When to prune black raspberries?

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Growing black raspberries is a simple and rewarding experience. Here’s how to grow black raspberries in the small-scale garden or edible landscape.

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“Black Raspberry Plants Free to a Good Home” is the message that appeared when I checked the neighborhood message board one day many years ago. I instantly replied and felt giddy about adding more fruiting plants to my edible landscape!

It was a bonus to meet a neighbor-now-friend who shared my love of growing delicious things.

Indeed, the plants worked perfectly in my garden, and I made some new friends. Win-win! I was delighted to learn how adaptable these plants were to a variety of growing conditions.

My next challenge was to learn how to grow black raspberries. It turned out to be an easy and rewarding experience for me.

Read my other articles about growing fruit.

Planting Black Raspberries

Plant black raspberries in USDA hardiness zones 5-8. They aren’t as hardy as red or yellow varieties. You may be able to grow them in zone 4 on the north side of a building or slope to protect them from spring frost and wind damage.

In fact, all brambles (i.e., raspberries and blackberries) do well planted this way as an extra precaution (spring frost damage can mean reduced harvest).

Choose a location in full sun or one that is partially shaded. In hotter climates, they do better with late afternoon shade.

Don’t plant them near wild raspberries or blackberries, which can spread disease to your black raspberries. A 300-feet distance between them is the suggested rule of thumb.

Black raspberries are self-pollinating, which means one lone plant can produce fruit.

They prefer well-drained soil, so choose a location where the soil is not soggy. When planting, mix in compost or manure, and add more of it each spring as a soil topper.

Plant black raspberry canes 2-1/2 feet away from each other in a row. Be sure that you can access both sides of the row for harvesting, training and pruning.

Like all brambles, black raspberry patches can get out of hand if they aren’t trained and pruned properly. A trellis or fence will help to keep your black raspberries manageable and easier to harvest. It is best to install this at the time of planting.

>>> See Training and Pruning Black Raspberries for more details.

Mulch them well in the fall to help prevent winter damage.

Would you like to learn more about using fruit crops in the edible landscape?

You’ll find loads of information just like this in my award-winning book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.

Black raspberry canes in winter.

How to Grow Black Raspberries in the Edible Landscape

Black raspberries are a beautiful landscape plant. Their bright red canes blaze confidently through gray winters, while the pinks, reds, and purples of the ripening berries are beacons of cheer in early summer.

You might be tempted to consider growing red raspberries because of all of the wonderful benefits I’ve listed so far about growing black raspberries. Aren’t they just different colors of the same berry?

In fact, red (and yellow) raspberries behave differently than black raspberries. Red raspberries spread by sending up suckers away from the original root crown.

Rather than “walking” away over time, however, black raspberries “stay put”. (Purple raspberries and thornless blackberries are in the same camp.) They only start new plants when their long canes bend over and touch the soil.

This is easy to control with proper pruning. However, for this reason, I only recommend red and yellow raspberries and thorny blackberries for gardeners who have a little more space and can allow for fuller rows of canes that wander a bit.

They’re better in the backyard garden rather than in the front yard landscape.

See: 6 Fruit Crops to Propagate for Free from Cuttings

I planted mine in front of our house, right next to the front porch.

Black raspberries in the edible landscaping.

Decidedly, black raspberries make excellent foundational landscape plantings, because:

  1. Their height never exceeds 2 1/2 – 4 feet (if they’re pruned properly)
  2. They’re thorny, so they provide some security near windows
  3. They grow great in a straight line (they’re easier to train that way)
  4. They’re beautiful in both winter and summer
  5. They “stay put”
  6. They’re shade tolerant and grow well in areas that are overshadowed by the house
  7. They are juglone tolerant and can be planted near black walnut trees

Growing Black Raspberries With Wildlife

1: The birds love them.

Learning how to grow black raspberries—and keeping the birds from eating them all—is an art form. Out of all of the fruit growing in my yard, these are by far their favorite!

Bird netting and shiny things like old CDs will deter them some.

Personally, I think the ideal way to deter birds is to prune the canes to a shorter height, closer to 2-1/2 to 3-feet. That’s because if the raspberries are lower to the ground, there is more risk from neighborhood predators like cats.

Our black raspberries are pruned at around four feet high, and the birds eat to their hearts content, while Molly the Farm Cat is unable to patrol at that height. I’d like to prune them shorter in the future to see if there’s a difference.

2: The deer love them, too.

