, vines, shrubs and trees — are consigned to the ornamental garden and borders.

The truth is, an integrated garden is more interesting. It’s time to mix it up. Nature has developed a whole spectrum of fruit-bearing shrubs that we can mix into our landscapes, ornamental gardens, and even our food gardens. Talented horticulturists have selected and hybridized many of them over the years to produce types with superior flavor or larger size.

Let’s take advantage of these treasures and site them here and there. Why not some blueberries in the foundation plantings that cover up the house-ground interface?

Got a shady part of the yard? That’s the perfect place for our native West Coast Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum). It’s sold at Buckeye Nursery in Petaluma and California Flora Nursery in Fulton.

Check with either or both of those nurseries for the following fruiting shrubs, or choose one-stop shopping by visiting Rolling River Nursery at 319 105th Ave, in East Oakland, an organic nursery that carries them all.

If they’re out of stock, their online catalog (rollingrivernursery.com) has a space where you can insert your email address and they’ll notify you when the item is available.

Blueberries grow from 3 to 6 feet when mature, depending on the variety. They’re never better than when you pick them at peak ripeness right off the bush. They produce the most fruit when planted with a second, different variety as a pollinator.

Bush cherries yield the best when planted in a trio of three varieties. The bushes grow to 4 feet and produce tart Montmorency-like cherries in late summer that make the best cherry pies. And, if you like sour fruit, eat a few out of your hand.

Chilean guavas are small evergreen shrubs that produce fragrant white flowers followed by red fruit with that tangy guava-like flavor. They’re great for fresh eating, jams and jellies.

You don’t need a bog to grow cranberries, but the soil does have to be rich in organic matter and kept moist, so plant these low-growing trailing bushes where you can water them once a week during our summer drought. They have pink flowers in spring and red berries in the fall, just in time for that turkey.

Black currants have a rich, musky flavor. They tolerate our climate but don’t fruit abundantly like they do where winters are freezing cold. Red currants do better here, and their fruits have a zingy, tart-sweet quality that is fun to gobble fresh or that makes a beautiful jelly.

Elderberries do best with a separate companion variety nearby for pollination. They grow to about 10 to 12 feet when mature and produce masses of sweet-smelling flower clusters in spring that make superior pancakes and elderberry fritters. The flowers are followed by masses of blue-black small fruits. You can eat them out of hand, but they’re best pressed for the juice that can be fermented into wine, mixed with vodka to make an elderberry port, or made into syrup or jelly.

Goji is a Chinese native with thornless sprawling branches, often clipped into a hedge. Light purple bell-shaped flowers are followed by nutritious dangling red berries to be eaten fresh or dried for later use. It’s drought tolerant, too.

Gooseberries are related to the currants. Their translucent greenish berries are the size of your thumbnail and make fabulous pies as well as a fresh snack as you wander in your garden. Be careful, though, as the most common gooseberries have wicked thorns.

Did you know there’s a fruiting member of the honeysuckle clan? Like many ornamental honeysuckles, honeyberry bushes have few pests and are easy to grow. But unlike most honeysuckles, honeyberries produce small, elongated, choice blue fruits that taste like blueberries. The bushes, native to Russia and the cold countries of north Eurasia, grow to 4 or 5 feet, and the berries (Berry Blue is the best) are pest-free and easy to maintain. The fruits contain lots of anti-oxidant anthocyanins.

Pineapple guavas will grow to 20 feet tall here in Sonoma County, but they’re easily kept more compact when trimmed as a hedge. All varieties produce larger crops of fragrant, guava-like fruits when planted with a companion of the same or different variety, and when given irrigation in the summer drought.

Sea buckthorns produce scads of delicious orange berries in the fall, usually made commercially into a sweetened juice in Russia and Germany. You’ll need a male plant, which will produce enough pollen for up to eight females, whereupon you’ll be inundated with berries.

Serviceberry bushes reach about 6 feet tall and bear half-inch, purplish-black, nearly seedless fruits good for fresh eating or preserves.

Strawberry guavas are attractive as ornamentals, growing 6 to 10 feet tall. Like photinias, they produce red-bronze new leaves that turn glossy green in summer. The delicious sweet-tart fruits are 1½ inches in diameter. There’s a yellow type called Yellow strawberry guava with larger fruits on a larger bush.

Chilean wintergreen is a small evergreen shrub that produces bright red or pink berries, depending on the variety, continuously over the growing season. The berries are sweet, with a fresh-tasting flavor.

As you can see, there are a lot of plants to choose from that not only anchor the landscape, but refresh your palate as you stop to smell the roses.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer who can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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