Gardening: Cream of the crop

Hybrid berries are delicious and easy-to-grow ingredients for a favourite, all-the-year-round dessert

For weeks now we have been truffling like pigs through the crops of the kitchen garden: asparagus, globe artichokes, young spinach, baby broad beans, rocket, land cress (makes wonderful soup), salad leaves of exotic frilliness. I've forgotten what the inside of a greengrocer's shop looks like.

At the moment we are berrying: raspberries, loganberries, tayberries and gooseberries, with an occasional foray into the currant bushes for diversion. I've been making summer puddings, the best way of reminding yourself on a foul November's night that there was once such a thing as a summer's day. They freeze brilliantly. Apart from the fruit itself, all you need is a set of plastic bowls with snap-on lids and some staleish white bread. Sliced won't do. It's too pappy.

Cut the loaf into generous slices. Take the crusts off the bread and use it to line the basins. Meanwhile, tip a mixture of soft fruit into a saucepan. You can use any combination, but it must include raspberries. My basic mix is made up from a pound each of gooseberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, loganberries and raspberries. Black cherries are a good addition. If you are using gooseberries, put them in the bottom of the saucepan, because they take longer to soften than any of the other fruits. Add sugar, but not too much of it.

Cook the fruit gently, until it is just soft. Don't let it turn to mush. Tip the mixture into the bread-lined bowls and use another slice of bread (without crusts, of course) to cover the fruit. When the puddings have cooled, snap on the plastic lids and put the bowls into the freezer. Eat summer pudding cold, accompanied by lashings of cream.

The easy promiscuity of the raspberry and blackberry tribes has resulted in a vast number of hybrid berries such as boysenberry and tayberry. Those hybrids have then themselves been crossed, to produce fruits such as the hildaberry. Jostaberries and worcesterberries, however, are different. They are the children of gooseberry and blackcurrant parents.

The first and most famous of the hybrid berries is the loganberry, bred more than a century ago by Judge Logan of California. He produced it by crossing a raspberry with a blackberry. Almost a hundred years later, the same cross spawned the tayberry, bred in 1962 by Dr David Jennings at the Scottish Crop Research Institute. Both take up a great deal of space - at least 10ft of wall, or more. So how do you choose between them?

Loyal defenders of the tayberry point out that Jennings had better raspberries and blackberries available to him when he made his cross. He used a vigorous American blackberry called `Aurora' and a tetraploid raspberry known tersely as 626/67. But the tayberry flavour isn't quite as intense as that of a well-ripened loganberry. Both used to be hideously prickly, but now you can get thornless types of both. Look for LY654 if you want a loganberry, or the cultivar `Buckingham' if you decide on a tayberry.

I'm still faithful to the loganberry, but for entirely unscientific reasons. My grandmother grew them in her square, secret garden, walled round with red brick. The river Usk lay between her house and ours. When we visited her, my mother and I used to walk down to the river, where a ferryman winched us across the river in an ancient, flat-bottomed punt.

My grandmother, who had been tossed by a bull in her youth, always walked as though she had one foot on the pavement and one in the gutter. Trying to match her extraordinary, rocking-horse rhythm, we would follow her down the garden path, past rows of fat-faced double daisies, and feast on loganberries gathered into dock leaf cups.

Many of my own choices in the garden are made on similarly irrational grounds. But if you had to "compare and contrast" the two, as examination papers used to say, what would you find? Tayberries don't like cold winters and if frosted, the canes die back quite severely, though the plant itself eventually recovers. Both, when established, should yield about 14lb of fruit from each clump of canes. Tayberries are slightly bigger than loganberries: less picking per pound. Both fruit in July and August, though the tayberry is marginally earlier than the loganberry.

There are other hybrid berries, of course. The sunberry is a more recent hybrid, released in the early Eighties. Its parents are an anonymous blackberry and the well-known raspberry `Malling Jewel'. It grows vigorously, with strong, unpleasantly spiny canes that need careful training. The cropping period is shorter than the tayberry's, from the second week in July to the third in August. The yield is about the same. But it is more of a blackberry than a raspberry.

The Tummelberry is more winter-hardy than the tayberry, but the flavour has no kick. The Japanese wineberry looks pretty, with its bright red winter stems, but the fruits are small, with little flavour.

All the hybrid berries need roughly the same treatment. They hate waterlogged soil and are unlikely to do well where there is only a thin skim of earth over chalk. They can be planted at any time between October and March. Set them quite shallowly in the soil, to encourage plenty of new suckers. If you are planning to put in more than one, leave 10-12ft between plants. A mulch of well-rotted manure or compost will help enormously.

If you are training hybrid berries on wires, fix the first wire about 3ft from the ground with another three rows of wire above it, fixed at intervals of a foot. Tie the growths securely along the wires, keeping the new canes bunched up in a fountain in the middle and the older, fruiting canes trained horizontally away from the centre of the bunch. When you have finished picking the fruit, cut out the old canes, unbundle the new ones and tie them in where the old ones used to be.

If you live in a really cold area, you may find it better to leave the bundle of new canes lying on the ground all winter, and tie them up in spring. Research at the national fruit collection at Brogdale has shown that canes treated like this suffer less from die-back and other effects of intense cold.

A rich selection of raspberries, blackberries, loganberries and other hybrid berries is listed in Highfield Nursery's catalogue. Contact them at Whitminster, Gloucester, Glos GL2 7PL (01452 740266). The nursery is open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm.

At the Brogdale Horticultural Trust you will find the national collection of fruit - more than 4,000 varieties (2,000 of those are apples). The Trust is at Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent ME13 8XZ (01795 535286). It is open from Easter to Christmas, daily from 9.30am to 5.30pm. Admission costs pounds 2 and includes a guided tour

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