I've been growing blackberries for around 10 years now. Fresh picked juicy blackberries are a favorite cereal topping of mine...and I love blackberry cobbler...and jelly, and blackberry wine is incredibly good! What I'm trying to say is - I LOVE blackberries.
Blackberry canes are easy to plant, and require very little care once they are established (after the first year). In fact, depending on the variety that you plant, they CAN become downright invasive. They do require a little maintenance, but in most cases its minimal.
Blackberries are very cold hardy, and can withstand winter temperatures well below zero if they are properly maintained. The plants can live for decades, and produce reliably year after year. Even in "bad" years, I still get plenty of blackberries.
If you're considering growing your own blackberries, here's some basic information that you should know before you get started.
Growing Blackberries - General Information
Blackberries are members of the rose family (as are raspberries, strawberries, and many fruit trees like apples, pears, peaches, cherries and plums). Their blossoms even resemble those of wild roses.
Blackberry stems are called canes. Blackberries canes live for two years, but the plants can live for decades. The plants send up new canes every year. First year canes (called primocanes) don't not bear fruit - only second year canes (Called floricanes) do that.
The main job of first year blackberry canes is simply to grow - which they do quickly and aggressively. During the fall and winter of the second year, the canes die. Some people remove dead canes right away. I like to leave them for a third year to add some structural support against wind for the rest of the plant.
There are lots of varieties of blackberries, some thornless, and some with wicked hook-like thorns. Some grow underground suckers and can become incredibly invasive, others don't spread at all.
My experience has been that thornless varieties often grow HUGE berries, but their flavor is kind of bland when compared to varieties with thorns. Berry canes with thorns generally have smaller, but far more intensely flavored berries than the thornless kinds. One thornless variety that HAS proven to have very good flavor as well as large berries is "Apache".
Regardless of the variety you decide to grow, planting and care requirements are essentially the same.
Growing Blackberries - Planting Methods
Blackberries can be grown as an individual plant, in trellised rows, or simply as a hedge. I'm all for making things as simple as possible, so I planted mine as a hedge, and let them support themselves. Trellised plants are more stable and resistant to wind damage, but require more time and effort to keep the canes trained back into the trellis. My hedge has blown over in a very heavy wind, but it's rare for this to happen, and are usually fairly simple to pull back up.
Blackberries like well drained fertile soil and sunny locations. They will grow in partial shade, but they will not produce as heavy crops compared to plantings in full sun. If blackberries are in standing water for more than a few days they will begin do die fairly quickly. Planting on higher ground or on a hillside is best.
Planting blackberries can be done either in spring or fall when the soil is dry enough for digging. Dig a hole or trench that is 4-6 inches deeper and wider than the roots of your plants are long. This allows some additional loose soil around the roots of the plants where new roots can easily develop and grow. Don't skimp on this - the better the hole, the better your new plants will do.
Plant your new canes so that the crown of the plant (the place where the roots join the stem) are an inch or two below the soil surface. Spread the roots out evenly as you back fill the hole. Water them in well, but don't fertilize now them except for a liquid root stimulator.
Mulch your young growing blackberries about 18-20 inches around the plants to help control weeds and retain soil moisture. If planting a hedge, mulch the entire row. Use bark mulch, dry leaves, or dry grass clippings.
I used bark mulch the first year, then switched to dry grass clippings after that. The grass clippings don't last the entire season and have to be replaced at least once or twice but the grass keeps growing and, it's free for the taking.
If your first season is dry, make sure to keep your plants well watered every week to ten days. Once the plants are established they don't usually require any watering.
Growing Blackberries - Care and Maintenance
Growing blackberries really doesn't require a lot of care once your plants are established. Weed control is done by maintaining mulch as described above. I do find the occasional tree sapling growing in the middle of my blackberry hedge, but they are easily enough handled with a pair of pruning shears. Clip saplings off even with or just below ground. This may not kill the tree, but it will keep it down until the next season.
Pruning blackberries during the growing season may be done for couple of reasons. If the first year canes get taller than you are able to easily harvest the berries, pinch out the tender tops at the height that you want to maintain them. This will also force the canes to send out more side shoots, which is where most of the berries will form the following year.
You might also want to trim back a few wayward canes that make it difficult to mow the grass around your plants, or maybe they just looks bad. Don't get too excited about pruning back canes, do only what's necessary.
As noted above, canes will die at the end of the second year. You should remove at least some of the old canes every couple of years, so that the dead canes don't choke out the new growing ones. If you grow your blackberries on a trellis, you can remove all old canes every year. If you grow a low maintenance hedge, remove about half of the dead canes every other year.
It's best to remove dead canes in the fall. A pair of heavy leather gloves is a really good idea if you are growing a variety with thorns, because you're going to have to grip and pull those dead canes out after you clip them off as close to the ground as possible.
Growing Blackberries - The Harvest
Blackberries bloom in late April to early May here in Southern Indiana, well after the weather starts to warm. We always seem to get a week or so of colder weather during or right after the blackberries bloom. The old-timers call this blackberry winter. If it turns cold and wet during peak bloom, the honey bees that do the lion's share of pollination become less active, and your blackberry crop can be affected.
Berries begin to form and grow from the center of the blossom after they have been pollinated, and are usually ripe here around mid to late June. Harvest usually lasts between two to three weeks.
You will find yourself picking ripe berries every two to three days once they start coming on. Ripe berries should pull away from the plant easily. If you have to work at it, leave it - that berry isn't ripe yet. Pick with a breaking motion instead of pulling, and you will find that it's easier to pick them.
The best way to preserve blackberries is to
them. If done correctly, they can keep in your freezer for a year or more.
Growing Blackberries - Pests and Diseases
My biggest problem with pests when growing blackberries is birds. Seems every species of bird in the state of Indiana loves to eat my blackberries. Robins, Jays, Cardinals, Doves, Starlings, even on occasion wild turkeys. Fortunately my plants produce enough that the birds and my family can share.
Mammal pests don't seem to bother my blackberries too much, but I think this is mainly due to my planting location close to my property line where my neighbor's dogs spend a lot of time. I'm guessing that they keep the furry critters scared away.
If you have problems with birds and furry critters eating your blackberries, I recommend either being prepared to share, or covering your plants with bird netting. However, the netting may be tough to remove after the harvest because of all of the thorns.
The IPM Center webpage has extensive information about insect pests and plant diseases at this page:
Growing Blackberries is easy and low maintenance, and harvest time is an exciting time for the whole family. Most kids love to eat blackberries, and you'll probably find that the biggest problem is getting your littlest helpers to put berries in the basket instead of in their mouths! I confess though, I eat my share of fresh berries right off the vine as well - just when no-one else is looking!
Blackberries are versatile, and can be made into jellies and jams, juices, and wines, not to mention all the baked goods, smoothies, and homemade ice cream! Try growing blackberries yourself - you won't be disappointed with the results.
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