As the hot months of summer wind down, you’ll likely spot ditches filled with dark black elderberry fruits. The entire cluster has tiny fruits consumed by humans, birds, and other wild animals. We love learning how to grow elderberries because they taste delicious and have an assortment of medicinal properties. Growing elderberries at home is the easiest way to enjoy their white flowers, bursting berries, and beneficial nutrients.
How long do elderberries take to grow after you plant them? The great thing about this berry plant is that there are different varieties to fit your harvesting timeline and fruiting body desires. Elderberry plants aren’t some of the most common fruits you’ll find in a home garden, but you’ll be amazed at how easy the shrubs are to grow.
With products like elderberry syrup and Norm’s Farms elderberry gummies, why not take the task of growing elderberry bushes and turn it into a fun hobby that saves you money on commercialized products?
- Before You Start Growing Elderberries
- How to Grow Elderberries
- Site Preferences
Before You Start Growing Elderberries
Elderberry bushes are perennial deciduous plants native to Northern America and Europe. American elderberry shrubs are called Sambucus canadensis. The European elderberry plant is Sambucus nigra.
There have been fossilized seeds that trace back as far as 16,000 years ago in the eastern part of North America. Wild elderflowers are found growing all around the continent.
They are incredibly hardy in USDA hardiness zones three through 11, but there have been occasions where they are found growing fine in zone two. These shrubs are flowering evergreens in zones 9-11.
Elderberries are bare-root plants with shallow roots. They don’t always flourish in wet soils but are hardy enough to take on some occasional flooding. Both elderberry varieties don’t do well when competing against more aggressive plants.
However, good drainage and access to lots of sunlight are all they need to appear happy. If you want to grow elderberry trees, go with the European species. For smaller bush-like plants, use the American species.
Medicinal Properties of Elderberry
Elderberries are a prized medicinal herb and food throughout many cultures. They are rich in vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, iron, and phosphorus. It has both antiviral and antioxidant properties as well.
These deciduous or evergreen bushes with flowers are handy for reducing the symptoms and duration of the flu or colds. Both the dark purple berries and white flowers are edible and beneficial.
The flowers help promote sweating to break a fever. The Black Elderberry cultivar has the risk of toxicity if you eat it in too large quantities.
There are currently several elderberry products on the market like drinks, teas, tinctures, jellies, and baked goods. The fresh juice also makes a natural dye and food coloring.
They are only increasing in demand, meaning that learning how to grow elderberries at home is even more enticing.
How to Grow Elderberries
The wind usually pollinates elderberry plants, but cross-pollination from two different plants in your garden is beneficial since they don’t attract a lot of essential pollinators.
Keep each of the cultivars at least 60 feet apart. The first step in this entire planting process is choosing the cultivars you want to work with.
Selecting Elderberry Cultivars
Gardeners should always choose a plant variety based on how well it fits the purpose you’re looking for. Some prefer varieties of elderberries with higher sugar content, and others choose based on the size of the bush. There are types to fit your needs, whatever they may be.
The overall size, mature height, size of flower clusters, size of berries, the time they ripen, and uniformity of the fruits are all things that you have some sort of power over based on your choice.
Most growers prefer the ones that ripen at different times and spread their harvesting period out for several weeks at the very end of the growing season.
The most popular cultivars to grow in North America are the Black Beauty, Red Elderberry, Black Lace, and Nova elderberries.
Acquiring Elderberry Plants
Growers can start with potted elderberry plants or bare-root plants that are available at nurseries or from cuttings. Potted plants have a higher chance of survival than cuttings. Follow the correct way to grow elderberries in a container for either transplanting or keeping in the pot.
The first year rooted cuttings produce an excellent crop after only their second year once planted in the ground. Soak the roots in water for at least two hours before planting them.
If you soak them for more than a couple of hours, the roots become injured through a lack of oxygen. In general, most people prefer to use potted plants that are already prepared for transplanting.
