How to Care for Elderberry Bushes (Sambucus nigra)

elderberry tree

By Jennifer Poindexter 

Elderberries have made a huge comeback in recent years. As people are beginning to learn more about growing their own food, making homemade recipes, and consuming foods naturally high in vitamins and nutrients, elderberries are being consumed more.

Many people enjoy it as syrup as elderberries are high in vitamin C and are known for serving as an antioxidant.

If you’d like to enjoy elderberries, and grow them around your home, you’re in the right place. I’m going to share with you what you should know about caring for elderberries.

Utilize the steps below when caring for your elderberry bushes:

What You’ll Learn

  • The increasing popularity and benefits of elderberries.
  • The basics of elderberry care and cultivation.
  • Various elderberry varieties and their specific needs.
  • Best practices for elderberry maintenance, including pruning, fertilization, and protection.
  • How and when to harvest elderberries safely.
  • Methods for propagating elderberries to grow more bushes.

How to Care for Elderberry Bushes

Elderberry bushes aren’t what many would consider high-maintenance. By following a few basic steps, you should be able to keep your plants healthy, thriving, and productive around your yard or garden area:

1. Provide Ample Sunlight for Elderberry Bushes

Elderberry bushes are sun-loving plants. They do best when they receive full sunlight which equates to around eight or more hours of direct light each day.

The more light these plants receive, the more productive they are at producing both flowers and berries. If you’re growing elderberries for ornamental purposes only, you can get away with selecting a growing location that receives partial sunlight.

The reduction in light will minimize the productivity of the plant, but it can still grow and produce foliage. Decide what you’d like to do with your elderberry bushes and pick a growing location accordingly.

2. Water Your Elderberry Bushes Adequately

Elderberry bushes are hardy in planting zones three through nine. If you live in these areas, you should expect the plants to withstand your winter temperatures and return the following year.

With this in mind, you should water your elderberry bushes regularly and deeply during their first year of growth.

When watering deeply, you’ll apply water for a longer time, fewer days of the week to encourage a deeper root system for each plant. After the first year, the plants should be established enough to sustain themselves on rain water alone unless you’re going through periods of drought.

If so, be sure to water the plants deeply as they need it.

3. Understand the Varieties of Elderberry Bushes

Sometimes we expect things from plants, but get our wires crossed because we aren’t aware of the different varieties. Elderberries are no different.

There are two common types of elderberry bushes. The first variety is European. This is what’s most commonly sold at local nurseries and big box stores.

This type of elderberry is less cold hardy, so be sure to do your research to understand if this plant will thrive in your growing location. Some say this plant does best in planting zones five through seven.

It’s also known for reaching heights between eight and twenty feet, so ensure you have the room as well.

The second variety is American. These are more cold-hardy plants. Some say they thrive in planting zones three and higher.

This variety is also shorter in stature as this type of elderberry typically grows to reach heights between five and ten feet, so it’s more of a shrub where European elderberries are more like a tree.

By understanding which variety of elderberry you’re growing, you have a greater chance of setting your plant up for success.

4. Prune Your Elderberry Bushes

No matter the type of elderberry you’re growing, chances are it’ll appreciate adequate pruning. Elderberry bushes are known for being fast-growing.

Though this is great if used for landscaping purposes, it can also mean that you have a plant that can become unruly, quickly.

Pruning not only makes the plant look better, but it can also increase its productivity. There are three methods to pruning, but I must note, you shouldn’t prune your elderberry plants until they’re at least three years old.

The first method of pruning is only removing the dead or weakened portions of the plant. The next option is to remove 1/3 of the plant each year.

Finally, you can cut the plant all the way back to where there’s only a foot (or less) left above ground level. Do ensure you leave enough of the plant to encourage regrowth if you choose this pruning method.

These are a few tips on keeping your elderberry bushes under control and encouraging higher yields from them each year. No matter the method selected for pruning, be sure to perform this task in the early portion of spring.

5. Fertilize Your Elderberry Bushes . . . If Needed

Elderberry bushes are plants that can take it or leave it when it comes to fertilizing. There’s no tried and true method when it comes to adding nutrients to these bushes.

Instead, you must go by what you see in your specific situation. If your elderberry bushes are struggling and having poor regrowth after pruning, they may need a boost of fertilizer.

It’s wise to add a slow-release granular to the soil around the plant to provide the nutrients they need throughout the growing season, if you deem it necessary.

If not, elderberries may be able to thrive on the nutrients in the soil where planted. Observing your plants should let you know whether they require fertilizer or not. 

6. Keep Weeds Under Control Around Your Elderberry Bushes

Elderberry bushes like to have a clean growing space. It’s best to keep weeds down around your plants. By reducing the amount of debris around the plant, you’re increasing airflow and also ridding the area of spaces for pests and diseases to hide.

One way to keep weeds down around your plants is to apply a layer of mulch around the base of the plant.

Ensure the mulch isn’t mounded around the bush as this can create fungal issues. When applied correctly, mulch can also serve as a way to keep moisture in the ground around the plant.

By keeping weeds down around your elderberry bushes, and applying mulch, you’re providing protection to your plants and ensuring they remain well-watered.

7. Pick the Right Growing Method for Elderberries

Do you want to grow elderberries but aren’t sure you have the space in your current living situation? There may be a way around this.

