Taming the Raspberry Jungle

Today, the sun shone.  There was no form of precipitation on the ground, and no threat of any looming in the sky.  Neighbors were out cleaning up their yards and dreaming of gardens.

Me?  I pruned the black raspberries.

Black caps (Rubus occidentalis), otherwise known as black raspberries, are some of the most delectable berry morsels that I know.  These very sweet berries are, in my opinion, superior to both blueberries and strawberries – and I’m quite fond of both.

Sadly, no one seems to sell fresh black caps.  The US crop seems to be purchased primarily for making food-grade dyes and juice blends.  The only reason I’m familiar with them is that I grew up on a berry farm, and we grew enough for just us in the family garden.

A black raspberry can be pruned just like a red raspberry.  A blackberry is a different kettle of fish altogether.  Raspberries produce berries along most of the length of the vine; blackberries only grow berries at the vine tip.  So don’t use this as a tutorial for pruning your blackberries, or you’ll be disappointed.

Mid-winter is when I prune berries.  The plant is dormant, so I’m not worried about breaking off flowers or buds that would eventually be berries.  When I was growing up, this was one of my least favorite parts of the year!  We would come home from school, grab our gloves and pruners (or twine and scissors), and head out to the field to work until dark.  In the cold.  And then we came inside and did our homework and practiced our music.

In the morning we walked uphill 2 miles to school in the snow, and after school, uphill three miles home.  Yup.

Anyway.

I acquired a few black cap starts last summer.  I planted them in ten-gallon pots, since I don’t know precisely where I want to put them permanently. I’m going to have to do something about that this year!  They shot up past six feet in just a couple of months, and then went dormant once the weather turned cold.  Once they got past six feet, I gently bundled them up against their stakes and tied them loosely, so that they would continue to grow up and not along the ground.  This helps later when tying them up.

Loosely tied:

Today, I went out and tamed the wild shrubbery.  Here is my tool set for this job:

… and here is the (mostly) untamed patch.  Plus my ever-inquisitive Moose, who is wondering if he can take those sharp things and go do a number on Mama’s roses without being noticed.

First, I took out any vines that were spindly or less than half the diameter of the healthiest vines.  These get cut off level with the ground.  There were a few vines that had leaned over and dropped their tips into other pots… and rooted at the tip!  Here’s an example:

I also took off most of the lateral branches.  I left a few because these plants are in their first year, and they only put up a couple of vines each.  Once they are established and are putting up at least 4 vines apiece, I’ll take off all of the laterals.

I recruited Natter to hold them together so that I could tie them to their posts.

We tied the vine bundles about every 18” up the stake.  This encourages the plant to grow berries towards the outside of the vine column, and makes it a lot easier to harvest.

We did the lowest tie on all the plants before going back and doing the upper ties.  It is easier to untangle all the vine tops when the bases are all corralled first.

Here we are doing the second tie.  I use my grungiest chore clothes for berry wrangling, because berry vines have an affinity for clothing.  They will shred anything they can get ahold of.  It’s probably revenge for all their brethren that fall to the pruner blades.

I had a couple of problem plants that only had one or two vines each, with lots of laterals.  It’s impossible to bundle these tightly together at the base; they’d break off.  We tied them as closely together as we could without putting much strain on the vines (they’re fairly brittle in the winter).

One of my main vines had a big bend that had partially healed.  I cut off the main vine near a lateral and used the lateral as my new main vine; those bends are very susceptible to breaking at the least pressure or wind whipping.  The lateral, left by itself, should develop into a decent main vine this spring.  I shouldn’t have to worry about it breaking if the wind kicks up.

Once everything was tied up, I whacked off the tops about six inches past the last tie.  Since blackberries fruit all along the vine, I won’t lose many berries that way.  If I left the tops, I’d either have to use a ladder to pick berries, or the tops would flop over and make it difficult to get to the main part of the plant.  The thorns on blackcaps are wicked!  (Not as wicked as blackberry thorns, though.)

My mother uses fencing T-posts tying up her raspberries, and I’ll use those when I’ve got a permanent home for my vines.  Here is her berry patch:

My plastic poles work for now… but they aren’t real stable.  I have them tied across the top and secured to the deck railing to provide support when the wind blows.

I rearranged them into two rows; my single row left plants under the eaves of the roof.  They weren’t getting rained on there.  Hopefully this arrangement will provide them with more water, and won’t block too much light.  We are in a very shady area; this patio gets most of the light in the backyard.

A word about water – most potted plants need more water than they can get from rain alone, most of the year.  I water these 3 times a week when they have leaves.  If the weather is hot and sunny, they get watered daily.

