The first time I saw blackberries at the grocery store I asked my mother why people bought fruit that grows on the side of the road. In rural Georgia, wild blackberries cover roadside ditches, fences, and line the edges of the woods. They are a delicious fact of life as common as kudzu.
At nine, I couldn’t understand why people bought berries I could pick from the side of the dirt road less than a ¼ mile from my house.
Every summer we threw on old jeans and long sleeve shirts, waded into the brambles while keeping a keen eye out for snakes, and filled our buckets with little bursting globes of summer sweetness. If I left with my tongue blacker than my fingers, well I challenged anyone to prove I ate all the thumb-sized blackberries.
Understanding Caneberries, also known as Brambles
Caneberries, including blackberries and raspberries, are some of the most rewarding small fruits for home growers and market farmers alike. A well-tended berry patch, which nowadays looks more like a vineyard than a tangled briar patch, will produce fruit for years to come.
Like strawberries and asparagus, caneberries have perennial crowns. These crowns send up shoots called canes. First-year canes, known as primocanes, do not set fruit. Floricanes, which are two-year-old canes, flower and bear fruit.
Keep this in mind should you desire to run over your berry patch with a flail mower or weed whacker. It will be two years before you pick another berry!
During your search for the perfect variety, you may come across the term “primocane-fruiting”. Unlike the older tried and true varieties, these new varieties can produce within their first year.
Check your chill hours before you start dreaming about blackberry cobbler and raspberry jam.
Blackberries are best suited to zones 7, 8, and 9. Most varieties prefer about 300 chill hours per year, but some of the Arkansas blackberries prefer 800 to 900. The University of Illinois’s “Illini Hardy” can even grow in zone 5.
In colder regions, tunnels and greenhouse are both viable methods of blackberry production. Home gardeners also report success growing them as container fruits.
Unless you experience a mid-winter warm spell, raspberries will need between 800 and 1800 hours. This makes them ideally suited to the Northeast and Midwest.
If you find yourself digging out your short sleeve shirts around New Year’s day, your raspberries will require extra chill hours.
For gardeners in warmer climates—think southern California, Texas, and most of Georgia—raspberries are not currently practical. That said, NC State University’s Fernandez Small Fruit Program has demonstrated some success with breeding more heat tolerant raspberries. They’re still not heat tolerant enough for southern Georgia.
Without proper management, blackberries and raspberries are invasive. If left to their own devices, they will spread out and take over their patch of ground and three beds over. That’s just what they do. If you forget about tending your caneberries for a season or three, you may wake up one morning and find them growing in your kitchen. Don’t plant them unless you plan on tending to them.
This applies to all caneberries, not just the dreaded Himalayan blackberries.
Will you sell your berries? If yes, seek out varieties with larger fruits and semi-erect or erect canes.
In general, thornless blackberries and raspberries with small spines are easier to harvest. Semi-erect and erect caneberries are simpler to trellis.
That’s the official line from all the universities cited in the reference section. Here’s my take.
Grow berries you like to eat. Call the neighbor who brought you that amazing bowl of berries last summer or ask the lady at the farmer’s market with melt in your mouth jams what cultivar they grow.
What About Wild Caneberries
Every official production guide begins with a spiel about how wild caneberries carry diseases, and you must remove every wild berry within 50 yards or more, depending on the author. Our modern, commercial cultivars are also descended from these berries. The University of Florida and Texas A&M both mention harvesting and marketing these same wild berries.
If you want massive, perfectly formed berries and the earliest possible crop, skip taming the wild berry patch.
Wild blackberries are an unforgettable part of my childhood memories. Their slightly tart, not too sweet flavor is worth a few thorns. I turn the small berries into cobblers and jams and eat the large ones straight off the vine.
I propagated mine from root cuttings.
Choosing and Preparing Your Site
Select a spot with full sunlight and good air movement. For raspberries, try to find a south-facing slope and consider planting a windbreak. This will help protect your plants from extreme temperatures.
Test your soil’s drainage. A DIY Soil Drainage Perk Test will work. Ideally, you want well-drained or average soil. Use raised beds or berms if you have poor drainage.
Eliminate all wild blackberries and raspberries within 50 yards of your planting. Note, some publications recommend up to 200 yards. See UCANR’s Wild Blackberries for tips on how to remove them.
Trellis Systems and Irrigation
Regardless of cane type, a good trellis is the key to easy harvesting. They also maximize your yield.
An I-Trellis, which has a single line of posts, works like the Florida Weave you used to stake up your tomatoes. It’s simple to set up. However, it crowds your plants, making them harder to harvest.
If your berries have thorns, do not use an I-Trellis. Picking your berries without leaving your hands looking like you lost a battle with a porcupine borders on impossible.
A V-trellis constructed with metal T-posts is almost as easy to set up as an I-Trellis. The added air circulation helps with disease prevention and makes picking easier.
See Trellis Systems for more information on trellis systems, their cost, and the materials required.
