How to Grow and Maintain an Organic Blackberry Patch

Each Blackberry plant can produce 10 to 20 pounds of fruit, so four to six plants can easily produce ample berries for a family of four.You might choose to plant more if you like to can or freeze crops from your garden.

Another option for some is to plant a large enough Blackberry patch to share or trade their harvest with friends, family and neighbors. Having a neighborhood where community members trade various garden harvests is a popular and excellent way to eat locally, eat fresher and ‘in-season’ foods, and help form closer bonds with those who are nearby.

Blackberries are vigorous growers that establish themselves quickly with heavy yields, excellent for home gardens. They thrive in most soil types. Cane berries are versatile and hardy in the coldest climates where other fruits fail.

Selecting A Blackberry Variety to Grow

Blackberries are divided by their growth habit (trailing, semi-trailing, and erect), and by the presence or absence of thorns (thorny or thornless). All blackberries benefit from some sort of support such as a trellis or poles to support their canes. If you have room for several plants, select early-, mid-, and late-season varieties to extend your harvest. And, some varieties, such as “Triple Crown” thornless have a very long harvest season, over 5 weeks. So spend some time considering which variety best meets your needs.

Horticulturalists have been hybridizing blackberries for nearly a century so there are many to choose from. Take note when shopping for Blackberry bushes that different varieties grow best in different sections of the country, and it’s important to select a variety that is well suited for your climate and region.

Here is a nationwide list of Licensed Propagators for University of Arkansas Patented Blackberry Cultivars

Here is an online nursery guide of berry growers from Cornell University with listings across the US and Canada with scores of cultivars and nurseries that sell them. Includes nurseries that sell blackberry and raspberry plants among others.

Selecting a Site for Your Blackberry Patch

You will want to prepare an easy-to-access location for your blackberries a year before planting as this would provide you time to clear the area and prepare the soil with greenmanure / covercrop.

Blackberries need full sun and plenty of room to grow. The soil should be a well-drained sandy loam soil.

A soil high in organic matter is beneficial under non-irrigated conditions.

If the soil is not well-drained, establish the plants in a raised bed.

All blackberries grow best in full sun, and almost all varieties are self-fruiting, meaning that you need to plant only one cultivar. As a rule of thumb, five or six plants will produce enough berries for a family of four. Each blossom will produce a sweet, juicy blackberry, and when the flowers get nipped with spring frosts it is said that the remaining good flowers will produce berries that can be more vibrant.

Very important, when selecting your site be sure to consider the variety of Blackberry you are going to plant…

  • Erect and semi-trailing blackberry plants should be planted about 3 to 4 feet apart.
  • Trailing blackberries need 6 to 8 feet between plants.

How to Build a Trellis for Blackberries

No matter which variety of Blackberry you choose, upright/erect, semi-trailing or trailing, all will benefit from being trellised.

Chuck Marsh uses the tall metal fence posts (seen in the video below) and spaces them about 20 feet apart. I agree that this is the most cost-effective form of trellising and I do not recommend pressure treated posts for gardening or landscape purposes for a number of obvious reasons.

For a ‘trailing’ variety of Blackberry plants you will want to place between your metal posts  a sturdy wire from one post to the next starting at about 3 feet off the ground. Then, run another line of wire about 4 1/2 – 5 feet off the ground from post to post.

The image to the right is a line-drawing of the trellis system for ‘trailing’ varieties of Blackberries. This is the system used in the following video.

For ‘upright’ and semi-trailing Blackberry varieties a two-wire system is also best as it provides more stability for the plants when they are heavy with fruit. Keeping plants and berries off the ground is good practice as this creates a much healthier environment for plants to grow and helps prevent disease problems.

 

The image to the left shows how the weaving of Blackberry canes through the two wires provides support.

For semi-trailing blackberries, use two wires at heights of 3 ft and 5 ft from the ground.

The erect blackberry varieties do not require support if the tops of new canes are pruned during the summer to keep growth below 3 to 4 ft. Erect blackberries that are not topped may be trained to a one-wire trellis. For erect blackberries, use one wire attached to the post about 30 inches from the ground.

In this video, our friend and Permaculture Designer Chuck Marsh of Useful Plants Nursery in Black Mountain, NC demonstrates how he trellises prima (‘vining’) canes and prunes out flora canes, providing useful tips throughout the process of growing a Blackberry Orchard.

