Field and Farm

Posted 6/24/18

By DANNY L. CAINWalker County Extension Agent I guess I’ll always be a little bit of a “country boy” at heart. I realized this fact recently while I was driving down the interstate and …

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Field and Farm



Walker County Extension Agent

 I guess I’ll always be a little bit of a “country boy” at heart. I realized this fact recently while I was driving down the interstate and began to notice that the blackberries were in bloom. It really doesn’t take much to amuse some of us folks, I guess.  I have several friends who talk to me about the latest high speed (and wireless) computer gadgets and gizmos they bought (my struggle with computers is legendary in our office) or about how their new smart phones and smart tv’s or their new i-pads, MP3 players (whatever that is) and other pieces of equipment can some how get together and communicate with one another.  All that is over my head, so I think I will just stick to blackberries, fruits, and vegetables.

Bramble is a common term used to describe a very diverse group of berry producing plants including dewberries, raspberries, and of course my personal favorite, blackberries. All brambles have a very complex system of operation as far as plants go…  much like my computer I fear. The crown area (where the stems join with the root system at the soil line) as well as the roots are true perennials. They live for many years. The canes or stems are biennials, which means they live for only two years. In the spring, new canes emerge from buds on crowns or roots. During their first year these canes are called primocanes and usually do not flower. In the second year the canes flower and put on fruit, these second year canes are called florocanes. 

Blackberry varieties are generally one of  a couple of general categories:  erect or semi-erect and trailing. The erect and semi-erect are extensively cultivated in many home gardens or U-pick operations. There are now several varieties of thornless blackberries. The thought of thornless blackberries is actually awesome to me, it almost takes the fun out of picking them.  For the blackberry picking purist, maybe they will some day make a chiggerless variety as well.  Select varieties based upon your desired growth form and never forget disease resistance.

Site selection is very important for growing blackberries. A proper site must have BOTH air drainage (or air flow) and water drainage as well as plenty of sunlight.  Brambles are subject to damage from spring frosts at bloom time. Most of us are familiar with the term “Blackberry Winter.” Planting on sloping sites or level elevated areas will allow cold air to drain away from the blackberries on frosty nights. Low-lying sites or areas surrounded by trees that impede air drainage should be avoided. Brambles are also damaged by poor water drainage. Plantings on poorly drained sites are almost always unproductive and very short-lived.  Here is one more thing to consider before selecting a site. Blackberries should not be planted immediately behind potatoes, tomatoes, pepper, or eggplant due to the potential for the spread of verticillium wilt. Also allow 300-400 feet between your new blackberry plantings and any wild brambles as this will help to cut back on disease transmission such as rust. Black berries also do best when they receive full sun.

Planting blackberries can be done from late fall through the early spring. Even though we are still a little early for planting blackberries, it is never too early to start planning for your fall planting. You will be much more successful if you put the same amount of time and effort into planting your blackberries as you would any other garden crop. Their row spacing should be 10 to 12 feet and the spacing in the row varies from as little as four feet for erect blackberries to as much as eight feet for trailing varieties. It is always desirable to use a good layer of mulch for moisture and temperature regulation as well as weed control around your berries. Pine straw makes a very effective and inexpensive mulch for blackberries.

Immediately before harvesting your berries, prune the new canes (canes without fruit or flowers) back to about 30 inches to insure good lateral branch development. Remove all the old fruiting canes immediately after the berries are picked.

In extremely large plantings, all the canes can be removed at slightly above ground level every third year or so, but remember your production is going to be lost for next year. I don’t recommend this, especially for smaller home plantings.

Trailing blackberries have biennial canes just like erect blackberries. Remove them after harvest. Be very careful not to cut the thornless blackberries less than one inch above the crown or else the new growth may have thorns on it.

Although blackberries can be affected by several diseases, I will mention one in which I have already seen a number of cases this year. Orange rust can be easily identified by weak spindly new growth often yellowish in color. Soon blister-like pustules that give rise to the brilliant orange colored powder from which the disease gets its name. This particular disease unlike other rust diseases is systemic which means the plant is infected from the roots to the end of the branches. The best course of action is to remove the infected plants from your garden and get them far away from healthy plants. There are now fungicide sprays that are effective for control of orange rust in the home garden.

I hope all this helps with your endeavors to grow plenty of blackberries for cobbler pies, jelly, jam, and ice cream. I am one of the few people who enjoys picking blackberries probably because I eat about as many as I pick. If you have extra blackberries this year, how about inviting your county agent out later on to “check the progress” of your blackberries.