If you haven’t heard of goji berries, you probably aren’t alone. These nutritional powerhouses, sometimes referred to as “wolfberries,” are native to East Asia, where they’ve been valued for their healthful attributes for generations. Gojis are low in calories, and even small amounts of berries pack significant levels of vitamins A and C, protein, and antioxidants. The taste of goji berries reminds me of a dried plum tomato. The goji berry is harvested from two species of boxthorn: Lycium chinense and Lycium barbarum, both in the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family.
Why should you grow goji berries? This shrub is easy to grow and will reward you with loads of nutritious berries over a long harvest season. Goji berries are rarely grown commercially in the United States, and their shelf life is short, so fresh berries can seldom be found at local supermarkets or farmers markets. Therefore, home growing is the way to go for fresh gojis. Also, dried gojis aren’t cheap, and the overwhelming majority of commercial goji berries come from China, where information about how they’re grown isn’t usually available. If you like knowing where your food comes from and how it’s grown, you definitely should try tending these plants yourself.
The first step in growing goji berries is to locate the plants. You probably won’t find goji shrubs for sale at your local garden center. Try a mail-order nursery or a local one with a particularly large variety of fruiting plants. Although several named cultivars are sold by mail order, little information is available about their characteristics. Often, a nursery will state only that a particular cultivar is grown commercially in China. Some nurseries will sell goji seedlings, but because goji seed doesn’t grow true to type, you should expect some variability in these plants. My advice is to trial several cultivars to see which works best under your own growing conditions.
There’s little consensus on major aspects of the plant’s care. For example, you’ll find myriad suggestions for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hardiness Zones online. I’ve encountered all the following recommendations for goji shrubs: Zones 2 to 7, Zones 6 to 9, Zones 3 to 10, Zones 5 to 9, and Zones 4 to 9. The USDA states that L. barbarum grows in most U.S. states and southern Canadian provinces, while L. chinense has a more limited range and is largely confined to eastern portions of the continent. I don’t have to worry because I grow in Zone 6b, but if you live in an outlying Zone, be sure to discuss this with your supplier. If possible, purchase plants raised by a nursery close to your home.
The ideal soil pH for growing gojis ranges from 6.5 to 7.5. Plant the shrubs in fertile, well-drained soil. Full sun is best, but gojis will tolerate some shade. My plants grow in full sun and in soil with plenty of organic matter, and they’re very happy.
Gojis should be watered well during the first year of growth but are quite drought-tolerant after they’re established. Space them 4 to 5 feet apart within a row. I prefer a spacing of at least 5 feet to give the shrub plenty of room to develop and to make the berries easier to harvest. Your new shrubs will grow vigorously from the base of the plant.
Goji shrubs typically start producing fruit the second year after planting, but you may get a small harvest at the end of your first growing season. Harvests will increase thereafter and will peak after about 5 years. The plant bears small purple flowers starting in midsummer. The resulting green berries eventually turn a deep orange-red by about August. Berry production continues until the first hard frost.
If you’re an apartment-dweller or if space is a consideration, you can grow gojis in containers at least 18 inches in diameter and as deep as possible. Plants grown in containers will be smaller than plants grown in the ground.
Goji Pruning Strategies
Goji shrubs require pruning to maximize production and keep the plant from becoming an unruly mess. The goals of pruning are to limit plant height, make it easier to harvest berries, encourage sunlight penetration to the center of the plant, help foliage dry better (thereby discouraging fungal diseases), and persuade lateral branches to form for the best berry production.
Pruning should be done both during the dormant season and the growing season. During the dormant season, you’ll remove spindly canes, get rid of dead and damaged wood, improve plant shape, and shorten lateral branches. During the growing season, you’ll prune back the more upright, apically dominant branches to encourage lateral formation, and you’ll remove new shoots.
Year 1. Most literature suggests not pruning the first year to let the plant establish itself and put down a strong root system. Personally, I let the plants alone for only the first few months, and then I immediately move on to the strategy for Year 2.
Year 2. Goji shrubs sprout a number of canes from the crown or base. Some of these will be spindly, while others will be large and thick. You should select the largest, healthiest-looking stem for a main trunk. Tie this stem securely to a bamboo stick or other support to keep it straight. If your selected stem is very long, cut it back to about 24 inches. This will promote lateral branching. These lateral branches are the ones that will produce fruit, because nearly all fruit develops on new growth. Allow one large, upward-growing shoot near the tip of the trimmed main stem to grow and become the continuation of the trunk. During the growing season, remove any side growth that appears between the ground and 18 inches up. Also get rid of side branches that are growing from the stem at a greater-than-45-degree angle.
Year 3. Expand the greater-than-45-degree-angle rule to encompass the entire plant, not just the side branches. Also remove any branches that are growing from the stem at less than a 45-degree angle. The long-term goal is to have a nicely shaped plant about 6 feet tall with a 3-foot-diameter canopy and with 4 to 6 layers of fruiting laterals. Maintain a clearance of 1 foot or more between the canopy and the ground. Pull or dig up any suckers growing up from the ground. You can transplant these, give them to a friend, or compost them. Your goji plant will quickly become overgrown if you don’t remove these root sprouts.
Harvest the berries when they’re dark red-orange, approximately 35 days after full bloom. The whole berry can be eaten, including the tiny seeds inside. Goji berries are small and bruise easily; they need to be pulled from the plant delicately. I give the berries a bit of a twist when I’m picking them so they’ll release easier and without the stem. You can pick small quantities of berries for immediate use or gather large amounts to freeze or dry immediately after harvesting. The shelf life of fresh goji berries is short, and they’ll begin to turn after a day or so. One of the benefits of gojis, though, is that fruiting lasts a long time, from midsummer until the first hard frost.
Whether grown in the ground or on a patio in a pot, gojis can bear a steady supply of berries for smoothies, oatmeal, or eating fresh.
Botanical names: Lycium chinense, Lycium barbarum
Common names: Goji berry, Chinese boxthorn, Chinese desert-thorn, Chinese matrimony vine, wolfberry
Native range: East Asia
Growing conditions: Full sun or dappled shade; well-drained soil; drought- and heat-tolerant when established; spreads rapidly
Michael Brown uses his New Jersey backyard to explore how small-scale growers like himself can succeed in suburban agriculture. Find him online at Pitspone Farm.