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Goji berries to the rescue?

If its growing number of enthusiasts are to be believed, then the exotic goji berrya so-called super foodmay be the answer to help solve some of Vermonts agricultural woes. According to several Vermont gardeners already testing the plant here, goji shrubs are easy to grow organicallyits an attractive landscape plant, its tolerant of poor soils, and its especially hardy in Vermonts Lake Champlain Valley (USDA Zones 5-4a). The goji is classified by botanists as Lycium barbarum. The best asset of growing goji in Vermont is that it produces edible berries, according to a special regional plant Internet report released March 25 by the South Burlington-based National Gardening Association (NGA). NGA was founded in 1973 and is a nonprofit leader in plant-based education in the United States. According to the goji report, NGA has partnered with Timpanogos Nursery, a certified nursery and large goji berry farm located in the Rocky Mountains of Utah, to help spread the word about the berry in Vermont and beyond. Goji berries are a nutrient powerhouse and contain a long list of beneficial vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and nutrients, according to the NGA report. Goji juice is also a tasty way to consume the plants many health benefits. Some plant and health researchers would like to see more consideration of the berry plant as a possible cash crop in Vermont. Grown for centuries in the highlands of Mongolia and Tibet, this tough plant has been used medicinally in the Himalayas to treat kidney and liver ailments as well as high cholesterol, reports the NGA. In fact, in Tibet and Mongolia, the locals treat the goji plant with a near-religious adoration; special mountaintop celebrations focused on the mystical, healing berry last up to two weeks. According to the NGA report, goji berry shrubs grow up to 10 feet tall, with shoots spreading to 12 feet. In early summer the plants display glorious purple and white trumpet-shaped flowers. By late summer, these flowers turn to bright red berries. The plants produces berries and fruits simultaneously all season long right up to the first heavy frost. Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist with NGA in Vermont, said he will be growing goji plantssupplied by Timpanogos Nurserythis spring at the associations garden located off Dorset Street in South Burlington. Goji promises to be a very hardy plant for the Champlain Valley, Nardozzi said, but I fear our heavy clay soils may do them in. In better drained areas (or in well-drained raised beds) they will probably do very well. Goji berry shrubs tolerate temperature extremes and are best grown from bare root or potted plants. While they can grow in part sun, they flower and fruit best in full sun, according to the NGA. Goji plants begin bearing fruit at two years old and reach maximum production when they're four to five years old. They thrive with some nitrogen fertilizer at planting, but only need annual additions after that of a balanced fertilizer and compost in spring to keep growing. The plants can be annually pruned in early spring to keep the size in bounds and plant attractive. Goji berries can be consumed fresh or dry or stored for use in cereals, salads and snacks, according to the NGA report. How successful goji berries will be as a cash crop in Vermont or elsewhere in New England remains to be seen. Most Americans, outside of health-food enthusiasts, have never heard of the exotic berry; so more education and marketing by the NGA and the state will be needed to jump start a greenor should we say redgoji berry revolution in Vermont. Akin to the once cash crop promises behind marketing the hardy arctic kiwi fruit plant for Green Mountain State farms, goji berries may be just another Asian health-food fad that will fail to make the great leap forward from backyard garden plant to commercial crop plant. For more details about the goji plant, or to order plants, contact Timpanogos Nursery at 800-822-6164 or check out the firms web site at: www.timpanogosnursery.com.

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