When you build your trellis, run a water line if you need one. Although some early bearers may require frost protection, most won’t. If you plan on attaching the dripline to the trellis cable, go ahead and do it. Otherwise, run the lines either at planting or lay them beside the plants and cover them with mulch.
Adjust soil pH to 6.0 to 6.5. Incorporate 60 lbs/acre of phosphorous if your levels are low.
After ordering root cuttings or plants, keep them moist or heel them in.
If you own a small tractor, measure the width of its mower or disc harrow, whichever is wider, and add 4-7 feet. You add more width for vigorous, thorny plants. This is your row width.
Typically, rows are spaced 9’-12’ apart.
Semi-erect and Trailing Blackberries; Trailing Raspberries
Plant Spacing: 4’-8’ apart
Plant Spacing: 3’ apart
Plant Spacing: 2’-4’ apart
Caneberries are easily propagated via root cuttings, tip layering, transplanting the little suckers you really don’t want in your walking paths, and leafy stem cuttings. See page 4 of The Blackberry by Peter C. Andersen for further details on these methods.
Root cuttings are typically collected during the late winter or early spring and planted immediately. For a neighborhood berry plant swap, potted suckers and rooting leafy stem cuttings work best.
Keep your berries mulched and weeded.
Pruning and Training
Remember that discussion earlier about primocanes? During each cane’s first year, wrap or tie canes around the trellis wires as they develop. If you use a T or V-trellis, train them up the center where possible. A fan pattern from the roots to the trellis works well.
Tipping your primocanes encourages branching. More branches mean more blackberries. If possible, do this with your fingers. Just pinch and twist the end of the cane. Avoid hard tipping (aka tipping with pruning shears) when possible.
If your blackberry cultivar only develops 1-3 large primocanes per year, tip the canes during the summer after they are 2-3 feet long. Otherwise, wait until they are about 1 foot taller than the top trellis wire.
For semi-erect and trailing caneberries like wild blackberries, prune lateral branches to 1 foot long.
As your canes develop, you may notice some are weaker than others. After fruiting, remove the weaker canes. Leave 1-8 strong primocanes, depending on the cultivar. Also, remove all floricanes.
Here’s a good pruning diagram.
If you hate pruning, you can establish two berry plantings and manage them via mowing. Mow each patch every other year, alternating between the two. For organic growers, this method offers greater disease control without unapproved fungicides.
In colder climates, your berries will go dormant. Their leaves will turn and drop just like the oak tree outside your kitchen window. If you live here, prune your berries in the late winter right before spring sets in. Prune after your coldest day, not before.
In warm climates, don’t expect your berries to go dormant. Here in the lower reaches of zone 8, my blackberries are practically evergreens. Prune them after fruiting ends.
- Add mulch as needed
- Apply 160 lbs/acre of 10-10-10 fertilizer; approximately 4.5 pounds per 100 feet of row. Always scatter fertilizer in a large even circle around your plants or band it. Do not pour it beside them!
- Add mulch as needed.
- During fruiting, apply 200 lbs/acre of 10-10-10 fertilizer; approximately 5.5 lbs per 100-foot
- Tip primocanes
- Train canes
- Remove all escapees from your walking paths
- Prune after harvest (warmer climates only)
- Add mulch
- Continue training canes
- Prune (colder climates)
Regular harvest is the best pest control method. However, BT and bird nets may be necessary. Apply a fungicide if needed.
Raspberries and blackberries are extremely delicate fruits. The slightest squeeze and they’ll burst. Pick with care.
Select only ripe berries that are easily separated from the plant.
You can harvest pink raspberries and store them for a few days while they’re maturing. This makes them easier to harvest. However, the flavor isn’t quite as good.
Harvest in the early morning every 1-3 days. Use shallow containers and avoid stacking your berries more than three deep. The top berries can crush the bottom ones.
Keep harvested fruit away from direct sunlight. Store berries at 30-35 ⁰F; 90-95% relative humidity.
At the Market
Since customers may eat berries without washing them, market gardeners should follow Good Agriculture Practices (GAP). Pursuing GAP certification also represents a way to set your market garden apart from your competitors.
Keep berries cool and avoid jostling during transit. Set out a few sample basket, but keep the bulk of your harvest refrigerated to prevent deterioration.
Turn leftover berries into jams, jellies, pies, and cobblers. Freeze them for smoothies and homemade berry syrup.
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Krewer, G., Smith, B., Brannen, P., & Horton, D. (n.d.). Commercial Bramble Culture. University of Georgia. Retrieved from http://www.smallfruits.org/assets/documents/crops/caneberries/commercial-bramble-culture.pdf
McWhirt, A. (n.d.). Blackberry Variety Selection. University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. Retrieved from http://extension.missouri.edu/greene/documents/Horticulture/Blackberry/Blackberry%20Cultivars%2C%20McWhirt%20Nov_15%2C2016.pdf
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