The practice of permaculture was a guiding mission at The Bailey Farm. With the introduction of nitrogen-fixers and compatibles that offer plant biodiversity, David Homa of Post Carbon Designs created an increasingly complex environment in which our elderberry thrived holistically.
Busy bees from New Moon Apiary buzzed between plants cross-pollinating the elderflowers each July and August.
Although we are not technically practicing bio-dynamic farming, non-intervention was always our first approach when less desirable insects or plant diseases threatened the farm. In short, our approach was to let Mother Nature lead, we follow.
The Bailey Farm was an organic farm, formerly certified by MOFGA. Our farm prospered in large part due to the generous and thoughtful support of this nationally recognized organization.
All of us at The Bailey Farm hold the mighty Elder plant, known since ancient times as the 'Protector of the Garden,' in deep respect. The plants responded quite magically to our inputs and attentions, our blessings and prayers, as they wake in spring, grow into vibrant green splendor in summer, followed by flower and fruit, and finally take their winter's rest.
By 2017, Maine's three year drought (2015-18) dried up the old farm well, which was the source of our irrigation system. Even when heavily mulched, elderberry require 1-2" of water/per week in the summer.
https://bangordailynews.com/2018/08/07/homestead/maines-third-summer-of-drought-conditions-could-start-to-affect-wells-in-the-state/ Without adequate water, the elderberry became stressed and vulnerable. By 2019, only the most native cultivars were left. The elders that were sourced and planted from other areas in the U.S. and Germany did not survive the drought. By 2018, organic elderberries had to be transported from the south by freezer truck to meet the demands of my customers. Once a farmer, now a broker -- not the same.
THE LESSONS LEARNED are too many to recount here, but perhaps foremost is the deep gratitude and respect I hold for all those engaged in farming. Building soil and growing food produces a strong body and a healthy life, enriched by closeness to Nature. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. SPECIFIC ELDERBERRY LESSONS LEARNED are as follows:
1. SOURCES for PLANT MATERIAL: In the wild, locate and identify at least two elderberry trees local to your area during the growing season. Make sure the July elderberry flowers are actually elderberry. (The Picture This app is a handy little plant identifier). Return to observe the density of berry umbels as they begin to ripen in early to mid-August. In Feb. and March, return to propagate from your local trees (see below).
Plan B is to order plant stock from Double A Vineyards in upstate NY, Twisted Tree Farm, or any other nursery you find that carries 'Nova,' 'Adams,' 'York' cultivars. I ordered from Double A Vineyard and was very pleased with the two-year old well-developed bare root stock. Order in the early fall to ensure they don't run out. They will ship in the spring according to your zone.
It's helpful to your education of Mother Elder to start with a selection of two year old trialed cultivars such as Double A Vineyards offers, as well as some wild propagated cuttings. This approach allows you to experience elderberry both from the older version and from the beginning; and will reward you with berries more quickly. FYI: Double A Vineyards also carries Aronia 'Viking,' which I highly recommend as the other medicinal berry to have in your personal apothecary for winter health.
2. PLANT at least two different cultivars native to your zone close to the house where they can be monitored for deer damage, fertilized, mulched and watered with ease. The ideal location is near a stream or swale, but not everyone has a stream on their property. Elderberry need 1-2" of water/week in the growing season, but don't want to sit permanently in water. They are an understory plant. Mother Elder prefers morning sun and dappled afternoon light, out of the wind, if possible.
3. SOIL: Elderberry can grow 4' or more in a given growing season. They produce flowers in July, berries in August and Sept. That's a lot to accomplish in a few short months. They need plenty of aged manure, compost, organic matter in order to succeed. The pH of the soil should be in the range of 5.5 and 6.5, but be less concerned with existing soil pH, and put more energy into building your clay or sand soil with the amendments listed above to get the desired results. Clay holds nutrients and moisture better than sand. After ten years of building soil out of hard-packed clay, I truly prefer working with clay. Once clay is broken down and amended, you've got 'black gold.'
4. MULCH: Stockpile ramial wood chips (birch, alder, maple) to use in the spring and summer for suppressing weeds and holding moisture; and stockpile ramial leaf mulch (birch, alder, maple) for fall mulching. Always keep your soil covered with some form of organic matter, but avoid transfer station compost, chips and leaf mulch if possible -- you don't know what's in it. Become a local sleuth, starting with your own property, or the property of someone willing to share, to uncover the best mulch, manure and compost you can for your area.
5. PROPAGATION: In February and March in Maine, watch the weather. On a relatively warm day, go with your sterilized Felco clippers and a bucket or two to the wild or cultivated elderberry trees you identified the previous year. Label containers with the location and/or cultivar type. If they are wild, make note of the location. Be able to identify your cultivars throughout the propagation process. Put a layer of snow or water in your bucket and make slanted cuts from healthy 1/4" - 1/2" diameter canes: two V-shaped nodes at the bottom, two V-shaped nodes at the top with about a 6" space between (refer to photo of cuttings on this website). There are many ways to propagate plants. The method I use is to put my V-shaped cuttings in labeled quart yogurt containers 3/4 full of water inside in semi-darkness. Once roots appear in about a month, transfer to labeled 4" pots and place in indirect light inside. As the weather warms, gradually harden off to the outside. Plant in prepared soil and water well every week. Feed, mulch, keep weeds down. First year, pinch off flowers to send energy back to the roots. Your first real harvest will be in year three.
6. PRUNING: Every spring, examine canes for holes (elder borers), deer damage, crossing and rubbing canes. Remove damaged areas down to about 1" above a pair of nodes. Ideally, the elder tree should have about three first year canes, three second year canes and three third year canes. From the ground up, there should be adequate air flow in the center of the tree. I remove the thin spindly canes at the top of the tree, and prune the height down to about 3-5', depending on the cultivar.
7. HARVEST: In year three, you can expect a good harvest. Do not harvest the berries when still red. Wait for the elderberries to be blue-black for maximum health benefit. The birds will let you know, and they will harvest too. It's about sharing, but you must be vigilant during harvest, always at the ready. To harvest, I use scissors, grasp the berry umbel in my left hand, gently pulling the berries away from the stems and cutting as close to the berries as possible, to eliminate as much stem material as possible. When my harvest basket is full, I transfer the fruit into 40 lb. capacity 4 ml food safe large plastic bags (U-LIne), or ziplock bags, and place them in the freezer until I'm ready to use in the fall.
8. RECIPES & HOW TO USE: Once I decide which recipe(s) I want to use, I thaw the fruit on a cookie sheet just long enough to remove any additional medium to large stem pieces, insects, and leaves. I choose not to rinse or wash the berries, but for value-added products, washing is required. For processing berries used in any recipe, the temperature must go above 130 degrees F. to neutralize toxic cyanides in the berries. My favorite syrup recipe is the crockpot method, using as little water as possible. Slow-cooking preserves the phytonutrient value better than boiling the berries in lots of water, and then reducing. In generations past, people didn't know that boiling fruits and vegetables kills the nutrient value, just as they didn't know that sugar is addictive. Therefore, in times past people made jams, jellies, pies, wines and sweet syrups, all with lots of heat and sugar. My preferred sweetener is always raw unfiltered honey added after I process the berries. Every fall I make shrub tonic (see recipes) for the added benefit of apple cider vinegar, as well as the versatility of making both mocktails and cocktails during the winter months. Get healthy, be happy! Also, shrub can be stored in a dark cupboard for well over a year without refrigeration, whereas syrups need to be sealed or refrigerated.