Growing and Caring for Blackberries

So, you wanna grow your own blackberries? Smart.

blackberries

If you’re like me, you love blackberry everything – jam, cobbler, pie, glaze, you name it. But good, fresh blackberries have a short season and, if you’re buying responsibly (that is, from a reputable local farmer), they can be expensive.

This expense is for good reason: while blackberries are one of the easier fruits to cultivate, growing and harvesting them is still labor-intensive, especially if you’re not using commercial pesticides and fertilizers.

But you don’t just want pints of local blackberries to enjoy over a summer: you want, nay, need, gallons of them for canning, baking, and eating out of hand. And to achieve this need, without destroying your bank account, you’ve decided to grow your own. Here’s how to do it.

For Starters

Let’s pull back a bit – how, exactly, does a blackberry plant grow and propagate?

Blackberries, like other plants in its genus (such as raspberries), grow on long stems, or canes, usually in two-year periods. This means the canes are biennial, while the roots of the main plant are perennial (return year after year). In the first year of cane growth, the plant produces no flowers (or nearly no flowers) and, therefore, no fruit, and focuses its energy on rooting and growing a robust cane. In the second year, the same cane (“old wood”) flowers and fruits, and the main plant spreads new canes.

Blackberries have super shallow root systems, and can thrive in many soils, including very poor, rocky soil, and spread and hybridize with other like plants quickly. This is why you’ll see huge thorny brambles on mountainsides and on trails, or even on the outskirts of your own yard near wooded areas. It’s very easy for us to pull up, move, and replant these buggers, and they do it themselves if left alone. Spoooooky.

(Also, not literally. They just do the spreading thing underground.)

So, if you plant a cane or two in your yard the first year, you can get many, many more canes and years of blackberries, with minimal work involved. Heck, you can let your whole yard get covered in blackberries within a decade. I don’t recommend it, especially if you’re going with a thorny variety, but you do you, Maleficent.

Speaking of varieties, there are three main types of blackberry plants:

  • Erect Thorny Blackberries: These, as the name suggests, have thorns (the gnarly kind that can rip through your jeans). The canes stand “erect”: that is, they don’t need support (like trellising or other plants) to hold the canes.
  • Erect Thornless Blackberries: Now with no thorns! These guys can hold themselves up, and don’t rip your face off. Win!
  • Trailing Thornless Blackberries: No thorns, but these plants require trellising to keep the canes off the ground.

Despite the name, the “erect” varieties still benefit from some trellising for easy picking and ground upkeep. We have all three varieties growing somewhere on our property, with the second and third planted on purpose, and the first ripping my sleeves as I mow the lawn on the edges of our land.

Starting Plants: Canes vs. Seeds

It’s much simpler to start your blackberries from canes or nursery plants than from seeds, and you’ll get fruit much faster. You can get bare-root or flowering canes from a nursery. You can also get canes from your neighbor, or pull wild ones from one part of your yard into another. However, I strongly recommend starting your blackberries with nursery plants. Why?

Getting your plants from a reputable nursery means you’ll know the precise variety and characteristics of your blackberry. If you take canes from your neighbor Joe, you’ll probably get blackberries, but they may be hybrids with other nearby plants, or prone to disease. Nursery canes are usually sterile (as in, disease-free) and tend to grow bigger, sweeter fruits. I also really hate thorns, and blackberry picking is already labor-intensive enough without dodging stems that tear up my hands, so I love our thornless varieties that we got from our cool local nursery.

Something to note: your nursery blackberry plants are likely a graft (that is, the blackberry plant is attached to another similar plant to enhance the coolest parts of a blackberry), so if that’s a concern, go ahead and go the wild route. Or just ask about the plant you’re getting. However, I’m a fan of the grafts, if you can’t tell.

Oh, and you can also grow your canes from seeds, although it will take hella longer to do so than from canes, and again, because many blackberry plants are actually hybrids or grafts, you may not even get fruits, or a similar fruit, from whatever blackberry you decided to put in the ground.

Growing and Environment

Okay, let’s plant these buggers. You’ve got your canes. Now what?

As I mentioned before, blackberries have very shallow roots, so you don’t need to plant them very deep. You do, however, want to clear the planting area of grass and other competing plants, because of those shallow roots. I recommend sheet mulching, and keeping the growing area well-mulched each season, to prevent this competition, as well as tall grass that may hide critters that hang out near blackberries, like mice and snakes.

Plant the canes maybe an inch deeper than the nursery container, making sure the roots are completely covered, but not so deep that the cane disappears. Plant canes 5-6 feet apart, at least, and keep rows 5-8 feet apart.

