The Call, Column 42 – The Fruits of Your Labor: Growing Raspberries and Blackberries

28 03 2016

(March 13, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Fruits of Your Labor: Growing Raspberries and Blackberries

Despite having arrived a little early, I can’t say I mind the past week’s warm, sunny weather. The crocuses are blooming, the robins are scurrying around my yard, and I actually think I see the grass starting to grow. Spring is on its way, and that means it’s time to plant perennial fruits and vegetables!

Today, I want to take a look at bramble fruits, and give you a quick how-to on planting, growing, and using these amazing crops.

“Bramble fruits” is a wide classification of species belonging to the plant genus Rubus. They are tall-stemmed, often thorny, bush-like perennials that spread like wildfire and fruit abundantly. Depending on where you are in the world, this family of crops includes blackberries and (red, purple/black, and yellow) raspberries, but also their many hybrids and cultivars – loganberries, boysenberries, tayberries, etc. Today, I’ll focus specifically on blackberries and raspberries, because these are where I have the most experience – and they have essentially the same growing requirements.

These fruits are incredibly nutritious – they are high in Vitamin C, and one of the best sources of dietary fiber you can eat (if you want more information about this, check out my latest blog post, about various fruits and vegetables and their fiber content).

They also make great crops – they are easy to grow, require little care other than occasional watering, and yield large amounts of fruit at an early age, and for many years (more on this later). There are two distinct types of raspberries – summer-bearing, which bear one large crop in the mid-summer, and ever-bearing which bear two smaller crops in the summer and the fall. With all this said, let’s begin.
When and where to get your brambles: The best time to plant brambles is either in the early spring – mid-to-late March, giving the plant the spring, summer, and fall to put on growth – or in the fall – where it will stay dormant until the next spring. I’ve always had good luck with spring plantings of perennial fruits, and I would recommend going this path if only to prevent possible winter losses of tender, fragile young plants. That means you’ll want to have the plants within the next few weeks – because, if you order them from an online nursery, they will be shipped dormant and you’ll need them to break dormancy naturally, in the ground, as the soil and air temperatures warm.

Spring is the time of year when you’ll be able to find brambles and other fruit plants for sale in stores in our area. The best place to get fruit plants is in dedicated garden centers – places like Cluck Urban Farm Supply in Providence. If you’re looking for specific plants like raspberries and blackberries, it’s always best to call ahead to make sure they have them in stock.

Online nurseries are a good route to go if you want a broad selection of varieties – thorn-less blackberries, Latham raspberries, and those other hybrid berries I mentioned earlier. I’ve always had good luck ordering from Gurneys Seed and Nursery Company, and most of the bramble fruits I have growing in my garden were originally from there.

Raspberry and blackberry canes are also available from hardware stores in the spring. You should be careful with these, because I’ve read that they sometimes treat the plants with neonicotinoid compounds – artificial pesticides that have been found to be very damaging to bee populations. It’s worth asking before buying plants from them.

How to plant your brambles: When you buy raspberry and blackberry plants, either online or from a local nursery, they will come with instructions about the recommended planting depth, spacing, and location. But generally speaking, you’ll want to incorporate some compost into the planting hole a few weeks before planting, and space them around 3-5 feet apart.

As with most fruiting plants, their yield will be highest in a site with southern (full sun) exposure. But I have my berries planted on a northeast-facing wall (it was the most convenient area when I planted them) and they still yield pretty heavily. This is likely because bramble fruits evolved as undergrowth to thick forests, and so can do moderately well on lower amounts of sun.

Like most other plants, a few inches of mulch around your brambles ensures that the soil stays moist and fertile, and protects them from some soil-borne diseases and pests. You’ll want to water them once or twice a week, but I have found that they do pretty well on rainfall alone (assuming it is adequate). Like many perennials, they have both deep and sprawling roots, which allow them to pull up water (and nutrients) from further down in the soil.

You should create some sort of trellising or other support system for the berries. Because the canes grow very tall (I’ve seen some of my blackberry canes reach almost 15 feet), you should tie them up to a growing support to 1) increase air-circulation and prevent disease, 2) keep them from covering the surrounding area, and 3) make harvesting easier. I have three plants (two raspberries and one blackberry) planted along a wall of my house, separated by around 7 feet. We put four posts – cedar, driven a foot into the ground and extending about 8 feet up – between the plants and on the left and right ends. We tied metal wire horizontally along these posts, and tie the berry canes to them as they grow.

One special consideration to take is that bramble fruits should be pruned for best growth. Pruning is when you cut off this or last year’s growth, sometime in the fall or winter, to encourage better growth the following year and increase air circulation (to prevent disease). Each year (sometime between late fall and early spring), you should cut down any canes that have dried out, and are no longer fruiting. For summer-bearing varieties, these are a few years old (because they grow canes one year and fruit on them the next). For ever-bearing varieties, these are the canes that have grown and fruited in the last year.

Timeline for yielding fruit: In my experience, the plants may fruit very lightly the first year, but don’t expect much. If you water them and keep them healthy in the first year, they will take off the second year with a pretty significant harvest; they will probably reach maximum yield in the third year, and continue for a decade or more.

From my three plants, I harvest probably 4-6 gallons of fruit per year. That number could go up significantly if they had better sun exposure, and probably if I watered them a little more.

Why I love bramble fruits: These berries were my first real foray into fruit-growing, and I’m glad they were. They require very little maintenance, and yield fruit in less than two years, which cannot be said about most tree fruits.

Because they are delicate and hard to transport fresh, bramble fruits do cost quite a bit to buy, which makes it that much sweeter (pun intended) to get a few gallons of them, per year, from a $5 plant.

From an ancestral-diet-framework, they are probably the best fruit. Small, sour, wild berries (from which bramble fruits aren’t too far removed) were the primary source of dietary carbohydrates throughout human evolution, and this is reflected by the unbelievable levels of dietary fiber and phytonutrients found in them. Most of our fruit consumption should come from fruits like these.

They are delicious to eat fresh over the late spring and summer, and can be stored in the freezer for a year or more, to be eaten in the off season. A small investment now will pay dividends in the future – so plant some bramble berries, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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