Monday, 28 August 2017

Thornless Blackberries

If you asked me to list all the berries we can grow in Ontario in order of how much I like them, blackberries would be an also-ran. It isn't that I don't like them, it's just that I like most other berries better. However, over the last 6 years or so, as we have struggled to grow strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, we've been eating lots of blackberries because they grow so easily and well. I'm starting to warm up to them...

Our blackberries were brought by my mother-in-law when she moved here, so I do not know exactly which variety we have. There was a popular series of blackberries bred in the U.S.A. and given the names of native tribes; I suspect them of being one of those, possibly Apache, but who really knows? In some ways, it doesn't matter much because the differences between one variety and another are not that enormous, although Apache is particularly long-producing which makes it a good choice for home gardeners.

Still, there are points to consider. Blackberries are naturally very thorny canes, but for over a hundred years now thornless versions have been commercially available. It makes them far more pleasant to pick and otherwise work with, no question! But thorny versions are still sold, so if you are shopping for blackberry canes, do check. After that, canes may be erect, semi-erect, or trailing. Ours are plainly an erect version, although that doesn't mean they don't arch enough to touch the ground if they are not pruned. Also, while these are often described as self-supporting, it makes a lot of sense to build them a trellis if you have more than one or two plants. They will be more tolerant of neglect than trailing varieties though.

You don't, by the way, need to have more than one plant unless you want more fruit; they are self-fertile so even just one will produce fruit. One plant will also produce more plants. They tend to send out runners and in many ways the hardest part of growing blackberries is keeping them under some kind of control. They drop seedlings all over, too. At least any that come up in the lawn don't survive mowing. My impression is that most if not all of those seedlings will have thorns, so do try to remove them while they are cute, baby thorns.

We mulch our row of blackberries with wood chips, which seems to suit them fine. They should definitely be mulched quite heavily.  Mowing around them is the best way to keep them in check, so their bed should be surrounded by mow-able grass. They like full sunshine for best production. About 1/4 of our bed is lightly shaded though, and this works out reasonably well as it is the last section to start ripening - and also the last section to finish ripening, extending our picking time by a week or so. If our variety is Apache, they are supposed to produce over 5 weeks and we get at least 6 weeks of picking - it's pretty amazing, actually. They just keep coming and coming.

Like most fruits, they are best in a warm, not too wet season although blackberries are more tolerant of - or require, if you prefer to put it that way - a certain amount of water. It has been warm enough this year for the fruit to be decent in quality, but I have learned to make a point of not picking them until at least 24 hours after a rainfall, or the fruit will be soft, bland, hard to pick, and spoil quickly. Unlike most things I prefer to pick them late in the afternoon when the sun has been on them all day for that final burst of ripening.

Most descriptions you will find on-line describe them as ripening as early as June, but those are American sites. Here in mid-southern Ontario they start ripening in the middle of August, and go until the end of September. They match well in particular with the peaches and early apples that are in season at the same time.

Blackberries are easy to care for. Mostly what they need is pruning and a little support. Since they are perennial, that "little support" does need to be sturdy. We put in 2 8' tall, 2" diameter metal poles, set 2' into the ground and held in place with post cement. (You dig your hole, dump it in, add water - voila, cement. They mix it up special for this purpose.) There are then 2 sets of wires strung between them and we weave the canes up through them to hold them in place.

While the plants are perennials, each cane lasts 2 years. The first year they just grow; you pretty much ignore them. In the fall they should be pruned back to about 4' in length - the exact length will depend on what variety you have, but hopefully they will tell  you - and the next summer they will send out a series of side shoots, which will flower and fruit. In the meantime, once the existing fruiting 2 year old canes have finished fruiting, they should be pruned out. Late fall is ideal, but you could leave it to early spring if you had to. Then you just keep repeating that cycle.

Blackberry pests are rare - other than the birds. There are some diseases but decent air circulation and good soil quality will avoid most of them, and a little light fertilizing once each year will keep them in top condition. It's not quite plant them and stand back, but blackberries are an easy and satisfying fruit to grow.

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