Tasty Brambles: Raspberries and Blackberries for the Backyard
February 23, 2017
This past week, I spent a couple of hours pruning blackberry and red raspberry bushes at the Highland Youth Garden. This place was once a half-acre of abandoned property that volunteers turned into an amazing, productive urban farmstead. Every year, it produces hundreds of pounds of food for the neighborhood. I learned about the Highland Youth Garden through volunteering with the Master Gardeners program.
So I had nothing better to do this week, and I decided I really needed to throw myself into some blackberry bushes. Literally, I was tangled up in the old canes of the berry bushes for several hours because sometimes that’s what it takes to grow fantastic fruit. But we had great weather and the work is very satisfying once you get going. Just remember to wear leather gloves, or plan on going through a lot of Band-Aids.
Now, some folks find choosing and pruning cane berries very confusing at first. Somehow, they’re expected to sort out terms like summer-bearing and ever-bearing, primocanes and floricanes. Like life isn’t confusing enough between remembering your passwords and picking up the dry cleaning? My goal today is to drastically simplify how to prune your blackberries and raspberries right now.
First, how do you tell apart blackberries and raspberries? We eat blackberries stem and all, while all raspberries are an empty cap. Raspberries can come in red, yellow, purple, or black, and did you know that yellow raspberries are actually an “albino” version of a red raspberry? No matter which berry you like best, they all contain a bucket of vitamin C and antioxidants.
All cane berries are easy to grow if you give them full sun and well-drained soil. Most berry canes need some kind of support -- to protect them or us, I am not sure. Either way, you don’t want canes dragging on the ground or thorns snagging your clothes. Fertilize them in the spring, mulch the roots in summer, and prune the canes back in winter. Easy, right?
Pruning is where things can get complicated, but it’s not too hard to sort things out. Here are a couple of general rules:
ALL cane berries flower and fruit on second-year canes. These are harvested in their second summer. These are called … “summer-bearing” raspberries.
After fruiting, ALL second-year canes die back to the ground. All dead canes are pruned out each winter. No exceptions.
Now, SOME raspberries fruit on the tips of first-year canes. You have to shop around for these plants. These berries are harvested in fall and are called (ready for it?) “fall-bearing” raspberries. Now here’s the odd thing: then these same canes bear fruit on lower branches the second year. When a raspberry plant produces a first- AND a second-year crop on the SAME CANE, it’s called … “ever-bearing.”
Only a few varieties of raspberries can set fruit on first-year canes. There are virtually no blackberries available to the public that can do this.
The only time you’d cut an entire berry bush to the ground is if it produces a fall crop on first-year canes. Otherwise, you only prune out the dead wood and trim back the remaining canes. Thin out each plant to 5 or 6 strong canes, and you’re ready for spring.
If you have a little extra space, grow some berries! They’re a great plant for pollinators who love the nectar, pollen, and foliage. Birds and other animals will clean up the berries you don’t pick fast enough. Check with your state extension office for recommended varieties that will grow best for you; I've posted a couple of links below.