Early this spring my friend and mentor, Benny LaFleur, gave me a load of berry starts. These are roots and shoots that creep out from around his established rows. To clean up the rows he digs out these ambitious upstarts. Some of these ended up in my garden. In fact all of my berry plants have come from Benny over the past couple of years. Benny's berry patch is much (much) larger than mine: almost a farm. And he has much experience to share. Here is what he's taught me.
Growing Berry Plants
Blackberries (Triple Crown Thornless)
These bear fruit once a year and only on the one year old canes. Once the canes have fruited, cut them off at the ground (after harvesting the fruit). The canes tip-root, so bend the new canes over using a trellis and poke the tips into the soil to propagate.
Grow like blackberries: they can be propagated through tip-rooting, and bear fruit on second-year canes. You can improve the quality of the fruit by pruning new canes to 3-4 feet high (except those you want to use in tip-rooting of course) in the fall. This will produce fewer fruit, but they will be bigger and juicier. Cut off at ground level all canes that fruited.
Red Raspberries (Caroline)
Each cane fruits twice. New canes fruit in the fall and again late in the following spring. They do not tip-root, grow vertically on a trellis or wires.
To get two harvests: in the late fall or early spring cut the new canes back to 4 feet high. This will increase the berry size and quality for the spring fruiting. Cut these canes off at the ground after the spring fruit has been harvested to make more room for the new canes and the fall fruit. Benny advises against using this method.
Instead, he advises not to prune at all and simply cut each cane that fruited off at the ground after harvesting in the fall. He says the second fruiting does not yield much and is hard to pick because of the new foliage (and thorns) and the added foliage density increases the chance of disease.
These produce fruit on one year old canes, and fruit only once a year. They do tip root, so this can be used to propagate the plants. They tend to be low and bushy so a trellis does not work as well as a pair of guide wires on each side of the row to help support the canes and keep them up off the ground.
Boysenberries are new to me: so I did some research. These are a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry. The fruit is larger than even the blackberries and have a thin skin that breaks down and leaks juice quickly after harvest. Plan to use them immediately. They are often made into jam or jelly.
My Berry Patch
My little berry patch is not nearly as professional as Benny's lay-out, but it suits our needs.
A few years ago I built a berry house out of PVC tubing and bird netting to keep the many, many birds that live in this forest out of my grapes, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries. That worked pretty well: it did keep the birds off. But the 1/2-inch PVC is too light and will not support a load of snow. Who knew that snow would pile up atop bird netting with 1/2-inch squares?! But it does, and the berry house gets squashed down on my blueberry bushes each time we get a heavy snow. Thankfully that's not often here in Tennessee. That structure is aging and the berry patch is expanding so it's time to design an upgraded version.
Getting the Berries Started
I get the cuttings from Benny in late February, so I plant them in pots and keep them indoors until they get going and develop some roots. I could plant them outside: berry plants are hardy in the cold, but I worry about them freezing or drying out without any proper roots. So I pamper them for a month or so.
I plant them out after the danger of a hard freeze (and when I can again hook up my hose to water them). I dig a hole for each plant. I line the hole with a mixture of peat and compost and set the potted cutting (which now has roots and leaves) into the hole. To keep the good soil in place on our slope I put some of the clay I dug out over to the top of the hole. Peat floats.
Once the starts are in I cut pieces of cardboard to cover the row. I cut holes for the berry plants. The cardboard helps to smother out the grass, but will disintegrate and allow the berry shoots to come up through it when the plants start to spread.
I cover the cardboard with wood chips as a mulch. These hold the cardboard down, helps to keep out grass and weeds, and will break down to enrich the soil. If I run out of wood chips, I use cinder blocks to weight down the cardboard until I get the chipper out to make another load of chips from the spring tree trimmings.
Strawberry bed. Last year's wood chips have been scraped out and used as compost — awaiting a fresh layer of wood chips.
Blueberries and strawberries are especially fond of an acidic soil, so I use pine needles as mulch on them. But these are in raised beds that are leveled so run-off doesn't wash them away. That's a big problem for me as a mountain-side gardener.
These new starts won't fruit until next year, but the blackberries and black raspberries I've gotten over the past couple of years will. And my grapes are well established on a trellis above the blackberries. The grapes (Swenson Red on one end, Muscadine on the other) do fruit, but so far Japanese Beetles destroy the plants and young fruit before we get anything from them. This year I'm going to try an insect repellent spray made from tobacco. I prefer to avoid chemical poisons. Grapes are Japanese Beetles' favorite food.
The blueberries, strawberries and blackberries have all been producing well and we look forward to more fresh berries this year. We're hoping for a berry good harvest!