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Garden Journal

Blackberries: A gift that gives for years to come

By Paul Barbano | May 23, 2012
Blackberries spread easily and provide a bounty of sweet fruit for years to come.

When you go to visit our friend Tim, you don’t have to dress up, you don’t have to be fancy, and you know the food will be great.  Tim is like that.

In the back of Tim’s sprawling yard is a long hedgerow of sprawling, out-of-control blackberries.  Here too you don’t have to plan, you don’t have to dress up, and you know the eating will be great.

Blackberries are like that.

Nearly all blackberry varieties need two years to produce fruit. The new, first-year canes, called primocanes, don't flower or fruit. In the second year, these canes change into floricanes, and begin to bud out, flower and set fruit. After they produce berries, the floricanes die.  But like a continuous feast, there are always new canes growing to produce next year’s crop.

Now there are new everbearing blackberries that bear fruit on the first-year canes in fall and again on the same canes next summer.

Spring and early summer are the best times to plant blackberries.  Since blackberries spread so easily, you may be offered free plants.  Sadly, such plants are often infected, and you’re better off buying certified, virus-free plants from a nursery.

Infected plants may look healthy, but will go downhill steadily until all you have is bramble patch and no berries.

Different blackberry varieties have different growing habits, such as erect, semi-erect, or trailing. Erect varieties grow upright by themselves without a trellis or support.  They also tend to be the hardest. Semi-erect blackberries yield more berries than the erect blackberries. The semi-erect types do require some support or they will flop all over the garden. Trailing blackberries are the least winter-hardy and need a strong trellis or support.

The hardiest blackberry varieties are Darrow and Illini Hardy. Darrow produces large, sweet fruit over a long season. The thorny canes are vigorous and upright.  Illini Hardy yields medium-sized fruit with a similar growth pattern.

Two new varieties are Prime -Jim and Prime - Jan, which are the first of a new generation of blackberries that fruit the first year on the primocanes and then go on to bear fruit the following summer on the second-season canes, the  floricanes.

Plant your blackberries in full sun in well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.7. If your soil is heavy clay, add compost or well-rotted manure. Keep away from low-lying areas and wet or poorly drained parts of the garden because this can cause root rot and disease.

Bare-root blackberry plants are best planted in early spring. Container-grown plants may be planted any time between early spring and late summer.

Set the plants at least three feet apart in rows four to six feet apart.

Soak bare root plants in water for at least an hour before setting out in the garden. Plant bare-root blackberry plants one to two inches deeper than they were grown at the nursery.

Cut the canes almost down to the soil level, leaving only two to four inches of cane. Water thoroughly after planting and keep well watered, but not soggy the first few weeks.

To keep your blackberries from becoming a briar patch, you will need to prune out the dead canes.  Before growth starts in late winter or early spring, cut out any year-old dormant floricanes that are broken, diseased or crowded.  Leave just four to six healthy canes per plant. Prune side branches down to 12 to 15 inches to promote larger berries.

When new canes (primocanes) reach 30 to 36 inches, pinch off the tips to encourage side branches.

Right after you pick your blackberries, cut those canes down to the ground. To discourage insects and disease, remove all pruning and dead leaves from the patch.

The best time to pick blackberries is in the morning, just after the dew dries.  Ripe blackberries will pop off the canes easily.

For best flavor, do not wash or hull blackberries until you're ready to eat them.  For fullest flavor, let the berries warm up to room temperature before serving. Bake blackberries into pies, scones, muffins and cobblers - though blackberries and cream are fancy enough.

Blackberries are quite nutritious with high dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, folic acid, and manganese.  Blackberries also are famous for antioxidants.

Plant blackberries now, and if you choose Prime Jim or Prime Jan, you will have blackberries later this year.  Plant traditional blackberries and you will have blackberries next year.  Either way, blackberries are like a trip to Tim’s house: good food and something you can look forward to for years to come.

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