Learning how to grow black raspberries is a moot point if you have deer in your neighborhood, unless you’re willing to fence in your fruit crop. I recommend planning ahead and installing a garden deer fence.

In spite of the thorns, they will eat the entire plant, not just the berries.

Grow a fedge!

Alternatively, consider growing a fedge (a food hedge), which is a hedge planted on the outside for wildlife and on the insidefor humans. The fedge is so densely planted, that the deer would rather just stay on the outside and munch on things than jump on into your garden.

This strategy only works if you have a decent amount of space. For instance, the fedge might be six feet wide on the outside and six feet wide on the human side. Densely planted shrubs and trees of varying heights serve to confuse their limited depth perception.

Plus, fedge is a cool word! Here’s a short post on the matter.

Harvesting Black Raspberries

To get your best harvest, you’ll want to train and prune them correctly. Learn about training and pruning black raspberries. Proper pruning means thorns are easier to work around when picking berries.

Don’t expect to get any fruit in your first year of planting. In your second year, you’ll get a handful or so from each hill.

After your second year, you should get a good harvest off of each hill: two to six quarts, depending on your wildlife deterring strategies and whether or not your plants are in the sun (more sun = bigger harvest).

Learn about the ripening season for the specific variety you plant. Varieties ripen either in early, mid-, or late season. Ours ripen in June, so June is not the month for us to go on vacation if we want to harvest black raspberries!

When black raspberries are ready to harvest, they turn from bright reds to deep purples. Once they begin to ripen, you’ll want to harvest everyday in order to beat your wildlife friends (who will inevitably get some anyway).

Using Black Raspberries in the Kitchen

I freeze most of mine, because they perish so quickly, to use throughout the winter. Black raspberries are great—fresh or frozen—in smoothies and baked goods, over vanilla ice cream, or in jellies. Here are more ideas on how to use the berries.

READ NEXT:

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Are you growing black raspberries? Are you considering adding them to your garden or landscape?

Small Fruits: Introduction | Blackberries | Blueberries | Currants | Gooseberries | Grapes | Raspberries | Strawberries

Raspberries

Selection

Another popular small fruit for backyard gardens are raspberries. Red, black, purple, and yellow fruit types are available.Almost all raspberries bear fruit on 2-year-old canes, then the cane dies. This calls for ongoing pruning as a regular care practice when growing raspberries. Both summer bearing and everbearing (June, Fall) varieties are available – except in the case of black raspberries. Red raspberries tend not to show virus symptoms if infected but aphids can still spread the virus to Black raspberries that tend to be very susceptible. Plant black raspberries away from red raspberries but if you have a limited space, always plant black raspberries upwind from the red raspberries so that aphids are not blown by wind from red to black raspberries.

Planting

Plant raspberries in early spring. Red raspberries should be planted at the same depth as they grew in the nursery. Purple and black raspberries should be set about one inch deeper. Raspberries are usually sold as bare root stock, so inspect the root system, removing any broken or damaged roots. Spread the roots out when placing them into the planting hole. After planting, cut red raspberries down to about an 8 to 12 inch height. Purple and black raspberries should be cut to ground level and the material removed for disease control concerns. If the plants were produced by tissue culture, no pruning is needed after planting.

Care

Fertilize raspberry plantings about 10 to 14 days after planting. Apply about two ounces of a 5-10-5 fertilizer around each plant. Starting the second season and annually thereafter, fertilize raspberries in early spring before growth begins. Apply a balanced fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10, at a rate of 15 to 20 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of planting. If using the hill system, apply about one-half cup per plant. Don’t fertilize raspberries in late summer or early fall as it may force new growth that does not harden off properly for winter.

Raspberries grow best when some type of support is provided for the canes. Plants may be planted in hills or hedgerows. Red raspberries will readily spread by root suckers while purple and black do not. If using the hill system, plants are grouped around a strong stake or pole, and then trained to grow on the support.

Raspberries can also be grown on trellises in rows. One method is to run 2 wires about 18 inches apart horizontally between posts with cross bars. This set of wires should be about three feet off the ground. The raspberries then grow up between the wires and are supported. This creates a hedge of raspberries about 18 inches wide or so. This method is popular and does not require any tying of the canes to the supports.

Another option is to run two wires about two feet apart vertically between posts, and the raspberry canes are tied to the wire supports. The lower wire should be about three feet off the ground.

