It's December and ‘tis the season to…think about blackberries! Our cool northern California coastal areas provide the perfect climate for growing sweet, flavorful blackberries. So take a break from the holiday rush and get going on summer's delicious crop. Here's how to have a bountiful harvest.
There are a number of hybrids and also thorny and thornless varieties but, ultimately, there are two basic types of blackberries: trailing (with canes that are not self-supporting) or erect (with stiff, arching canes that are somewhat self-supporting.) Both types benefit from a trellis support and all varieties have similar growing requirements. To do their best, blackberries (also known as caneberries, bushberries and dewberries) need to be in a location that receives partial sun and in soil that is slightly acidic with a pH of about 6 to 6.5. Ensure that the soil is rich in organic matter and topped with a layer of organic mulch. Plants will need regular irrigation during the growing season so carefully check the soil at the base of the plant to determine if watering is sufficient. Root areas should be cool and moist but not wet and should not be allowed to dry out. Once established, apply compost or manure in late fall or early winter to allow rain to leach excess salts and as soon as the plants begin to put forth new growth in early spring, apply an organic granular fertilizer (20-20-20) around the base of the plants. This will provide the nitrogen needed for vigorous growth and fruit production.
How and What to Prune
A blackberry plant can live for many years but fruit grows only on the short lateral shoots of two-year-old canes (“floricanes”)which then die back after berry production is over. In spring, you can “tip prune” to force the canes to branch out and create more lateral shoots for fruit to grow on. Use sharp, clean pruning shears and cut to about 24 inches. If the canes are shorter than 24 inches, prune the top inch of the cane. In the fall, after fruiting is complete, prune to remove diseased, dead and spent canes by cutting to ground level. This will encourage the plant to produce more first year canes (“primocanes”), which will mean more fruit-producing canes the following year. If you already have blackberry vines, prune them now.
How and When to Plant
December and January are good months to plant dormant blackberries, but potted vines can also be planted in spring or summer. For bare root plants, trim the dead roots and dig a planting hole just large enough to accommodate the roots. Cover the roots with soil and press firmly to remove air pockets. Water thoroughly to settle the soil. After planting, cover the soil with mulch. Blackberry cultivars can be spread 3 to 4 feet apart in the row with 8 to 10 feet between rows. Cut the canes on newly set plants to 6 inches at planting time.
When to Pick
Blackberries do not continue to ripen once they are picked so it's important to pick fruit at the peak of flavor and sweetness. Since different varieties ripen at different times, you can extend your berry season by planting a few different kinds. Erect blackberry cultivars include: Black Satin, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chester, Darro, Hull Thornless, Shawnee, and Triple Crown. Trailing blackberry cultivars include: Boysen, Kotata, Logan, Marion, Ollalie, and Silvan. (More information: https://ucanr.edu/sites/gardenweb/Berries/?uid=4&ds=466).
Purchasing certified disease-free plants from a nursery is a good practice. Although it is easy to propagate your own berry plants from canes, plants derived from another garden or grown near wild blackberry bushes could introduce unwanted diseases. If your blackberry plant looks healthy and blooms, but grows misshapen fruit or no fruit at all, chances are that your blackberry plants are affected by a blackberry disease. If you have more than one variety, one type may fruit while another, susceptible variety may not. On the coast, Anthracnose is a common fungal disease that tends to attack plants when the weather is cool and wet. The fungus can be spotted when the blackberry fruit starts to ripen but then wilts or turns brown.
If you decide to use a fungicide, it's important to determine if a fungus is indeed the culprit. Since symptoms could be due to something other than a fungus, using a fungicide might be a waste of money and do more harm than good. Contact the UC Master Gardeners Helpline (Phone: (650) 276-7430; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org), to provide information and a photo of the problem. The Helpline will help determine if using a fungicide is necessary and, if so, what types of safe fungicides are best to use.
Insects (aphids, cutworms, thrips, mites, etc.) can also cause fruiting problems with blackberry plants. Check the bush carefully, particularly the undersides of leaves to see if the plant has unwanted pests. It is important to first identify the pest before determining the treatment. Sometimes the treatment could be as simple as hosing off aphids or spraying the pests with soapy water. Detailed information about blackberry diseases, pests, and treatments can be found here: http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/GARDEN/FRUIT/blackberries.html
Cynthia Nations is a UC Master Gardener who continues to experiment with different blackberry cultivars coast side. This article was edited by UC Master Gardener, Maggie Mah.