Can berry bushes thrive in partial shade?
We recently removed a shed from our back yard and now have a big bare patch running next to a fence. We're going to put down sod but I want to also put in some plants along the fence, perhaps in a mulched in area. I'd love to plant raspberry or blackberry bushes but am not sure if they would do well in the space, which is shaded for much of the day, though it gets sun in the afternoon from around 1-5pm. Would they do OK in this space? I have read through the materials on your website, including the "Getting Started with Small Fruits" page, but don't see anything about how well small fruit plants do in the shade. Also, what do you recommend doing to the soil to make sure it can support plant life since it's been under a shed for over 20 years?
Montgomery County Maryland
Most small fruits like strawberry, blueberry, and brambles (raspberry, blackberry, and their hybrids) need full sun to prosper and fruit well. While all are shade-tolerant, such conditions aren't recommended as it reduces vigor and ability for the plants to support a meaningful crop. Our native wild species of the above fruits are often found in partly-shaded habitat, in fact, but not often found to be fruiting in those conditions. (Brambles that grow on the sunny edge of woodlands, however, can fruit very well, but even then the best crops are usually produced when these plants are found in meadows and other open spaces.)
Fruits that prefer sun but benefit from cooling shade in our summers include Gooseberry and Currant, so you could try those if they will still receive several hours of direct sun a day (cumulatively; it doesn't have to be consecutively). The four hours of mid/late-afternoon sun you mention sounds like it might be enough. Pawpaw fruits can prosper in shade as they are understory trees and native to our area, but given their stature (around 20' or so at maturity, unless trimmed a bit), we realize this may be a larger planting than you had in mind. (You'd also need two trees to cross-pollinate.) You can certainly try blueberries and brambles if you wish; keep in mind that the former benefit from mixed-variety plantings to ensure the best pollination (and thus fruit set), and the latter can take up quite a bit of space per plant unless rigorously trained into a more confined space via trellising or some other support.
You could try using the space for some vegetable growing if you want to try some of the crops that dislike our summer heat; rhubarb primarily comes to mind, but some of the other cool-weather leafy greens (lettuce, amaranth, Asian brassicas) may also perform satisfactorily.
Another option is to try more uncommon (from a harvest perspective) crops like American Elderberry, Black Chokeberry, and American Hazelnut. Serviceberry may work too, but here again, it's a small tree in stature. You can always opt to leave the harvest for wildlife if you don't enjoy the flavors; the Elderberry and Chokeberry fruits need to be processed (cooked, sweetened) to be palatable, for example.
The best soil amendment is organic matter, like compost, which is mixed in thoroughly with the native soil. Roto-tilling would be the simplest approach but is not desirable as it can damage soil structure; instead, if possible, work it in by hand either as you plant (per planting hole) or into the entire area by layering a few inches of compost on the surface and then working it in to the top soil layer by wiggling a digging fork around. (See the final couple of paragraphs and photo on this page: https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/lawn-turfgrass-removal-methods)
More details on soil improvement and using organic matter can be found here: https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/add-organic-matter-your-soil
It wouldn't hurt to get a soil test done (before adding compost) so you are aware of the pH and nutrient analysis of the site. This way, you'll know what adjustments need to be made (if any) before you plant, or how to better make plant selections to suit the site if you don't want to adjust the soil further. Here is our page on soil testing which includes a link to area labs offering the service: https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/soil-testing
Thank you so much for this very helpful response. I will look at some of the options you listed. My main interest was in a berry that I could eat off the bush so I'll take a look at the gooseberry and blueberry options.