Raspberries must be pruned on a regular basis to stay productive. The basic rule to remember in summer bearing raspberries is that fruit is produced on the cane in the second year of the cane’s growth, then that cane dies and should be removed. Pruning needs vary with the type of raspberry being grown, however. Red and yellow raspberries should be pruned twice a year. Early spring pruning should remove weak canes and then a second pruning should be done right after harvest to remove canes that have fruited. Do not summer prune, or what’s often called topping, red or yellow raspberries. Another option with everbearing cultivars, such as ‘Heritage,’ is to grow them for a fall crop only. These types will fruit the first fall of the canes’ growth, then further down on the cane the following season. All canes can be removed in late fall so only the fall crop is used. Often yields and berry quality is superior when following this method for these types of raspberries.

Purple and black raspberries require pruning three times a year. In addition to the spring and after harvest pruning mentioned above, they also require summer topping to encourage development of lateral shoots off the canes. All new shoots should be pinched back in summer 3 to 4 inches once they have reached desired height. Lateral branches then develop that will produce fruit.

Regular pruning helps reduce cane blight and other disease concerns. Viruses are also a potential major disease problem. Plants infected with virus will appear stunted, dwarfed, and will be unproductive. It is suggested that you go through the raspberry plantings at least twice a year to scout for virus infected plants. Remove and destroy these plants as soon as they are noticed. Always purchase certified nursery stock to help reduce potential virus problems. Do not share plants with other gardeners that have been dug out of gardens and keep wild brambles in the area under control.

For more information, visit our Raspberries & More website.

Small Fruit Crops for the Backyard – University of Illinois Extension

How and when to transplant wild black raspberries – Knowledgebase Question

Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)
Posted by SongofJoy
For best results, your Black raspberry will enjoy a rich, moist, well-drained soil, much the same as your garden vegetables enjoy. After growing in that sand pit, they may think they’ve died and gone to heaven! Start any necessary soil improvement now, since you’ll want to transplant your raspberries early next spring. Have the soil tested and amend with slow-acting fertilizers this fall (such as greensand, rock dust, etc.) and compost. Avoid planting where members of the tomato family (eggplants, potatoes, peppers and tomatoes) have grown, since they can swap diseases.
You can move them this fall, too, though I believe spring planted canes will have a higher survival rate. Choose the ones with the healthiest looking primocanes (the canes that grew this year and will fruit next year), and water them thoroughly. Then prune the fruiting canes off (they die after they fruit anyway). Dig crowns so that you move a healthy amount of soil and root with them (6-8″ radius from the crown on all sides).
All new nursery planting requires consistent soil moisture in order to get well established, and also during their flowering and fruiting stage. Drip or leaky pipe irrigation is best, and mulch is recommended, too. Mulch also keeps down competing plants. It does sound like the wild canes are doing just fine on their own, though! You be the judge of how to care for them based on their performance after you transplant them.
Now for pruning! All bramble fruit produces canes (primocanes) that spend the first season beefing up and storing food for its grand finale in its second year (when they’re called floricanes). Whereas red/yellow raspberries grow sturdy, unbranched primocanes, black raspberries sprout long, branching, supple primocanes that tend to head back to earth. As you probably have witnessed, they take root at the tip, and this is actually how new plants are propogated! Black raspberries fruit on side branches, so you need to prune off the tops of the canes the year they appear to encourage branching. Ideally, in the first season, when the primocanes reach 18-24″ tall, you should cut off the top 3-4″. Late the next winter, before they start to grow, trim back the side branches to 8-12″, which will stimulate even more fruiting side-branches! In the fall,after leaves have dropped from the canes, remove the floricanes by cutting them off at ground level (be careful not to scrape or jab the crown of the plant in the process, or you may damage next year’s buds).
Since these wild canes weren’t pruned late last winter, head them back now, before they begin to grow too much, and some side branches should grow. Start on the right foot with the new primocanes, and following year you should see a bumper-crop! My only other caution to you is that wild plants often harbor viral and fungal diseases, as opposed to stock you can buy through a nursery that is certified disease free, and often disease resistant. But the wild ones have such great flavor, and they’re free!

Pruning Raspberry Plants

Pruning is not only an important part of proper raspberry plant care and maintenance, it is also a way to ensure and improve the development of the fruit crop. Here are a few things to remember when pruning your raspberry plants:

  • Not everyone will prune the exact same way – including the experts.
  • It is preferable to do some pruning rather than no pruning.
  • If a raspberry plant is left unpruned, it may become tangled and overgrown and may even be unfruitful as a result.

