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Respect Your Elders: Growing an Elderberry Plant

By Max Day
Share to PinterestRespect Your Elders: Growing an Elderberry Plant
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When you think of elderberries, your first thought may be of your grandmother's home remedies that were sure to chase off any cold. While it's true that these deep purple clusters have their share of health benefits, they're good for much more than that. Frilly white flowers lend a cheery feel to the summer landscape, and the nearly-black berries can be used as a natural dye — not to mention in any number of delicious jams and teas. Couple that with their resilience and abundant growth, and it's easy to see why the elderberry is making such a comeback.

01

Planting your elderberry

You've likely seen elderberries growing naturally along banks or by fence posts, as they thrive very naturally with little cultivation. They're certainly accustomed to an outdoor lifestyle, so it's best to plant them where they'll have room to flourish. Shallow soil with an acidic pH of 5.5 to 6.6 will suit your elderberry plant best, and it will tolerate any soil texture well. The one thing your elderberry plant does need is a well-aerated root system to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to root rot.

Share to PinterestAn acidic pH and thoroughly aerated root system are all your elderberry plant needs to thrive.
Richard Clark / Getty Images

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02

Size requirements for the elderberry plant

At their largest, elderberry plants can grow up to 12 feet high and 6 feet across, so they definitely prefer their share of space. Despite that, getting the maximum fruit yield possible still requires pollination, so your elderberry does need some company — albeit from a healthy distance. As a compromise, keep your elderberry plants within 60 feet of one another. That way, they'll be close enough for cross-pollination but will still have room to grow.

Share to PinterestAt 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide, elderberries need sufficient space to thrive.
Ashley Cooper / Getty Images

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03

Sunlight requirements

The elderberry's hardiness is one of its most desirable traits amongst gardeners yet to taste its fruit. Capable of growing in the colder climates of the northern midwest, the elderberry usually does best in hardiness zones 4 and under, and while it can tolerate partial shade, it prefers full sun when it can get it.

Share to PinterestThe hardy elderberry can survive in cooler climes, and thrives most in full sun.
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04

Watering requirements

With a thirst as great as its craving for light, the elderberry plant is difficult to overwater. Its preference for moist environments is the reason you'll find it naturally growing on banks or in ditches, but if you're growing it in your garden, an inch of water per week is a good amount to give. With all that water just remember: the soil must have good drainage, or root rot may occur.

Share to PinterestAt an ideal moisture intake of one inch per week, elderberries prefer a moist environment—as long as they have good drainage.
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05

Pests that can harm the elderberry plant

Their hardy nature enables the elderberry plant to resist attack from many hungry prey. The only exception is that its shallow root system can be crowded out by common weeds seeking the same space, but this can easily be resolved by regular weeding — though hungry birds will make a bid for those berries if you don't harvest them first.

Share to PinterestAside from weeds and birds, the resilient elderberry is not plagued by any special pests.
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06

Potential diseases

Elderberry is susceptible to a few diseases. Cankers may infect its leaves and branches, while leaf spot and powdery mildew can harm its delicate berries. Root rot is the other major threat, but only if the surrounding soil has poor drainage. Other minor diseases include thread blight and verticillium wilt, but most can be treated simply by pruning back the affected areas.

Share to PinterestRoot rot, cankers, and powdery mildew are among the elderberry's common diseases, but all are easily remedied with pruning and proper drainage.
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07

Special care

The elderberry is as low-maintenance as it is resilient, requiring no rare or special nutrients. If you'd like to give your elder some extra nourishment, standard ammonium nitrate or fertilizer with a 10-10-10 NPK ratio will be the ideal supplement to coax this hardy shrub to produce its most abundant berry yield. Apply 1/8 of a pound of ammonium nitrate to each shrub for every year of its age, or 1/4 of a pound of 10-10-10 per year, and it will reward you with enough plump, juicy clusters that you'll be more than satisfied.

