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Pruning and maintaining brambles

A rooted tip of a blackberry caneBramble growth
Unless you planted ever-bearing raspberries, you'll spend your first year watching your berries grow and learning to prune them.  That gives you a chance to get a handle on the unique aspects of bramble biology so that you'll understand which canes to cut and which to leave in place.

The first factor to consider is how each type of bramble spreads vegetatively.  Blackberries and black raspberries grow long, arching canes that bend down and then root at the tip.  If you cut the tip loose and dig it up, you can transplant that youngster into a new part of the garden and expand your patch.  Red raspberries, on the other hand, send out horizontal roots just beneath the soil surface, then new plants pop up along those roots.  If you want to prevent your berry patch from turning into an impenetrable thicket, you'll need to understand which type of reproductive strategy your berries favor and prune accordingly.

The next thing you'll notice is that most blackberries and raspberries fruit only on second year wood.  The first shoots that come up are known as primocanes and will only be vegetative, making leaves but no blossoms.  Next year, those primocanes have matured into floricanes and will flower and make berries; at the same time, the canes are sending up new primocanes to prepare for the third year's berries.  After fruiting, floricanes die and must be removed if you don't want your berry patch to turn into a thicket.  But don't remove the primocanes or you won't get any fruits next year!


Bramble pruning
Now that you understand how brambles grow, pruning them should seem less complex. 

Summer tip pruning
The first type of pruning you'll need to do is summer tip pruning and is only necessary on blackberries and black raspberries.  Once your plants get about three or four feet tall, simply walk by and pinch off the top of each cane. 

Tip pruned raspberries, a few weeks later
Tip pruning prevents the plants from forming long arching canes, so the brambles instead put their energy into branching out into a bush that will have more room for flowers and fruits next year. 

The bushy plant that results from tip-pruning

The three photos above show a black raspberry being tip pruned --- first the top is pinched off, then side shoots form, then the next year the bushy plant is loaded with

Living canes have a layer of green inside

fruits.

The second type of pruning is winter pruning.  In early spring, go into your patch and cut out any dead canes --- you'll be able to tell which ones are dead because they'll be brown on the outside, often with peeling bark.  If in doubt, cut the top off the cane and take a peek inside.  Living canes will have a ring of green just under the bark.  They'll also tend to have plumper buds.

Pruning blackberries

After taking out all of the dead canes, winter pruning is different for each type of bramble.  If you didn't summer prune carefully or often enough, blackberries and black raspberries will have reached out beyond the edges of the row.  Prune each plant until the side branches are one to two feet long.  While you're at it, use your twist ties to attach these new canes to the trellis wires.

Pruning red raspberries

You'll recall that red raspberries grow differently, sending up new shoots from their roots rather than making long, trailing canes.  As a result, you only need to prune them once a year, in the winter.  First, cut out any dead canes, then thin until canes are about six inches apart.

Ever-bearing raspberries are a bit different because they have two fruiting periods each year --- one in the spring and one in the fall.  If you only want a fall harvest, pruning is absurdly simple --- just mow down the whole row of raspberries in the winter.  However, if you want to enjoy raspberries both in the spring and in the fall, you'll need to follow the advice above for normal red raspberries and also cut the tops off the canes that fruited the previous summer.  Most people admonish you to remove the top third of these canes, but the truth is that you're cutting off the dead part.  After snipping off a few tops, you'll start getting an eye for the point at which the plump, live cane turns into the more Blackberry flowershriveled, dead cane.


Annual care
Except for the complexities of pruning, your bramble patch will mostly take care of itself.  Each spring, you'll want to topdress your plants with compost then smother any potential weeds with mulch.  The brambles will flower and then fruit, generally bearing between late June and August.

Young raspberries

BlackberriesBramble fruits tend to be more resilient than strawberries, so you can probably get away with picking the berries only twice a week.  Red raspberries, though, have a tendency to mold in hot, humid climates, so harvest more often.

A well-tended patch of blackberries or raspberries can last a very long time.  Keep pruning and mulching and you'll be eating from your plants a decade or more after planting.  Now that's a good return on your investment!

