My second favorite backyard fruit is blackberries.
I tried raspberries, once. I even harvested beautiful, sweet red raspberries, once. Then I ended up with a bramble patch so thick and so full of stickers that it defied all attempts to control it. It got so bad that I actually pulled the brambles down and ran over the whole patch with our riding mower…three times.
Now, I raise blackberries. And every year I get about 30 quarts of beautiful, deep purple, inch long berries that I make into slump, buckle and jam.
Why was my raspberry patch such a disaster? Why am I so successful with blackberries? What did I do differently?
The answer is very simple. I bought Doyle Thornless blackberry bushes. And I only bought 3 of them! No thorns, no arm wrestling with 10 plants that morphed into 20 in one season. And no scratches or flying curse words.
Choosing Blackberry Plants
When I bought them, Doyle Thornless blackberries were about the only thornless plants on the market. And they probably are the most expensive addition in my garden. Nowadays there are other thornless choices but there are really only two types of blackberry plants – trailing or erect.
Both varieties grow exactly the way they are named. Erect blackberries have arched canes that support themselves so no trellis is needed. Trailing blackberries have canes that can’t support themselves so you either have to build a trellis to support them or do what I did. This lazy gardener used the post and rail fence in her back yard as her trellis.
The fruit of erect blackberries ripens later, is a bit smaller than those of trailing blackberries and is not as big or as sweet. So you may want to trade the ease of raising erect blackberries for the taste and flavor and abundance of the trailing kind.
One last word of advice about choosing your stock. Make sure you know your hardiness zone and you know which blackberry varieties will live and play well in your zone. Blackberries are pretty tough but can be harmed by extreme temperatures so check before you buy.
Where to Plant Blackberries
Whichever kind of berry you plant, the site is very important. Sun is important but almost any soil (but very sandy soil), will work for blackberries. Surprisingly, the single most important qualification of the site for blackberry plants is water.
Blackberries need a lot of water during fruit production but are damaged by water in the winter. If water stands around the roots, winter and spring frosts can really hurt the stock. So drainage is important.
When and How to Plant Blackberries
As soon as you can work the soil in your zone, you can plant you root stock. That’s early spring in the North and late winter or early spring in the South.
As you know, I’m a lazy gardener. So the way I figure it, I give my plants a good start and the rest is up to them. Because I was planting along the fence line where nothing but crab grass and weeds had grown before, I did take a bit of time to prep the patch where I wanted to plant them.
But I didn’t get carried away and plant green manure crops like rye or vetch. Blackberries grow just wild in the woods and do fine so I decided to go the easy way. I loosened the soil by tilling it but that’s about it. No soil sample and no manure or compost was added.
Doyle Thornless blackberries trail, so I spaced them 8 feet apart. Erect varieties can be planted 2 feet apart. If you are doing more than one row of either kind, make sure you leave 10 feet between the rows so you’ll have enough room to maneuver around the plants, pick, prune and generally see to the health and happiness of your plants.
If your root stock looks dry when it arrives, soak the roots in water for several hours before trying to plant them. Use a shovel or a large fork to make a slit in the soil for each root you intend to plant. Rock the fork or shovel back and forth to make the slit wide enough to put the roots of the plant in without cramping them or breaking them off.
Once you have a hole for each root and you’re ready to plant, trim the top of each plant back to just 6 inches long. Remove each plant from the bucket of water, using the trimmed top as a “handle” and drop each root into its own slit.
On each plant, you should be able to see a line where the plant met the soil in the nursery bed. Don’t plant the root any deeper than it was planted in the nursery. As soon as the root is in the ground, firmly pack earth around it, first with your hands than with the heel of your shoe.
Once planted, I wrap a soaker hose along the entire length of the bed so I can provide a constant source of water during the growing season. Once the soaker hose is down, I mulch all of my new plants with between 4 and 6 inches of straw.
During the first year, don’t expect a lot of berries. Your plants have to establish themselves. But make sure you keep the babies watered. And make sure you mulch them heavily for their first winter.
Training and Care
Blackberries are easy to train along a fence or a trellis. I simply tie my canes to the fence in the direction I want them to grow. And I’ve learned to be a bit ruthless with which canes I keep and which canes I cut.
Erect and trailing blackberries will send out suckers and new canes. Make sure you keep an eye on both so that you don’t end up with a thicket. Even without thorns, it is hard to train, manage, harvest and prune if you are overwhelmed with too many canes.
Remember that the canes that produced last year are not going to produce in the coming year. So I wait until late August or early September to cut back the ones that I know had fruit that summer. I also take time to thin out a few of the new canes – leaving only the larger, healthier ones for next year.
You can cut suckers at this time too. But if you lost a plant or two during the season, take a few minutes to get a replacement from the new stock in your patch. To get new ones, I have two choices:
Just wait for a new sucker to push up through the ground. Let it establish itself a bit then cut a nice round bit of soil around the sucker, dig it up and transplant it where you want it.
Or, just as easy, you can take a long cane, slash it once on the bottom side and bury the slashed bit in soil.
Once you’ve thinned, trimmed and replaced, you can simply tie up the canes you want to fruit next year then mulch with 6 to 8 inches of straw. Or, if you aren’t as lazy as I am, you can plant a cover crop over the patch that you can work into the ground, in the summer.
Whatever you do, don’t let weeds get a start in your patch. Like asparagus, blackberries don’t like competition. As big and as bold as the canes can get – some of mine are almost 2 inches in diameter, the size the fruit and quantity of the harvest will be affected if weeds get a chance to complete.
Next week, how to handle Japanese beetles and some great recipes for fresh, juicy organic blackberries.