Elderberry bushes may grow in containers year-round. The big issue is ensuring the planter has enough room to support the plant.

You should ensure there’s one foot of space all the way around between the base of the plant and the edge of the growing container.

You may have to water plants grown in containers more frequently as they have less soil to pull moisture from. Yet, this could be a solution to incorporate this plant into your space even if you don’t have a large yard.

8. Protect Your Elderberry Bushes

In my experience growing elderberries, the window for harvest is short. Plus, you must race the birds to get the fruits from the plants.

You may wish to apply bird netting over your elderberry bushes to increase your chances of a harvest. Your plants may also run into issues with aphids. They may be treated with an insecticide or by spraying the plant forcefully with soapy water.

The most common diseases to impact elderberries are cankers, rot, and leaf spot. Cankers must be trimmed out of the plant and ensure the infected wood is burned to avoid further spreading the disease.

Should your plant encounter rot, it may be wise to pull the soil back to provide better airflow to the base of the plant. You may also wish to amend the soil around the plant to encourage better drainage. In some cases, the plant may have to be removed all together. 

 Lastly, if your plant encounters leaf spot, this may be treated with a fungicide and by removing impacted foliage. Utilize these tips to better protect your elderberry bushes.  

9. Know When to Harvest Elderberry Bushes

It may take between two and three years to receive a harvest from your elderberry bushes. Once they’re ready, the plants have a one to three week period where the berries are ripe.

This usually occurs sometime in August or September. Pick the berries during this window and ensure you either cook or dry your harvest.

It must be noted that all parts of elderberry bushes are poisonous to livestock, humans, and pets. Yet, cooking or drying them makes them usable in syrups or other recipes.

10. Know Your Propagation Methods for Elderberry Bushes

Elderberry bushes are best propagated via cutting. Use softwood cuttings for the purpose of rooting. Each cutting should be about a ½ foot in length.

From there, remove the bottom leaves, and either root it in water or in soil. If you root in water, place the cutting in a glass jar filled partially with water.

The cutting should sit in the water and not be fully submerged. Sit the jar in a sunny windowsill and wait approximately four weeks for the cutting to form roots.

If you’re going to root the cutting in soil, you can skip straight to these next steps after dipping it in rooting hormone.

Fill a container with well-draining potting mix and ensure the planter drains adequately as well. From there, place the cutting (either dipped in rooting hormone or what you rooted in water) in the soil.

Keep the soil evenly damp and wrap it in a plastic bag to create a greenhouse effect. The cutting should be kept in a warm growing location with bright, indirect light. Over the next several months, the plant should become established and can be upgraded to a larger growing container if needed.

If not, continue to grow the plant until it’s mature enough for moving outdoors, but ensure all threat of frost is over, and you’re at least one month away from the first fall frost.

Harden the plant off and move it to its permanent growing location. This is how you can grow more elderberry bushes from plants you already have access to.

Hopefully, these ten tips for caring for your elderberry bushes will help you produce highly productive and beautiful plants.

When you provide proper care to your elderberries, this should enable you to get more of what you love and enjoy more homemade recipes with produce straight from your yard or garden.

Key Takeaways

  • Elderberries have seen a resurgence due to their health benefits and as people are keen on growing their own food.
  • Elderberry bushes thrive in full sunlight, needing around eight or more hours of direct light daily.
  • Regular deep watering is essential in the initial year, with subsequent watering based on environmental conditions.
  • There are two main elderberry varieties: European and American, each with unique characteristics and growing conditions.
  • Pruning elderberries enhances their appearance and productivity, and should only be done after the plant is three years old.
  • Fertilization is optional and depends on observation; not all elderberry bushes may require it.
  • Mulch application aids in weed control and moisture retention for the plant.
  • Container-grown elderberries are a viable option for those with limited space.
  • It’s crucial to protect elderberries from pests, birds, and diseases for a successful harvest.
  • Harvest typically takes place in August or September, over a short window of 1-3 weeks.
  • Elderberry propagation can be done through cuttings, and with proper care, can be grown into new bushes.

Elderberry Quick Growing Reference Chart

Elderberry Details
Sunlight Requirement Full sunlight (8+ hours/day). Partial sunlight for ornamental purposes.
Watering Needs Deeply and regularly in the first year. Rainwater thereafter, unless during drought.
Planting Zones European: Zones 5-7. American: Zones 3 and up.
Elderberry Height European: 8-20 feet. American: 5-10 feet.
Pruning Recommendations Wait until 3 years old. Various methods: removing dead parts, 1/3 cut, or full cut to 1 foot above ground.
Fertilization Optional. Use slow-release granular if needed, based on plant health.
Weed Control Apply mulch around base. Avoid mounding.
Container Growth Possible. Ensure a foot of space all around in the container.
Protection Measures Bird netting, insecticide or soapy water for aphids, fungicide for leaf spot.
Harvest Time 2-3 years after planting. August-September for 1-3 weeks.
Toxicity Warning All parts poisonous. Safe after cooking or drying.
Propagation Method Softwood cuttings. Root in water or soil.

More About Elderberry Bushes

The post How to Care for Elderberry Bushes (Sambucus nigra) appeared first on Gardening Channel.



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