This week's lunchtime series is exerpted from Weekend Homesteader: February, which is available for 99 cents from Amazon's kindle store.  The ebook also includes a primer on choosing and caring for a backyard flock of chickens, information on buying in bulk, and tips for creating your own apprenticeship.  If you enjoy the book, please consider leaving me a review.

Weekend Homesteader paperbackThis post is part of our Easy Berries lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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Just out of curiousity what varieties are you growing? And are there any you did like or some you didn't?
Comment by Brian Fri Jan 20 15:21:35 2012

I recieved 8 red rasberry plants last spring (for free)! I planted them in a moist lasanga bed and they did well. I was able to pick a few berrys in August.

So I am assuming this is an ever bearing plant because I picked some berrys in August?

Your advise.

Comment by Mona Fri Jan 20 16:51:04 2012

Brian --- Keep in mind that variety selection is very region-specific. That said, here are the varieties I've loved and hated:

*Caroline Ever-bearing Raspberry --- This is a workhorse! It produces and produces and produces, and spreads, and spreads, and spreads. :-)

  • Navaho and Arapaho Blackberries --- These guys just aren't winter hardy enough for our climate. After they got frozen back multiple years in a row, I tore them out.

  • Some unnamed thornless variety --- Much better. :-)

  • Wineberries --- These are a wild, semi-invasive species, but I like the flavor. They're not very productive, though --- probably not worth wasting garden space on.

  • Bristol Black Raspberry --- These seemed pretty similar to wild black raspberries, and not as plump and delicious as some. Need to look harder for a good black raspberry....

Mona --- Definitely an ever-bearing variety if you're getting fruits in August!

Comment by anna Fri Jan 20 17:59:28 2012
That sequence of four photos that show show how the berry develops -- amazing.
Comment by J Fri Jan 20 23:29:54 2012
J --- I'm glad you enjoyed those photos! To be fair, it's not really a timeline. The flower and ripe fruit are blackberries, but the immature berries in between are black and then red raspberries. (You can actually see a flower on the black raspberry on the lower right.) It would be cool to take a timeline of the same fruit, though!
Comment by anna Sat Jan 21 08:23:19 2012

I got a couple of raspberry canes in a bare root sale up here in Alaska a few year's back and they grow like gangbusters the first year, but the first year canes never come back the second year to fruit, and the plants still put up new first year canes each year - is this what occured with your "navajo" variety that your ripped out? I guess I always keep rooting that they will overwinter because if they do I'll have more raspberries than I can eat because they come back so well in the spring with new canes...

I welcome any advice!

Comment by David Thu Feb 7 19:15:24 2013
David --- I'm afraid you're having the same problem we had. :-/ You might try everbearing raspberries since they fruit on primocanes in the fall --- all the other brambles require stems to overwinter from one year to the next before you get fruits. Good luck!
Comment by anna Thu Feb 7 19:27:35 2013

I was told to pinch off the tips of my red/yellow raspberry primocanes when they reach about a meter tall. I tried this last year, and the canes (like the black raspberries and blackberries) sent so many other branches out and now have fruit all over them. I haven't really paid much attention to how much fruit I get (between kids and crows I only get a handful back to the house), but it looks like I may get a bigger fruit set this way. Have you heard of this method or tried it?

Comment by Eric in Japan Sat Jun 15 09:42:18 2013
Eric --- Interesting! I had never heard doing that with red raspberries, but now I'm intrigued. If I remember, I'll try it with a few plants and see how it goes. I hope you'll report your results on your blog too!
Comment by anna Sat Jun 15 12:37:05 2013
I found this post to be very useful! This year I've been getting my black raspberries and Blackberries established. The Black Raspberries are a wild variety, and the Blackberries are Kiowa. I was pleasantly surprised when my Kiowa started flowering and producing berries in their first year, by all accounts I shouldn't have had berries until next year. Mom's are the same way.
Comment by MamaHomesteader Mon Jul 15 11:57:45 2013