Planting Elderberry Transplants
Location is everything in gardening. Elderberries prefer partial shade because they would rather be cool and moist than hot and dry when they have full sun. Drainage is the key to avoiding root rot.
The way to plant elderberries is to put grow bushes in pairs so they are no more than 60 feet away from one another but do not plant them too close, either. The more air circulation between shrubs, the less likely you are to deal with harmful diseases.
Note that they shoot up new canes quickly and reach 12 feet tall and six feet wide when mature. Plant the elderberries in the late winter or early spring when the chance of frost is gone.
Propagating Softwood Cuttings
Softwood cuttings are taken from growing stems from June to early July before bearing fruit. To propagate them, select some new branches that have just started turning green to brown.
Choose only the branches that are pest and disease-free. Harvest them in the early morning and put them in a moist, rooting medium as soon as possible.
Cut each branch into sections that are four to six inches long with two to four nodes on each one. Cut the root end of the shoot at an angle to help remember which way grows upward.
Remove the green leaves from the lower half of the cutting, but leave at least one set at the top. A sterile rooting medium is essential for this process. If you don’t know how to make it, there are some simple recipes to follow.
Mix one part of the peat moss with one part sand in the bucket. Stir in water until the medium is damp and somewhat crumbly. There is too much water if it looks soaking wet. Do not use regular garden soil.
Once you have your sterile medium, fill a four-inch pot with it and stick the bottom one-third cutting into the medium. Store all of the cuttings in a location with bright and indirect sunlight for about six weeks.
Do not allow the fresh cuttings to dry out. Instead, maintain consistent humidity by placing a clear plastic bag over the top of each one. Remove it every two or three days and mist the cutting.
After about six weeks, gently tug on the cutting to see if it is firmly rooted and ready to be transplanted to another sterile pot.
If it is, fill a six-inch container with high-quality potting soil and place the cutting in the center of the pot and cover it at the same spot it was before.
Soak the potting soil with water and leave the plastic bag off. Place the pot in filtered light and transplant it outside the following spring.
Propagating Hardwood Cuttings
Hardwood cuttings are safe to take before the buds break in late winter or early spring. Root them in pots or cold storage and then plant them directly in the thawed ground after the danger of frost is gone.
Harvest hardwood branches from the growth that took place the previous year. Cuttings should be completely brown and free from damage. Ensure two to four nodes are on each cutting and cut the bottom end at an angle.
One action to take after cutting them is to wrap them in plastic and store them in a cool, dark area until the spring. Another is to put the cuttings in pots with a rooting medium, so the two lowest nodes are two inches above the surface.
Care for them until ready to be transplanted in the spring. Your last option is to place the cutting in a bucket of water as you harvest them and then plant them directly to their new permanent location.
For all three of these methods, place the cutting so that one or two nodes are below the soil level and the top pair of buds are above. Wait six weeks for the cutting to establish its roots. Prune bushes only after their second winter has passed.
Elderberries tolerate a vast range of soil conditions, but they do best in moderately acidic soils with a pH level between 5.5 and 6.5. Place them in open areas with full or partial sun.
Keep them away from forest edges to reduce the number of birds and pests feeding on them. Heavy soils are fine as long as there is good drainage and the site won’t flood. They only tolerate standing water for two days.
Always perform a soil test to ensure the land is prepared to meet the needs of the plant. Do not use a generic fertilizer on the soil because it might impact the water quality. Try to fertilize the soil with organic matter or compost. Learn when to fertilize elderberry bushes to benefit the plants the most.
Add mulch to the top of the ground to maintain moisture, regulate temperature, and keep weeds from competing with your plants. Maintain a thick layer of mulch for the first two years and continue to monitor for weeds or other aggressive plants that are growing nearby.
Elderberries have a mat-like root system. The way to fertilize elderberries is by adding limestone, potassium, or phosphorus to the ground in the fall before the growing season.
