How to Grow Goji Berries or Wolfberries
If one is planning to grow an easy-to-grow yet nutritious fruit in their own garden, they should certainly consider goji berries. Goji berries are also known by numerous other names including wolfberries, matrimony vine, and boxthorn, and are very easy to grow because they are very hardy to a wide range of zones i.e. from 2 to 10, are drought-tolerant and can bear a wide range of temperatures.
Goji berry plants look very attractive with their purple flowers that turn into bright red or orange-colored oval fruits with a diameter of 1-2 cm. Depending upon the fruit size and cultivar, the number of seeds in each fruit may range from 10 to 60 that are tiny and yellowish in color.
The plant has originated in the Himalayas and can be grown as a shrub or like a vine, and is thorny. If left unpruned, the plant can spread up to around 6 feet and grow as tall as 13 feet. Fruits are slightly tart to taste. However, when it comes to nutrition, they are believed to be a super-food because of their high concentration of vitamins B and C, amino acids, and high antioxidant content.
They protect against heart disease, boost brain activity and immune system, increase red blood cell production, and enhance life expectancy, although these claims are not clinically proven. The leaves of goji can also be eaten in salads or as a cooking green. Young leaves can be added to soups. Even if one doesn’t want to consider the health benefits, the plant can be a spectacular addition to one’s garden and the fruits are delicious.
One can eat them fresh as a snack (along with the seeds inside), use them in baked goods, power shakes, or teas, dry them for long term use or make them into a juice. However, those who are on warfarin should eat goji berries carefully or as per their doctor’s advice as it contains vitamin K too.
Lycium barbarum is the botanical name of the most popularly grown goji berries and it’s easily available. These goji berry plants are grown in almost all the U.S. states and Canadian provinces. However, in China, where most of the world’s commercial production of goji berries takes place, another variety called Lycium Chinese Mill. Var. Chinese is also produced, in addition to L. barbarum. There are also some closely related species and subspecies that are known by the same or similar common names. However, their productivity and fruit quality may be low. Some other varieties are identified by common names like Phoenix Tears, Crimson Star, Sweet LifeBerry, and Big LifeBerry.
There are a lot of opinions regarding which zones are ideal for growing goji berries. According to the USDA, L. barbarum grows in most U.S. states and southern Canadian provinces, whereas L. Chinese is mostly limited to eastern portions of the continent. Growers living in outlying zones should discuss this with their suppliers. It’s ideal to purchase plants grown in a nursery close to one’s home.
Note: Plants should be obtained only from reliable sources for planting purposes. Since goji berries are members of the family of tomatoes and potatoes (Solanaceae or nightshades family), illegally imported plants may carry diseases that could potentially harm the existing crops.
Time for First Fruiting
Goji berry plants typically start fruiting in the second year after planting, but the yield is limited during the first growing season. However, it will increase thereafter and will give a full crop after around 3 to 5 years.
Once the plants are established and start properly fruiting, the fruiting season is quite long. Purple flowers start blooming from midsummer. The resulting green berries start turning red by around August. Plants continue producing berries till the first hard frost.
How to Plant Goji Berry Plant?
One can grow goji berries in their yard in three ways: through seeds, through a bare-root stock, and through a potted plant. All these three options will give the same type of delicious fruits, but the difference lies in the fruiting time. The potted plant will be the fastest to fruit, whereas bare root stock will be slower than that and plants from seeds will take the longest to bear fruits. Planting through seeds is also a bit difficult.
The best method is container growing because goji berries are happy in containers. Also, the grower gets a more compact plant in a container. A container also prevents the roots from spreading excessively. However, goji berries have a deep tap root; hence the grower should prefer at least a 5-gallon container.
When to Plant?
Goji berries seedlings and young plants should ideally be planted in spring once the threat of frost is over.
Planting from Seeds
Although planting seeds is a slow method, one can try it if one wants. The seeds should be fresh and any fruit pulp on them should be cleaned off.
Growers should start seed planting indoors in peat pots during early spring and plant outdoors when they are one year old. This too should be done in spring. Growers should cover the seeds with a thin layer of compost and keep them warm i.e. between 18° and 20° C (65° and 68° F).
When seeds are sown, fruiting occurs after around three to five years.
