Grow An Edible Landscape With Michigan’s Native Elderberry

Grow An Edible Landscape With Michigan’s Native Elderberry

Michigan’s Native Elderberry

If you’re looking for a plant that adds beautiful blooms, edible fruit, and ecological benefits to your landscaping, look no further than the Elderberry! This shrub is native to Michigan and most of North America, making it a great addition to your home garden.

In this article, we’ll review how to plant and grow elderberries in Michigan. In just a few seasons, you’ll be able to harvest your own elderberries!

(Featured Image: Elderberries by Andy Rodgers)

What To Consider Before Planting Elderberries

Elderberries are a hardy, versatile shrub that can tolerate a wide variety of conditions. Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are both native to Michigan and should be considered as a preferred option for growing here.

Some key factors that you should consider before planting elderberries include:

Sunlight Requirements

Elderberries thrive in full sun, which means they need a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight per day. Full sun exposure ensures optimal growth, flowering, and fruit production. However, elderberries can tolerate partial shade, especially in hotter climates, where some afternoon shade can be beneficial to protect them from intense heat.

Soil Conditions

Elderberries prefer moist, well-draining soil. They can adapt to various soil types, including loam, clay, and sandy soils. Loamy soil, which is a balanced mixture of sand, silt, and clay, is considered ideal. It retains moisture without becoming waterlogged.

Ensure that the soil has good drainage to prevent waterlogging, which can cause root rot and other problems. If your soil is heavy clay or excessively sandy, you can improve it by adding organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure.

Water Requirements

Elderberries have moderate water needs. While they can tolerate some drought conditions once established, consistent moisture is important, especially during flowering and fruiting. Adequate watering is crucial for the plants to develop healthy fruit.

Water elderberries deeply and regularly, especially during dry spells or prolonged periods without rain. Mulching around the base of the plants can help retain soil moisture.

Climate

Elderberries are hardy plants and can grow in a variety of climates. Different varieties have different temperature requirements, so it’s essential to choose cultivars that are suitable for your specific climate zone. Native elderberries can often be found growing wild in Michigan and the United States, which makes them the preferred option for planting in your backyard.

Cross-Pollination

Elderberries are self-fertile, meaning a single plant can produce fruit on its own. However, planting multiple elderberry varieties near each other can increase fruit production. Cross-pollination between different varieties can lead to better yields and larger berries. If you have enough space, consider planting two or more elderberry cultivars within close proximity to enhance cross-pollination.

Adequate Spacing

Proper spacing is important for elderberries to ensure adequate airflow and room for growth. Plant elderberries 6 to 10 feet apart, both within rows and between rows. This spacing allows the plants to spread and receive sufficient sunlight while minimizing competition for nutrients and water. Adequate spacing also reduces the risk of diseases that can occur when plants are overcrowded.

When To Plant Elderberries In Michigan

In Michigan, the ideal time to plant elderberry shrubs is in early spring or late fall. Planting in these seasons allows the shrubs to establish their root systems before the onset of hot summer weather or winter dormancy.

It’s important to note that specific timing can vary depending on the exact location within Michigan and the prevailing weather conditions each year. It’s always a good idea to check local weather patterns and consult with local nurseries or agricultural extension offices for the most accurate planting recommendations based on your specific area.

Early Spring Planting

Early spring planting (late March to early May) is generally recommended as the soil begins to warm up and the risk of frost diminishes. This gives the elderberry plants a longer growing season to develop strong roots and establish themselves before the hot summer months.

Late Fall Planting

Late fall planting (late September to early November) is another suitable option. The weather during this time is cooler, and the soil is still warm enough for root growth. By planting in the fall, elderberries have the advantage of being in the ground and ready to grow when spring arrives, allowing them to take full advantage of the upcoming growing season.

A large white bloom on the native elderberry bush that is made up of tiny clusters of flowers.

Elderberry Flower

How To Plant Elderberries In Michigan

1. Purchase Quality Plants

Purchase healthy elderberry plants from a reputable nursery or garden center. For best results, choose one of the 2 varieties that are native to Michigan and especially suited to grow in our climate. We recommend starting with bare root or dormant plants if you are planting in early spring.

2. Choose A Suitable Location

Select a site that receives full sun or partial shade and has well-draining soil. Ensure the location has enough space to accommodate the mature size of the elderberry shrubs. Mature shrubs can grow upwards of 8 feet tall, and should be spaced 6-8 feet apart. 

3. Prepare The Soil

Before planting, prepare the soil by removing any weeds, rocks, or debris. Loosen the soil to a depth of about 12 inches using a garden fork or tiller. Incorporate organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure into the soil to improve its fertility and drainage.