NOTE: This is part 8 in a series of 11 articles. For a complete background on how to grow raspberry plants, we recommend starting from the beginning.

Pruning Advice for Raspberry Plants

Pruning may vary depending on the raspberry varieties you plant. The best approach is to understand the bearing nature of the varieties you’re growing so you know how to prune when the time comes. That said, regardless of growth habit, some pruning should be done every spring to keep raspberry plants from becoming tangled and to improve their ability to bear.

  • Consider staking or trellis-training your raspberry plants to keep them more upright.

This information is geared toward typical red, gold, and purple varieties of raspberries. Black raspberries are a little different, and pruning advice for those is located in the next section.

When to Prune Raspberry Plants

Once your raspberry plants have put on enough growth (which may not be until after their first year with you), aim to prune in the early spring, just as new growth emerges.

  • Prune young canes back until they are around 4 to 5 feet tall. This will discourage overgrowth and shading and will improve fruit production and quality.
  • Completely prune back and remove all skinny, dead, damaged, diseased or otherwise weak canes. As your raspberry plants mature, it is recommended that you cut back the small, thin canes to leave only about 8 to 10 of the strongest ones.
Pruning Black Raspberry Plants

Black raspberry plants have a slightly different growth habit, so pruning is slightly different as a result.

  • When new shoots are 3 feet tall, prune off the tips. Tipping the canes stops the vertical growth and results in more vigorous side branching, where the fruit develops. These lateral branches should be pruned so that they are kept at about 10 inches long.
Pruning Floricane-Bearing Raspberry Plants

Also known as “summer-bearing” raspberries. These plants have the more typical fruiting habit, bearing one fruit crop on the lower part of their two-year-old canes (called floricanes). After fruitset and harvest in the summer, these canes will die back. You should prune them back to ground level in order for the one-year-old canes to thrive and become strong and fruitful second-year canes the next growing season.

Pruning Primocane-Bearing Raspberry Plants

Also called “everbearing” or “fall-bearing” raspberries. Primocane-bearing raspberry plants are unique in that they tend to bear fruit on the tips of their one-year-old canes, which ripens in fall in milder climates. In addition, as these primocanes become floricanes in their second year, they will fruit again, this time on the lower part of their canes the following summer. Other than that, these can be pruned and maintained in a similar fashion to the typical raspberry plants mentioned above.

  • If one large crop is desired, cut all canes back to ground level after the fall crop. This will result in a single, large primocane crop the following fall. Not recommended for northern gardens with short growing seasons and early fall frosts.
  • In areas with short growing seasons, a primocane-bearing variety’s fall crop may not ripen, so northern gardeners may prefer to treat primocane-bearing varieties as summer-bearing varieties and forego the fall crop.

Additional Notes

  • Be sure to prune at the proper angle to allow the raspberry plants to easily heal over the pruning cut.
  • A good reference book like Pruning Made Easy will answer pruning questions and guide you through the pruning process for raspberry plants.

Pruning Black Raspberry Bushes: How To Prune Black Raspberries

Black raspberries are a delicious and nutritious crop that can be trained and pruned to grow even in smaller gardening areas. If you’re new to black raspberry cultivation, you might be wondering “when do I prune black raspberries back?” Fear not, pruning black raspberry bushes isn’t complicated. Keep reading to find out how to prune black raspberries.

When Do I Prune Black Raspberries?

In the first year of growth, leave the black raspberries alone. Do not prune them. In their second year, it’s time to start cutting back black raspberries.

You will likely get a small harvest of berries in the late spring or early summer. After the plants quit fruiting, you will begin pruning the black raspberry bushes. Pruning at this juncture will set the plants up with healthy, productive canes and make for a more bountiful harvest.

It will also make harvesting easier; and at this time, you can confine the bushes size so they don’t grow rampantly and take up too much space.

How to Prune Black Raspberries

So, the first time you prune will be in the early fall. Wear long pants and sleeves, gloves and sturdy shoes to avoid getting

stabbed by thorns. Using sharp pruning shears, cut the canes so they are at consistent heights of between 28-48 inches. The ideal height is 36 inches, but if you want the canes taller, leave them longer. This early fall pruning of black raspberries will signal to the plant to produce more side branches.