Planting a Bare-root Goji Berry
The grower should soak the plant in water for 15 minutes to 1 hour before planting. Keeping the bare root in the center of the container, the grower should fill the container with potting soil up to the crown of the bare-root. The crown is the spot from where the bare root begins. The soil should be well-drained. If it’s not, growers should add sand or compost to improve drainage.
Now grower should water the plant and see if the soil sits below the crown. If it does, they should add more soil.
The container should be placed in full sun and the plant should be kept moist.
The grower should give the plant a couple of inches of water every week.
Transplanting Goji Berry Plant to the Ground
When the plant attains 6 to 8 inches of growth, it’s ready to go to the ground. There are a few simple steps to follow to transplant a goji berry plant to the ground:
- Growers should find a spot in the yard that receives full sun, although goji berry can tolerate partial shade.
- They should make sure the pH of the soil is between 6.5 and 7.5. Growers should test their soil with a soil test kit at their local garden center. If the soil is extremely acidic, growers should add ground limestone to reduce acidity to at least 6.6. If it’s too alkaline, peat moss or ground sulfur can be added to lower the pH to not higher than 7.5. One should follow the instructions on the package to determine the quantity based on the current pH of the soil and the square footage of the goji berry patch.
- Goji plants don’t thrive well in too fertile soil. The same soil test kit that was used to test soil pH levels may have testing bottles for macronutrients in the soil. Unless the grower knows that the soil is highly deficient in main nutrients such as potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen, they should not enrich the soil before planting. As the plants mature and start drawing more nutrients from the soil, a light layer of compost each spring will benefit them.
- Growers should keep a distance of at least 5 to 6 feet between two goji berry plants in the row and 6 to 8 feet between two rows. This will provide plants plenty of space to grow and harvesting will be easy.
- Goji berry plants can either be left to grow as a shrub or can be trained to grow like a vine on a trellis.
Rooting Goji Berry Cuttings
Growers can also plant goji berries by rooting cuttings. This propagation can be done with hardwood (old-growth) cuttings that should be taken in winter or softwood (new growth) cuttings that have to be taken in the summer. Softwood cuttings are more reliable to take root. Growers should take softwood 4-6 inch long cuttings in early summer during the early morning, when the amount of moisture is the highest. Cuttings should have at least three sets of leaves and they should be wrapped in a wet towel to protect them from drying out.
After the cuttings are taken, growers should remove leaves from the bottom of the cuttings and immerse the ends in a rooting hormone. Then they should place them in small pots filled with half peat moss and half perlite. Then they should wrap and seal the pots in plastic bags, but open the bags up every other day to help air circulation to occur. It’s important to keep the cuttings moist till they root.
The cuttings should be placed in bright, but indirect sunlight. Growers should remove the bags after a few weeks. They should bring the pots indoors for their first winter to let the plants establish.
Once grower plants goji berry plants, they should put an organic mulch of aged bark or shredded leaves around the plant to stop weed growth, maintain moderate root temperatures, and promote the establishment of the plant. Keep the mulch a little away from the stem to prevent rot.
Goji berry plants should be given a generous amount of water during the growing season. Once they’re well-established, they are very drought-resistant. Till then, they will need around 1 inch of water per week. Drip or trickle system is the best for watering as it waters at the soil level and at low pressure.
If growers want to use overhead sprinklers, they should use it early in the day so that leaves can get time to dry off before nightfall so as to minimize the possibility of diseases. The soil should be kept moist but not drenched.
As such, goji berry plants don’t actually need any fertilizer. However, if growers want their plant to mature and start fruiting faster, they may use organic fertilizer mixes. Firstly during spring, they can use one that contains nitrogen compounds.
This will help the plant grow faster. However, one should not expect a lot of buds or flowers during this time. Then during midsummer, they should switch to another organic fertilizer that contains phosphorous, but not nitrogen. This will induce the growth of flowers and fruits.
Pruning is necessary for goji berries so as to maximize yield and prevent the plant from becoming unmanageable. Pruning should be done to limit height, make harvest easier, facilitate sunlight to reach the plant center, keep a dry environment around the foliage to discourage fungal diseases, and encourage lateral branches to grow for the best berry production.
Most growers don’t prune their goji berries during the first year of planting. However, some suggest avoiding pruning only for the first few months and then apply pruning strategies that are usually applied from the second year on.
