If your fingers aren’t stained after you’ve picked blackberries, you’re not eating them at their very best. And this is the year – my year, at least – for blackberries. Spring weather threw a curveball that pretty much wiped out my developing apples, hardy kiwifruits and pears; but blackberries are among a number of other fruits that waited patiently in spring, and whose branches are now bowed to the ground under a heavy load of fruit. An especially heavy load due to a mild winter? Abundant rain (to say the least, from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee) late last summer? My green thumb? Who knows?
After succumbing to temptation and plucking a few of the first blackberries of the season underripe, I can wait for finger-staining ripeness. Coming upon a fully colored blackberry, I give it a gentle pull. A dead-ripe berry should drop into your hand with only the slightest coaxing. Eat.
In the wild, blackberries are found growing almost everywhere. Some of these wild plants creep along the ground, while others grow upright like small trees. These growth habits have been bred into cultivated blackberries, so you can choose from erect varieties, which are the most cold-hardy and heat-tolerant, as well as semi-trailing and trailing varieties. Trailing varieties, with lanky, flexible canes, are sometimes called “dewberries.” Western trailing blackberries yield large, wine-colored-to-black fruits having distinctive flavors. Varieties also have even been selected or developed that lack those ominous thorns.
Blackberries have perennial roots and biennial canes. With most varieties, a cane bears fruits in its second season, then dies. In any growing season, as older canes are fruiting, then dying, new ones are making their first season of growth. Any planting, then, has both one- and two-year-old canes, so offers an annual harvest. The plants spread by tip-layering – that is, by hopscotching along as arching or trailing canes root at their tips and make whole new plants, which go on to tip-layer and make more plants and so on. Unfettered, blackberries grow to become a tangled patch of canes.
Although wild blackberries often grow along the partially shaded edges of woods, the plants fruit best and are healthiest in full sunlight. As with most cultivated plants, well-drained soil rich in organic matter is the ideal.
Spacing, which may be as close as three feet apart to more than six feet apart, depends on the type of blackberry and the training system. Erect blackberries are self-supporting, but other types are easier to manage if trained by being tied up to a sturdy pole, on a trellis of wires strung between sturdy posts or on a fence.
Blackberries’ biennial canes and their aggressive spread make a case for annual pruning. On all but the trailing or trellised semi-erect types, prune twice each year. The first pruning takes place during summer; the tip of each new cane needs to be nipped off just as it reaches a height of three feet. Pinching causes branching and helps keep plants upright.
The second round of pruning, for all types of blackberries, takes place in late winter, just before growth begins. Any cane that bore fruit the previous season is cut down to the ground, and the number of new canes is reduced to about six per clump. Finally, those laterals induced by summer nipping: They are shortened to about 18 inches.
A convenient way to manage the long canes of trailing types is to let new canes trail on the ground – which they are anyway wont to do – lifting the second-year canes, which will fruit, up to the wire of a trellis. If winter cold is a potential problem, those reclining canes can be left on the ground, where they are easily protected for winter with a blanket of straw or leaves. Late the following winter, the old canes that fruited are cut away, the younger canes are lifted up onto the trellis for fruiting and new canes that season are allowed to trail on the ground. And so on year after year – all much more fun if canes are thornless.
The nice thing about blackberries is that they have few debilitating pest or disease problems. Start with healthy plants from a nursery; neighbors’ plants could harbor latent diseases, especially with age (the plants’, not the neighbors’). Prune regularly so that branches can bathe in light and air, and remove any canes harboring insects or diseases. And pick berries when fully ripe.
In the cold pocket where I live and garden, I’m somewhat restricted in the spectrum of blackberry varieties that I can grow. I also have an aversion to blackberries’ intimidating thorns, which arm even the leaves, all with reverse barbs that really grab you. Years ago, I traded in the delectable-but-thorny Darrow plants for my present Chester blackberries, which are the most cold-hardy of the thornless varieties. I also grow Doyle thornless, which makes long, trailing canes that I can sometimes lay on the ground to be covered by mulch or snow for winter protection.
The thornlessness of thornless blackberries is, in my opinion, beauty in and of itself. It’s not just that these plants are non-intimidating; the smooth greenish stems and lush green leaves also really are quite ornamental, and made more so as a background for spring’s large white blossoms.
See my new book Grow Fruit Naturally for more detail on varieties and cultivation of blackberries, which can be grown just about everywhere with appropriate choice of varieties.
The annual Summer Conference for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) will be held August 10 to 13 at UMass in Amherst, Massachusetts. Workshops cover everything from composting to permaculture to bread-baking and more. I’ll be giving a half-day workshop on “Growing Fruit Naturally” and shorter workshops on “Multidimensional Vegetable Gardening” and “Fruit for Small Spaces.” For more information, visit www.nofasummerconference.org.
Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at email@example.com and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at www.leereich.blogspot.com.