You will be pruning the black raspberry bushes again in the spring, and quite severely. Once you are done cutting back the black raspberry bushes, they won’t look like bushes anymore. For spring pruning, wait until the plants are budding, but not leafing out. If the plant is leafing out, pruning could stunt its growth.

The canes that produced berries the year before will be dead, so cut them down to the ground. Cut any other canes that have been damaged by the cold (they will be brown and brittle) down to the ground as well.

Now you are going to thin the canes. There shouldn’t be any more then 4-6 canes per hill. Choose the 4-6 most vigorous canes and cut the rest out down to the ground. If the plants are still young, chances are they haven’t produced enough canes yet, so skip this step.

Next, you need to work on the lateral or side branches where the berries develop. For each side branch, count 8-10 buds away from the cane and then cut the rest off at that point.

You’re all done for the moment, but black raspberries should be topped 2-3 times during the next few months to facilitate lateral (fruiting) branches and to increase the strength of the cane so it grows more erect. Prune the raspberries to 36 inches in height at this time; this is called topping. Basically, you are pinching out or cutting off the shoot tips, which will encourage the lateral growth and result in higher berry production. After July, the canes become weaker, and you can cease pruning until early fall again.

For dormant pruning, remove all dead, damaged, and weak canes. Thin remaining canes to five to ten canes per plant. Lateral branches should be headed back to 4 to 7 inches (for blacks) or 6 to 10 inches (for purples). More vigorous plants can support longer lateral branches. All canes should be topped to 36 inches if they were not topped earlier.

Every morning, Wilmer begins his day sharpening his pruners. A sharp pair of hand pruners makes cleaner cuts that heal more efficiently resulting in healthier plants that can fight disease, insect infestation, and other natural stresses.
One big chore we always do during these colder months, oftentimes in between other farm projects, is prune the berry bushes that grow in the gardens around my main greenhouse.
The black raspberries, which are identifiable by their purple canes, need a good, thorough trimming. Raspberries are unique because their roots and crowns are perennial, while their stems or canes are biennial. A raspberry bush can produce fruit for many years, but pruning is essential.
Black raspberries are a bit more challenging to prune because their canes are quite long. Here they are before they are pruned.
Raspberry plants spread by suckers and will spread out far and wide if allowed. Unpruned raspberry bushes will still grow, but won’t yield more berries. Leaving them unpruned also makes them more prone to disease.
It’s good to keep the base of the bushes within a 12 to 18-inch footprint by pruning out any suckers that poke up outside those parameters.
Canes that produced berries in the previous year will be dead, so Wilmer cuts them back to the ground.
Older canes are gray in color. Here you can see both old and young canes.
This is an old branch that was just cut.
Raspberries bear fruit on two-year old canes, the canes that sprouted last season – if you’re thinking of planting black raspberries, be sure they are at least two feet apart in a row, and that you have ample access to both sides.
Wilmer removes all of the small, weak canes, leaving about four or five of the largest, most vigorous canes per plant.
The canes are heavily intertwined, so Wilmer follows them to make sure he is only cutting those needed.
All of the trimmed branches are taken to the compost yard and added to the pile. Pruning the berries takes some time, which is why we do it over a course of days in between other more time sensitive tasks.
The upright posts are made of granite and they have heavy gauge copper wire laced through them to support the berry bushes.
The wire can be tightened or loosened depending on the need.
Black raspberries, because their canes are so long, are also tied.
We use the same natural jute twine we use for so many of our gardening projects. Jute twine can be ordered online or purchased in specialty garden supply stores.
Wilmer secures the canes to the wire, to give the bush shape, and to train the cane to go in the horizontal direction – this makes picking the berries so much easier.
Forcing the canes to grow horizontally, encourages new lateral growth, which produces more fruit.
He also ties them horizontally, so they look tidy and secure.
And then cuts the ends close to the knot.
Wilmer stops frequently to check the work he has done and to make sure he hasn’t missed anything.
Wilmer ties some canes to each other to add support. Black raspberry canes are filled with tiny sharp thorns, so it is always best to work with a good pair of gloves when doing this job.
Keeping these rows neat and tidy and making sure the canes are well-secured also helps to keep walkways clear of thorns, so it’s easier to harvest all those berries come summer.
The finished canes look so good when finished. In summer, these canes will be laden with delicious black raspberries.