The crown or base of the plant will have a number of canes of which some will be spindly whereas others will be thick and large. For the 2nd year’s pruning, growers should select the largest, thickest, and healthiest-looking stem as a main trunk and tie it to a bamboo stick or similar support to let it remain straight. If it’s very long, it should be cut back to around 24 inches. This will encourage lateral branching.
These lateral branches will fruit later because almost all fruit grows on new growth. Growers should let one large, upward-growing shoot near the tip of the trimmed main stem develop and become the continuation of the trunk. In the growing season, growers should remove any side growth that occurs between 18 inches above the ground. Side branches should also be cut that grow from the stem at an angle greater than 45 degrees.
In the 3rd year, the 45° angle rule should be applied to the entire plant, not just the side branches. Even branches that are growing from the stem at less than 45-degree angle should be cut. This will give a nice shape to the plant in the long run with around 6 feet of height, 3 feet of diameter canopy, and 4 to 6 layers of fruiting laterals. Growers should maintain a clearance of 1 foot or more between the ground and the canopy. If there are any suckers grown from the ground, they should be pulled out. These suckers can be transplanted, gifted to others for planting or composted. If they are not removed, the goji plant will soon become overgrown.
Pests and Diseases
Birds get easily attracted to goji berries because of the bright red color. Therefore it’s advisable to use bird netting.
Leafhoppers attack leaves and stunt growth in addition to causing disease. To deal with them, growers should remove plant debris. They should also use insecticidal soaps.
These red, greenish, peach, or black sucking insects feed on the underside of goji plant leaves and spread disease. Plus, they leave a sticky substance on leaves that attracts ants. Growers should eliminate the problem of aphids by introducing or attracting natural predators in their garden like wasps and lady beetles as they feed on aphids. Also, aphids can be washed off with a strong spray or with insecticidal soap.
These are small, insects thin like needles and black or straw-colored. They suck plant juices and injure leaves, stems, and petals. They make the leaf surface discolored, flecked, stippled, or silvered. They can also spread many other diseases to the plant. They can be repelled generally by spreading a sheet of aluminum foil between rows of plants. Growers should remove weeds and debris from the bed.
These are tiny spider-like insects of around the size of a grain of pepper, red, brown, yellow or black in color. They suck plant juices and chlorophyll, and inject toxins that cause white spots on the leaves. They can be usually spotted by their webbing. They also cause leaves to turn yellow, dry, and stippled. They thrive in dry conditions. They can be controlled with a forceful spray on alternate days. Growers should try insecticidal soap or pepper wax.
These should be handpicked early in the morning and immersed into a bucket of soapy water.
Powdery mildew takes place on the top of the leaves in humid weather conditions. A whitish or greyish layer is spread on the surface of leaves and leaves may curl. Growers should keep good spacing and prune the plants to provide good air circulation to avoid powdery mildew.
Blight is a very common fungal disease on goji plants that appears as brown concentric rings on the lower leaves. The spots combine and cause leaves to turn brown and drop off the stem.
The process of leaf drop continues up the stem. Fruits don’t grow to full size. This fungus overwinters in plant debris. It’s airborne and can spread from diseased plants growing around. Growers should follow and maintain good garden hygiene when the season ends, and should not compost but should discard diseased plants.
They should space plants adequately to permit air circulation and avoid overhead watering to prevent the spreading of fungus spores.
This fungal disease attacks fruits while ripening. It appears first as a circular, slightly sunken spot on the fruit skin which enlarges and turns black, and fruit rots. Its growth is facilitated by prolonged periods of heat and humidity. It overwinters in diseased plant debris.
To avoid anthracnose, growers should choose resistant varieties, allow good air circulation, avoid overhead watering which helps to spread the fungus spores, keep the garden clean, discard all diseased plant material, and rotate crops. Also, they should use mulch to stop spores from splashing on to plants from the soil.
The full harvest of goji berries starts after 3 to 5 years. Growers should only harvest fully red berries. If handled, berries can turn black.
Therefore it’s advisable to set a clean sheet under the plant and shake the ripe red berries off. Since the plant is thorny, growers should wear garden gloves while handling them.
Long Story Short: Since goji berry is an easy plant to grow and gives an incredibly high yield of delicious and nutritious fruits, planting it in one’s yard is a truly rewarding experience. Not only its fruit offers health and taste, but also the plant itself adds charm to one’s yard with its beauty. Hence every gardener should consider growing this versatile plant in their garden.