Blackberries will grow in many different types of soil, even in poor clay soil, but benefit from compost additions, looser soil than clay, mulching, and, most importantly, good drainage. Blackberries will not thrive with wet feet.

Lifting, Pruning, and Cultivating

You’ve successfully planted your main berry brambles, and they’re alive. Hooray! Now what?

In the first year, it’s super important that you do. Not. Let your blackberries produce fruit.

I explain this in more detail in my Pruning post, but the gist is that by pruning the flowers the first year, you allow the main plant focus its energy on establishing good roots, as well as more canes for the coming years. For reference, with good pruning, cutting, and cultivating practices, your blackberry bramble can show this progression:

Year 1 – Three blackberry canes, and some blueberry bushes up front. Very small, no trellising needed yet. We pulled any blooms from each plant all season.
Year 2 – The blackberry plants are lifted about four feet by my (very weak) trellises, and producing about a cup of berries per day. (Ignore the copious Persian speedwell.) And there are a lot more than three canes now.
Year 3: Huge, woody canes that are now trellised on metal wire and stakes, with canes stretching 6 feet or more. Canes have taken over a good 50×10 foot plot. We got about a gallon a day during peak production. Hooray!

Harvesting and Care

Okay. You’ve planted your canes. You pruned the flowers in the first year. It’s the second year, and your canes are now bursting with blackberry fruits. Major huzzah!

Your fruits will go from from green and hard, to red and softer, to a dark, nearly black (hence the name) purple and fairly soft.

Blackberries do not continue to ripen after harvest, so be sure to pick fruits that have entirely changed their final color. They also rot super fast on the plant after fully ripening (as in, within a couple of days, and less time when it’s very hot or rainy), so make sure you’re checking your bramble every day for fruit.

Pull berries very gently from the plant (ripe ones should give easily), and try not to disturb the rest of the cane, lest you accidentally knock other berries to the ground, or tear the plant.

Some things to watch out for on and around your blackberries:

  1. Birds. Oh, how the birdies love berries! You can protect your bramble by draping it with bird netting, which prevents birds from getting to the fruits. We’ve used this before, and it works, but it’s a pain in the butt to remove at the end of a season, as it tangles easily with the growing plant, and it’s not great to throw away. Other solutions are keeping other more attractive crops and leaving them for the birds (this is why we keep the wild blackberries on the edges of our property), and simply beating the winged buggers at their game by harvesting your blackberries early each day.
  2. Stinkbugs and Junebugs. You’ll run into these guys every time you harvest. They won’t harm you, but they’ll chomp on your berries. I don’t use pesticides or anything with them, and we get a good harvest, so I just kind of live with them and the occasional scream I let out when I pick a junebug instead of a berry.
  3. Mice and Snakes. Neither of these critters have been a problem for us so far, but they can be if you let the grass around your bushes grow too tall, or don’t pick your berries fast enough before they fall to the ground. (Dropped berries can attract mice, which then attract snakes.) Be sure to wear closed shoes and long pants when harvesting, just in case.
  4. Thorns. If you’ve got a thorny variety, that is. And those thorns can rip through denim, which means they also rip through skin, no problem. I recommend gloves and long sleeves when harvesting berries from thorny canes.

Care in the Off-Season

So it’s the end of the blackberry season. Alas. What do you do now?

Since blackberries only produce fruit on second-year (old wood) canes, you’ll want to cut back any canes that had blackberries that same year. This will ensure the plant doesn’t waste energy on keeping old-old wood alive, and spends it on producing both berries on next year’s “old wood,” and growing new canes.

You can do this at the end of summer, or be lazy and do it in the fall when it’s cooler and easier (in my opinion) to get to your bramble and see the canes. Use a sharp pair of pruning shears and cut the spent canes down to the ground. Do not pull the canes, lest ye pull out the whole plant and not get anything next year. (Unless, of course, you’re moving canes, in which case, read on a bit.)

In the spring, you can also tip prune your canes – that is, cut off the tips (an inch or so) of each fruiting cane with a pair of sharp shears. This encourages the canes to branch out, grow more wood, and produce (yes, you guessed it!) more fruit.

Keep the area around the canes as free of weeds as possible, and transplant/move any canes (ideally in the fall) where you want them for the next growing season. Or, pull canes and burn them, if you don’t want as many or more. In the spring, trellis the growing canes in a fan pattern so they’re not tangling with each other too badly.

That’s about it. Have any further blackberry-growing tips? Leave ’em in the comments!

As always, happy homesteading!

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