Hopefully I’ll have a bumper crop!

Here is the pile of trimmings, from seven plants:

Sometimes people are horrified by how much needs to be pruned off berry vines, but it really is worth it to be ruthless.  This way, the plant puts its energy into the remaining healthiest vines, rather than trying to save spindly stuff and supporting lots of laterals.

I don’t compost berry trimmings.  I’m fairly certain that berry bush thorns share the same half-life as plutonium.  They won’t rot.  They lie in wait for unsuspecting bare skin if mixed in compost.  If we had a burn barrel, I might try burning them and letting subsequent fires finish them off.  The vines will be long gone before the thorns even begin to give up the fight!  For now, I just stuff them in the city-mandated yard waste bin and let the city deal with them.

In the spring, new growth will come up around the base of the old.  That growth will be the next year’s berries.  This year’s will be on the vines I pruned today.

I’m not a professional horticulturist or anything.  You might say that I’m an amateur practicing agriculturist – I know what works, but I don’t know all the theory.  I also don’t know if there have been new pruning techniques that make mine outdated. All I know is… this works!

{Later – For an update on the bushes, click here.}

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About dep31

I am a farm-raised homeschooling mom. I take great joy in making nutritious food that inspires people to take seconds. Thirds, anyone? We are a God-fearing, Christ worshiping family that enjoys good friends and good eats. If the kitchen is clean and the living room carpet is visible, then that's a nice bonus.
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8 Responses to Taming the Raspberry Jungle

  1. Gina says:

    Thank you so much for your detailed directions! Now you made me eager to plant black raspberries. I have never seen a black raspberry patch curtailed like yours. I’ve always seen jungles – and they are wicked to pick!

    Will you need to tie them up or prune any more in the year?

    I’d love to hear how to prune red raspberries and thornless blackberries. Pretty please!
    Gina

    • dep31 says:

      I’m planning to document an entire year’s cycle for the blog – you aren’t the only one to ask! Red raspberries are pruned the same way as black. I don’t have any experience with thornless blackberries, but when I do get some regular blackberries I plan to document that process too.

      I won’t need to tie these canes up further or prune them any more this year, but next year’s growth will be coming in soon and will have to be dealt with. That is, if they grow the same in containers as they do in the ground; this container business is new to me. Depending on how vigorous the new growth is, I’ll either take out the first few canes that come up and wait until May to let them grow (thus making it easier to harvest), or (if they look weak) let the initial new canes just grow. Those will have to be corralled at some point, and I’ll post on that when they get to that point. I expect that to be sometime in July/August. I’m sure I’ll have an intermediary post up – probably when they start blooming!

      Thanks for commenting! I love it when people ask questions. 🙂

      • Prashant says:

        I love your dress and i love berry picking. We have a pick your own farm just up the road from us they sell lots of local produce as well it always tastes wonderful.

      • Karunia says:

        Great photos. Love the jam recipe, my fruit trees are in bloom (beautiful scent as I walk through the garden), can’t wait for the fruit and to try the recipe.

  2. Anty says:

    I love this! Is it a take on Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking? In my mind I can hear all the ltitle birds rustling deep inside the throny bushes trying to find the perfect berries.

    • dep31 says:

      Ha – no, after all that work of pruning and tending the vines, I’m not about to go pick a whole ‘bath-full’ and leave them to rot someplace. Smart berry pickers harvest when the vines and leaves are dry, anyway; harvesting wet berries means they’ll rot in no time flat. Heaney may be considered a literary great in some circles… but based on that particular poem, I don’t think much of his farming skills.

  3. Vickie says:

    When I was a little girl I was at my grandma’s house and spied a wonderful looking berry bush. Being careful not to get berry juice on my clothes, I carefully picked berry after berry and stuffed them in my mouth. When I had a belly full, I snuck over to the water faucet to wash off all trace of berry juice (as much as I could, anyway) from my fingers and my lips. I thought I got away with this caper until the next day when my mom called me into the laundry room and wanted to know how I got so many holes in my pants! Busted! Thanks for the tutorial. Can’t wait for berry season again!

  4. dep31 says:

    Hilarious! We think we’re so smart when we’re kids, and then miss the obvious. I used to read late at night and couldn’t figure out how my mom caught me when I was downstairs and my parents were up. It finally dawned on me, years later, that she could look out her window and see the light I was reading by shining out my bedroom window onto the ground below.

    My kids are asking about strawberries… I keep telling them that I’m NOT buying the cardboard imitations at the store when we’ll have fantastic local berries in just a few weeks!

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