Elderberry Plant Spacing
Spacing for elderberry plants usually depends on the cultivars you grow. Some have a minimum spacing of one foot between plants, and others require at least 12 feet.
On average, try using a six-by-twelve foot area for each plant. In other words, keep six feet between plants and 12 feet between rows.
More space between elderberry trees allows the plants to grow larger and produce bigger yields, gives them more air circulation and keeps fungal diseases from taking over.
The one downside is that it increases the amount of weeding you have to do, but the overall process isn’t tedious because you won’t be working in tight spaces.
How Long do Elderberries Take to Grow?
A frequent question asked about these fruits is how long do elderberries take to grow? Elderberries don’t take extremely long to mature, but you will have to wait at least two or three years to develop fruits fully.
Keep in mind that this wait is usually worth it. Most elderberry bushes survive for as long as 60 years. That’s a lot of fruit for one lifetime.
The most labor-intensive task involved in learning how to grow elderberries is harvesting them. Harvest fresh elderberries when they are dark purple or almost black. They should be juicy and soft to the touch.
If the berries are shriveled, you have waited too long to harvest them. You’ll have to keep a very close watch because the birds will turn your shrub into a feast.
You won’t be able to pick individual berries. Instead, examine the entire cluster, and the ones with a decent percentage of ripe berries are okay to pluck. If they are almost all ripe, the birds might get to them first, and you’re better off harvesting them a tiny bit early.
Harvest elderberries by using sharp, clean pruning shears. Cut the entire berry cluster under the base of where the fruit stars. Place the berries in a plastic bucket.
Cooking with Elderberries
There are a handful of different things to do with ripe elderberries. Jams, jellies, and syrups are some of the most popular choices, but you haven’t lived until you’ve made an elderberry pie.
Rinse excess berries under cool water and dry them on paper towels. Place the washed elderberries in a single layer on a baking tray and freeze them. Once frozen, dump them all into a freezer-safe bag and store them for up to six months.
Heat your kitchen oven to 375°F. Mix the cornstarch with a splash of cool water and add it to a large mixing bowl with the berries, lemon juice, and sugar. Toss everything to get it coated. Dump the mix into a pot and cook them over medium-high heat.
Stir the berries until they cook down and reach your desired thickness, adding more cornstarch if it is too watery. Pour the cooked fruit filling into a bottom crust.
Place a few dots of butter on the berries, and top everything with more crust. Bake the entire pie for 40 minutes until the berries are bubbling and the crust is brown.
Elderberry Pests and Diseases
Every single plant has the potential of attracting pests and diseases. Location, weather, and soil all play a part in what issues your elderberries face.
Always try to work with disease-resistant cultivars if available and maintain them properly. This includes keeping up with pruning, weeding, and spraying.
Tomato ringspot, fungal canker, powdery mildew, root rot, thread blight, and leaf spot are some of the most common diseases you find on elderberry shrubs. These diseases are usually taken care of with proper maintenance before and after planting.
Insects are a much different issue than diseases. The cane borer is one pest you’ll have to look out for when growing elderberries.
If you notice borers, remove and destroy all of the infected canes. The only insect you might see are thrips, which are easy to rid yourself of with a little insecticide.
Add equal parts of the three ingredients in a spray bottle or garden sprayer. Replace the top and shake the container to ensure that everything is thoroughly mixed. Spray your plants with the solution regularly to keep them bug-free.
Elderberries aren’t likely the first fruit that pops into your mind when you think of gardening. These plants may not seem like a better option than strawberries or blueberries, but they are one of the easiest berry shrubs to care for and benefit you in many ways.
The fresh, juicy flavor is only a bonus to the medicinal properties they bring to your life. There are several different ways to utilize these berries.
Whether you freeze, can, bake, or turn them into teas and tinctures, growing elderberries in your backyard is something that will pay off for decades.
If learning how to grow elderberries has supplied you with years of fresh fruits at home, share this complete guide to growing elderberries on Facebook and Pinterest.