Q: We purchased property and were told by the elderly gentleman that all the berry bushes he planted were edible, but he couldn’t remember the name of the shrub in the photo. I thought it might be elderberry but the leaves are different. Can you help identify? — Deb Y.
A: Thanks for sending the photo. The shrub has several common names, including American cranberrybush viburnum and highbush cranberry, although it’s not related to the true cranberry. Its botanical name has been revised from Viburnum trilobum, which is how I memorized it as a student, to Viburnum opulus variety americanum.
American viburnum is native to a large section of North America, and is fully winter-hardy across the Upper Midwest, capable of reaching a height and width of 8 to 12 feet. There are several named cultivars with shorter growth habit available at garden centers, plus cultivars selected for higher fruit production, like Hahs and Wentworth.
It’s important to correctly identify any berries or fruits before consuming, as you are doing. In this case, the fruits of highbush cranberry are certainly edible. They are tart, but become sweeter after a frost. Although I’ve eaten them fresh, out of curiosity, they’re commonly used for jelly, juice and sauce. Birds tend to leave the fruits alone until after they’ve thawed and frozen several times.
Recipes using highbush cranberry can be found online.
Q: I remember in the past we used to make our own potting soil mixes, and there were recipes for sterilizing soil in the microwave. I don’t hear about that anymore, the way we once did. Is there a reason no one seems to mix their own potting soil anymore? — Linda M.
A: I hadn’t thought about it until you asked, but we don’t hear as much about homemade potting soil, do we? During the 1970s and '80s, it was fashionable to pasteurize garden soil in the oven or microwave to blend with other ingredients to form a mix used for potting houseplants. I guess it went the way of the macrame plant hangers found hanging in the corners of most living rooms of the time.
The time-honored formula was equal parts garden soil, an aggregate like sand, perlite or vermiculite and organic material like peat moss, compost or manure. Because most garden soil contains weed seed and possible pathogens, pasteurization was recommended, which was a smelly process in the oven.
Home-brewed potting mix probably fell out of favor for several reasons. Besides being messy, by the time you purchased the non-soil ingredients, you spent nearly as much as buying ready-made packaged potting mix. High-quality potting mixes are also more readily available now than they were 40 years ago. Miracle-Gro Potting Mix, and similar brands carried by locally owned garden centers, are formulated for optimum plant growth. Plants thrive in these packaged mixes, so there’s no longer a need to make your own, at least in my experience.
Q: With the lack of snow cover to date, I’m worried about the perennials we planted this fall. Should I be adding a mulch of some kind before the really cold weather hits? — Sam P.
A: Snow is a great insulator, and we’ve been lucky so far that the lack of snow has been accompanied by a lack of frigid temperatures that would penetrate deeply into bare soil. Adding a protective mulch soon would be a great idea.
Effective mulches include leaves, straw, hay and wood products. If access to these materials is limited, garden centers sell packages of shredded bark and woodchips, which work well. A layer 6 to 12 inches thick provides good protection, and mulches should be removed again in April, before new growth would attempt to emerge below the mulch.
If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler, NDSU Extension-Cass County, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city and state for appropriate advice.