How to Prune Black Raspberry Plants in Late Winter or Early Spring Video

Transcript

Hi everyone, Felix here at Gurney’s and today we’re at our research farm in late winter, and I want to talk to you about raspberries. These are black raspberry, one of my favorite tan fruits, and these are growing very well for us. We basically have put our flora canes. This is a second-year cane, so these canes that grew last year, down here, and they’ve gone dormant and they’re going to bear all of our fruit this year. So those are last year’s canes we’ve trained onto some wires so they get some nice vertical support and get real tall, and then we’ve got nice branching here that have come off those canes. We have some lateral growth, some real nice development. One of the points with black raspberries is every when you’re treating them right, they really want to grow and there’s been a lot of growth on these plants. We’ve tipped them a couple of times, which we’ll show you in some other videos how to do that with your first year canes but after the winter, some of this late season growth here, it’s small caliper. It was growing very late so there’s not a lot of carbohydrate reserves in these shoots and they won’t really make it in the winter. And you can see here we have some tip die back, this is dead tissue and that’s not going to do much for us. Even here where it’s alive, we have that nice form in some green tissue. It’s just not, there’s not a lot there to support a fruit crop, so you’re pruning with black raspberries, really is to take back all that late season growth at this point in this season, which is late winter. And what my general rule of thumb is, is you want to imagine a load of fruit and what this particular cane can support, and if you’ll look here, how to identify your fruiting buds, we’ve got a couple here. They’re a little hard to tell this time of year, but that’s a fruiting there. It’s right behind where that leaf was attached last year. So those are going to initiate some growth and at the tip of that growth is going to be your flower and fruiting cluster. That’s what’s going to be your fruit for this season, very important to note that, because that’s what’s in consideration when you do the pruning. So each of these nodes is capable of producing and when it gets enough light, it’s producing a cluster of wonderful black raspberries, really great to eat. So what we’re going to do is take this back to where we think that, you know here we have about eight clusters back to here that are going to form, and so I’m taking it back to about, right there, and this is going to be able to support that weight and that’s really the consideration. The other thing is that the caliper is about pencil thickness which is ideal for this supporting of fruit, and that’s why we’re taking this whole cane back. All this late season growth is going to be trimmed back to that kind of material. Alright, so here we have a couple of canes that are late season shoots coming out of the ground that really, they’re just too low for any fruit production. They’re not doing us any good so we’re going to trim those out. We also have a little bit of stunt material that’s left from last year’s fruiting canes, doesn’t really need to be there so those are going to come out as well. Just going to trim them back a little bit. So these are just remnants from last year, and these young little shoots here, they’re just going to get shaded out. They’re not, again, thick enough caliper to really support much so they’re coming out around our crown. The key here around the base of the plant is that you want, we have the ideal number of crowns here, you know, six-seven crowns that are coming up and we can spread them nicely so they get good sun exposure and that’s ideal around the crown as far as how many shoots you have coming up. So basically, here we’ve finished up most of the pruning as I’ve described. There are a couple last little pieces here, we have some stub cuts that were made late season last year. We have a little bit of winter entry which you can see here and in the changed coloration and I want to trip that back to something that’s healthy. So I’m going to cut it back to about here where there’s some nice growth and there are a couple of points where that can be done, and some here that’s a little bit compromised from the winter. You’re going to have that every year with your black raspberry here, we’re in zone 5, just, you’re going to have a little bit of that winter kill and the plant here is very healthy and ready to produce a lot of fruit this season. So join us for the next black raspberry video where we talk a little bit about harvesting, keeping the buds off your fruit and you’ll be able to see if how wonderful this thing performs for you later in the season. Thanks very much.

Taming The Wild Black Raspberry

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

When I was young and foolish, I fancied that I would become the raspberry king of the world. The way I figured, raspberries were one crop that would remain the undisputed territory of the small scale operation. Only garden farmers would be crazy enough to want to work that hard. Raspberries don’t lend themselves well to mechanical picking, don’t store well, get lots of diseases and bugs, need hand pruning and weeding, and taste heavenly. Maybe I could get paid enough to make the hard work profitable.

I was mostly right in my thinking except that there are intrepid growers with some fairly large raspberry farms that cater to pick your own customers. And some mechanical harvesting does take place, I understand, with varying results. But hand harvesting is still the better way to insure quality and organic raspberries have maintained astronomical prices in upscale markets. An indignant consumer told me recently that she paid eight dollars for a pint of yellow raspberries. She did not take it kindly when I answered that she got a bargain. Our yellow raspberries are a feast for the gods, but assorted birds, bugs, Japanese beetles and raccoons think so too. If we were going to grow them commercially as I dreamed of in earlier days, we would have to figure out a way to surround an acre with a fence like the government is trying to build between us and Mexico, and then drape netting and bug screening over it.

