Lessons learned in the blackberry patch

June 19, 2013 

I have been watching the sides of the road for the last few months as we travel. I look for the characteristic white flowers, upright stems and dark green leaves of a particular plant.

I have been watching to find a good spot to pick wild blackberries.

Blackberries have been getting ripe for a while. Even in wild blackberries, there are several types that bloom and ripen over a wide period of time. Late May through June is a good wild-blackberry-picking time. Finding and picking enough wild blackberries to make a cobbler can be difficult. My wife says we need two cups. The difficulty in finding a good patch and avoiding the thorns, insects and snakes makes it hard to get enough to make it worthwhile. So why not just grow my own?

I started a few blackberry plants, and so let me rehearse some of the main cultural methods to remind us berry growers of what we need to be doing. See this publication for more complete information: www.tinyurl.com/mfsc4mp.

Although this is not the best time to plant new blackberry plants, understand that the variety makes a lot of difference. Newer varieties are bred or rated for fruit quality, disease resistance, time of fruiting (early, midseason and late) and growth habit (erect or trailing). Select a variety that meets your needs to avoid problems. Blackberries are native to Georgia, and we have a good selection of varieties to choose. Plant berries in late fall or winter for best success.

In the past, the best blackberries were varieties with thorns. This is no longer the case because newer thornless varieties are now available, giving gardeners a choice of thorny or thornless varieties. Do not immediately dismiss the thorned varieties because many have some excellent traits. See the publication I mentioned earlier for a description of recommended varieties for Georgia.

We fertilize blackberries around bloom time and then again in June. When applying fertilizer, spread it evenly around the plant. Never pile it in one place. Piling fertilizer in one place or applying too much can kill the roots. Apply less fertilizer for young plants -- especially those planted this year. The best way to determine fertilizer needs is through a soil test, but if you do not have one, use these recommendations. Apply fertilizer to plants when they are dry and then water in the fertilizer. This helps to keep the fertilizer from burning the leaves.

For first season trailing blackberries, apply 2 ounces of 10-10-10 per plant in April and June. For first season erect blackberries, apply 1 pound of 10-10-10 per 18 feet of row in April and 1 pound per 36 feet of row in June. In the following years, apply 1 pound per 9 feet of row in February or early March and 1 pound per 18 feet of row in June. Scatter the fertilizer in a 2 foot wide band over the row.

Mulching around the plant is a good idea -- 2 to 3 inches deep and extending out several feet each way. Do not pile mulch against the base of the plant. You can apply any fertilizer right on top of the mulch.

Blackberries should be carefully pruned each year. See the blackberry publication for complete information but here are some tips. Blackberries fruit on canes grown the year before. Most pruning is done in early summer and consists of removing dead wood and old canes in decline. All through the year, pinch the tip off of canes once they reach about 40-42 inches. In winter, shorten any long branches reaching out to the side. Trailing type blackberries require a trellis and even erect blackberries will benefit from a trellis when they are young. See the blackberry publication for details.

Blackberries often send up little plants from their roots. If you carefully dig these up and move them to a pot and carefully water them, you can produce new plants. You can also take the tip of a branch, strip the leaves from a section and then bury the section in the ground leaving a leafy tip sticking out. These may root and can then be moved to a new location.

Willie Chance works with the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture and helps train the turf and landscape industry.

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