Growing berries in containers could extend Ohio’s commercial fruit season and provide other benefits.

At least, that’s what a researcher in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University hopes to determine by studying how growing raspberries, blackberries and blueberries in containers on a commercial level can help make Ohio-grown berries more hearty to the effects of Ohio winters.

The demand for blackberries, blueberries and raspberries has exploded in recent years thanks to consumers who covet the tiny sweet fruits for their many health benefits, said Gary Gao, an Ohio State University Extension specialist and associate professor of small fruit crops at the Ohio State University South Centers at Piketon.

OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the college. The South Centers are also a part of the college.

Ohio growers who are able to increase their blackberry, blueberry and raspberry production could see a significant financial gain, Gao said.

But the region’s harsh winter weather can be damaging to the fruits, he said.

“The polar vortex we’ve experienced in recent years as well as the extreme cold conditions that were felt in much of Ohio last year has resulted in many commercial berry growers across the state with damaged or completely destroyed crops,” Gao said. “For example, the cold weather and freezing conditions over the past two years have damaged blackberry production across the state, with many growers hardly being able to produce any of the fruit if they did not provide some kind of winter protection.

“Even blueberries, which typically can withstand cold temperatures, have been subject to winter injuries in Ohio the past two years.”

To help growers alleviate the problems of harsh winter weather, Gao is examining using containers to grow commercial berries. In the two-year research project, Gao will plant some blackberries, blueberries and raspberries in containers and then either move the containers into sheltered area such as an unheated barn before extreme cold temperatures arrive.

Other berries will be planted in containers and then set on their side so that protective covers can be placed over them during the winter, Gao said. Those plants will then be compared to berries grown traditionally in terms of yield and food quality as well as the ease of growing in containers, he said.

“With the cold winters we’ve experienced during the last two years, many farmers have lost a significant crop every year, so we’re trying to come up with ways to help growers stay competitive,” Gao said.

Another potential benefit of growing the plants in containers is that it could extend the harvest period, he said, “since fruit plants in containers can be moved to warmer environments earlier or later to speed up or delay the fruit harvest season to maximize profit margin.”

The project is funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant through the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Gao said. Work on the project is underway now.