Over the years I grew every kind of raspberry, black, red, yellow and purple, that I could find. I kept ordering the “new and sensational” varieties from the far off vendors of plants. I finally learned the hard way that the best raspberry for me, all things considered, was the wild blackcaps that grew in the woods next to our gardens, available to me for free. I shall try to explain.

First of all, the wild black raspberry is not the wild blackberry. The latter is not hollow, that is thimble-shaped like the raspberry and is not nearly as delicious, at least to most people. The wild black raspberry is slightly smaller than cultivated black raspberry varieties, and while all raspberries are seedy, these wild ones are the champs in that league. But on the plus side, the wild black raspberry has a taste all its own, even a little different from tame black varieties. Red raspberries are good, don’t get me wrong, the yellow variety that someone sent me long ago from Minnesota, is ultra soft and ultra delicious, and the purple ones are, well, okay. But there is something about a wild black raspberry that will lure its lovers into the wildest of thickets, endure thorn, mosquito, deer fly, poison ivy, and nearly lethal heat to pick a quart of them for a pie. For those looking for natural sources of antioxidants to fight cancer and heart disease, raspberries are listed among the top ten foods in this regard, and depending on who is doing the counting, wild black ones sometimes score in the top five. And although black raspberries are susceptible, even in the wild, to various diseases, particularly orange rust, they keep on producing year after year without any help from humans, while tame varieties of all raspberries seem to decline if neglected.

The reason the wild ones survive on their own is that they move about. In the garden, humans usually want to keep raspberries corralled in permanent rows. Raspberries are like teenagers: they want to get away from their parents but maintain a connection in case they got in a jam. On black and purple varieties, the new canes that come up in the springtime grow to about five feet high, then bend over in midsummer so that the tips of the canes pierce the soil surface and root. The red and yellow ones spread by suckering, that is new canes come up from the roots moving out and away from the parent plants. By moving away from the old stand every year, the new canes usually avoid disease until they fruit in their second year and then die naturally. (Everbearing reds and yellow canes fruit in the fall of their first year and summer of their second year and then die naturally.)

Understanding this process, the successful raspberry grower sets out new plants in the spring (suckers on red raspberries and the new tip sprouts on the blacks that rooted the year before), at some distance from the old plants, same as they do for strawberries. Setting out new plants at least a hundred feet from the old row avoids diseases or delays them at least. And makes weed control a little easier. Even if you buy so-called virus-free plants, they are not really all that free because virus-free rarely last for very long and is of no help against fungal diseases like orange rust. It does help to cut out the old canes as soon as they are through fruiting, but that is very hard work since they are growing right in among the new canes.

After struggling with domesticated raspberries for so long, I got to thinking about the wild blackcaps. Why not suffer mosquitoes and the lethal heat in the June woods for my raspberries. I was encouraged in this thinking when an organic market grower told me that he and his family picked a hundred pints or so of wild raspberries every year for sale at their Farmers’ Market. He said that customers nearly fight over them and that they always sell out before any of the domestic raspberries. Hmmm.

But what if I transplanted rooted cane tips in the spring to the garden and let them spread more or less as they do in nature. I was already doing that successfully with our yellow raspberries. I could thus avoid picking berries in the jungle-like environment of the woods. More importantly, I could, maybe, keep the birds away. Birds love wild black raspberries. They probably know something about antioxidants that we don’t yet.

The answer so far is yes on all accounts. The berry bushes do fine when I allow them to spread in a controlled way as they do in nature. I allow only a few canes to stretch out to make a new row several feet from the old, and then yearly, they advance across the garden patch. I remove the old canes behind that advance, and rotary-till where they had grown. When the row reaches the other side of the plot, I let them march back across the other way.

As you can see from the photo above, we cover our canes with bird netting. The new non-fruiting canes hold the netting far enough away from the fruiting canes below them that birds can’t get to the berries. The berries seem to get a little bigger than in the wild, but I think that is because they can ripen fully under the netting whereas in the wild, birds will often get them as soon as they turn black but are not fully developed and ripe yet.

Pass the honey and cream. My raspberry cup overfloweth.
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See also Greg’s Five Fantastic Organic Wild Blackberry Recipes
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Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author ofThe Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: Gene and Carol Logsdon
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
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