4. Dig The Planting Holes

Dig holes that are slightly larger and deeper than the root ball of the elderberry plants. The holes should be wide enough to comfortably accommodate the roots without crowding or bending them.

5. Arrange The Plant In The Hole

Gently remove the elderberry plants from their containers or carefully loosen the root ball if they are bare-root plants. Place each plant into a prepared hole, ensuring that the top of the root ball is level with or slightly above the soil surface.

6. Backfill And Firm The Soil

Fill the holes with the excavated soil, gently firming it around the roots to remove any air pockets. Avoid compacting the soil too tightly, as it can hinder root growth. Ensure that the plants are upright and centered in the holes.

7. Water Thoroughly

After planting, water the elderberry plants thoroughly. This helps settle the soil around the roots and ensures good root-to-soil contact. Provide enough water to moisten the soil to the depth of the root zone.

8. Mulch Around The Plants

Apply a layer of organic mulch, such as wood chips or straw, around the base of the plants. Mulching helps retain soil moisture, suppresses weed growth, and regulates soil temperature. Leave a small gap around the main stem to prevent excessive moisture buildup that can lead to rot.

9. Prune If Necessary

If your elderberry plants have any damaged or excessively long branches, you can prune them back by about one-third to encourage new growth and shape the plants. However, any major pruning should be done in the fall or winter when the plant is dormant.

10. Monitor And Care For The Plants

Regularly check the moisture level of the soil and water the plants as needed, especially during dry periods. Keep an eye out for pests or diseases and take appropriate measures if any issues arise. Follow recommended fertilization practices for elderberries, if necessary.

Dark purple elderberries droop from a native tree in Michigan.

Elderberry Jam by Isabel Schulz

Elderberry Care In The First Season

Native elderberries grow very well in Michigan, as long as they have the chance to become well-established in their first year. Here are some care guidelines for elderberries during their initial year:

  • Watering: Adequate watering is essential to help the young elderberry plants establish their root systems. Keep the soil consistently moist, but not waterlogged. Water deeply and thoroughly, especially during dry spells or extended periods without rain. Monitor the moisture level regularly and adjust watering frequency based on weather conditions.
  • Mulching: Apply a layer of organic mulch, such as wood chips or straw, around the base of the plants. Mulching helps retain soil moisture, suppresses weed growth, and regulates soil temperature. Ensure the mulch is not directly touching the stems to avoid excessive moisture buildup or rot. Maintain a mulch layer of 2 to 4 inches throughout the first season.
  • Fertilization: Elderberries generally benefit from balanced fertilization. Before planting, incorporate compost or well-rotted manure into the soil to provide organic matter and nutrients. If additional fertilization is necessary during the first season, use a slow-release or balanced fertilizer specifically formulated for fruit-bearing shrubs. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application rates and timing.
  • Weed control: Regularly inspect the area around the elderberry plants and remove any weeds or grasses that compete for nutrients, water, and sunlight. Weeds can be manually pulled or cut, ensuring that their roots are also removed. Mulching around the plants helps suppress weed growth and minimizes the need for manual weed control.
  • Protection from pests: Monitor the plants for common pests such as aphids, spider mites, or caterpillars. If pest infestations occur, consider using organic methods like insecticidal soaps or neem oil sprays to control them. Early detection and intervention can help prevent severe damage to the plants.
  • Support: Depending on the specific elderberry variety and its growth habit, some plants may benefit from support during their first year. If the plants have a tendency to lean or if you expect heavy fruiting, install stakes or small trellises near the plants to provide support. Tie the stems gently to the support structure using soft ties or plant clips.
  • Monitor for diseases: Keep an eye out for any signs of diseases such as powdery mildew or fungal infections. If you notice any symptoms, promptly take appropriate measures, such as applying organic fungicides or adjusting cultural practices, to manage the diseases and prevent further spread.

When To Prune Elderberries In Michigan

Pruning is essential for elderberries to maintain their shape, promote healthy growth, and maximize fruit production. Pruning is typically done during the dormant season, which is late fall to early spring before new growth begins.

Remove dead, damaged, or diseased wood by cutting it back to healthy growth. Additionally, thin out crowded branches to improve airflow and sunlight penetration. Pruning stimulates new growth and helps rejuvenate the plant.

Learn How To Harvest Michigan Elderberries

Growing elderberries is a great way to sustainably harvest fruit for years to come. Michigan’s native elderberries feature both dark purple and red berried fruit that are preceded with beautiful white flowers. For more information on harvesting the edible elderberry, check out our blog on how to harvest and process elderberries!

Ripe, harvested elderberries sit in a clear bowl waiting to be processed.

Elderberries by Gerwin Sturm