Share to PinterestThough not requiring any rare nutrients, the elderberry does best with ammonium nitrate or 10-10-10 NPK fertilizer.
theasis / Getty Images

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08

Propagating your elderberry plant

There are three cuttings from which you can propagate an elderberry plant: softwood, hardwood, and hardwood with sprouts. Softwood propagation is the most common and is quite simple. Trim off a few tender shoots of fresh growth sometime in the early summer months and place in a mason jar of water for about 12 hours, then plant and cultivate your new baby elder until it blooms to maturity.

Share to PinterestWhile hardwood cuttings can be used, softwood is best for elderberry propagation.
Anastasiia Stiahailo / Getty Images

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09

Harvesting your elderberry

In keeping with its simplicity, harvesting elderberries amounts to little more than clipping their clusters off the shrub. Each cluster contains a high concentration of berries, so instead of waiting for all of them to be fully ripe, it's better to pick them once the majority have turned a deep purple-black, even if there are a few stragglers. After all, the birds will not be so patient!

Share to PinterestShear off the abundant cluster of berries once the majority have reached a deep purple color, or the birds will get them first.
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10

Preparation tips

Elderberries have a unique tartness and mouthfeel that make for a delicious variety of jams, syrups, teas, and even wine. These clusters have long been used for medicinal purposes too, packed as they are with vitamin C and antioxidants. Because of this, elderberries are popular in many herbal tinctures and supplements. Always cook them before eating, though, as they are slightly toxic if consumed raw and may result in nausea.

Share to PinterestFrom teas and tinctures to syrups and jams, elderberry products heal the body and tickle the taste buds at the same time.
Madeleine_Steinbach / Getty Images

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11

Selecting a planting site

Share to PinterestFarmer's Hand Planting Seeds In Soil In Rows

Finding the perfect spot for your elderberry isn't just about sticking it in the ground and hoping for the best. These plants crave the sun, basking in its glory for the juiciest berries. But they're not divas; a little shade won't hurt. What's non-negotiable is breathing room – air circulation is their secret to staying fresh and disease-free. Think of it as choosing a seat in a cafe: somewhere bright but not too crowded.

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12

Elderberry tree varieties

Share to Pinterestelderberry orchard in central Hungary

The elderberry world is a buffet of variety. From the robust American elderberry, flaunting its dark, enticing fruits, to the European cousin with a mysterious allure. Then there's the red elderberry, a feast for the eyes but tart on the tongue, and the blue elderberry, the laid-back sibling with a subtle charm. Each has its own story, its own flavor, waiting for you to discover and decide who gets to grace your garden stage.

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13

Soil testing before planting

Share to PinterestA soil meter and a farmer's hands are picking up soil for planting.

Before you introduce your elderberry to its new home, a little groundwork is in order. Soil testing is like a background check for your garden bed, revealing secrets of nutrient levels and pH mysteries. This step ensures you're not setting up your plant for a tough life in hostile terrain. A simple test can tell you if you need to play matchmaker, amending the soil to create a love nest for those roots to thrive.

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14

Mulching techniques

Share to Pinterestwood chips mulching composting. Hands in gardening gloves of person hold ground wood chips for mulching the beds. Increasing soil fertility, mulching, composting organic waste

Mulching your elderberry is akin to tucking it in with a cozy blanket. Not only does it keep the soil moist and weed-free, but it also adds a touch of elegance to your garden. The trick is to lay it on thick enough to discourage any weed ambitions but light enough to let the soil breathe. Straw, bark, or compost – each can be the perfect bedfellow, keeping the base cool and comfortable.

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15

Pruning strategy

Share to PinterestYoung woman cutting elderberry flower with scissors. Harvesting of elderflower. Alternative medicine. Woman collect a herb.

Pruning is not about taking your frustrations out on unsuspecting branches; it's an art form. It shapes the future of your elderberry, encouraging it to grow up strong and fruitful. After the second year, it's time to thin out the old to make way for the new, ensuring your plant's energy is focused on producing those coveted berries. Remember, every cut is a conversation about growth and renewal.

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