How to Prepare Soil for Planting Blackberries

Blackberries are perennial plants that come back year after year, it’s worth your time to get the soil prepared correctly.

Blackberries grow best in fertile, well-drained soil. Unless your soil is already perfect, you will want to add a 2″ layer of composted cow manure (preferably homemade not store-bought), compost, Rock Phosphate and Green Sand (follow package instructions for application) on top of the soil and work these in to a depth of 8″-10″.

Blackberries do best if the soil pH is slightly acidic, somewhere between 5.5 and 7.0. Take a soil pH test and, if necessary, add lime to raise the pH or sulfur to lower the pH.

Planting Blackberry Canes

It’s best to plant blackberry shrubs in the early spring or, in warmer climates, in late fall. Blackberries can be purchased either bare-rooted or containerized. If your new plants are bare-rooted, shake the packing material off the roots and set the plants in a bucket of water for several hours. This keeps the roots from drying out, which you want to avoid at all costs.

In most cases, the canes of a blackberry shrub will have been cut back at the nursery before you purchase them. If your new blackberry shrubs have not been cut back already, cut the canes to 6″-8″ inches. By pruning back the canes in the first season, you will not have a crop the first year, but you will allow the plants to put their energy into developing a strong root system. The plants will be healthier and more productive in the long run.

Dig a hole that is large enough to allow the roots to spread out evenly.

Set bare-rooted plants into the soil at the depth they were grown in the nursery.

Fill in the hole and tamp down the soil.

Water the newly set plants well, but don’t fertilize until 3 or 4 weeks later.

Fertilize after growth starts.

In established plantings, fertilize in March well before the plant starts to produce flowers and fruit and again in July.

In this video, Chuck returns to the blackberry patch in early summer to check on the earlier pruning and shows a little more love to the plants…

Blackberry Patch Maintenance

As the canes emerge in the spring, evenly distribute them on the wires to form a fan pattern.

Once the canes have reached the top wire, remove the tips to encourage branching.

Trailing types set further apart require a different system; for trailing canes start with a similar trellis with wires at 3 and 5 feet, except do not tip the canes. Instead, allow them to grow to the top wire and then weave them back down to the bottom wire and back up to the top wire to fill in the space between plants.

Erect blackberries, such as Cherokee and Cheyenne, require pruning out of the root suckers that arise from the crown. During the growing season, it is desirable to allow root suckers to develop to about a 12-inch-wide row. Any growth beyond this should be eliminated.

When the new shoots of erect blackberries reach 30 to 36 inches in height, cut off the tips. This will force branching lower on the canes and will cause the canes to thicken, making them better able to support a heavy fruit crop. During the winter, prune the laterals to 12 to 14 inches for convenient harvesting and larger berries. In late winter, remove any remaining dead or weak wood. Leave healthy, vigorous canes spaced at 6 canes per linear ft.

Watering Your Blackberry Patch

Blackberries require about 1 inch of water each week during the growing season.

During fruit development, the plants will need about 2 gallons per plant each day.The best way to accomplish this is by putting out a drip irrigation system that runs for 30 minutes twice a week, this is of course a watering method for a Blackberry orchard that is well mulched to prevent soil moisture loss.

Mulch placed around the base of the plant reduces the need for water and helps keep weeds under control. Pine straw, wood chips, and seedless native low-growing grasses are good mulches.

Harvesting Ripe Blackberries

The fruit is ripe and at its peak sweetness when berries are a dull black color. Ripe berries will pull off of the plant ‘easily’, if they don’t come off with a gentle pull they are probably not quite ripe yet.

Pick fruits that are shiny black if you need to store them in your refrigerator. They won’t be as sweet, but they will last longer.

Harvest will continue for 2 to 3 weeks, depending on the variety.

Blackberry Care ‘After’ the Harvest

As soon as the last fruit has been picked in summer, cut all the old canes and burn them. This is also a good time to tip prune and thin new shoots.

Prune out all the old fruiting canes and remove them from the garden, as they no longer produce fruit. Continue to tie, tip, or train the new canes that have not produced fruit to the trellis until growth stops in the fall.

During winter, prune laterals on erect types to 12 to 16 inches, and leave only 4 to 8 canes per square yard for fruit production in the following year.

Good horticultural practices can prevent insect and disease problems. Timely pruning, removing fruited canes, and maintaining a regular harvest schedule will help minimize common pests. If necessary, apply pesticides labeled for use on edible plants to manage insect and disease problems.

Generally, only a small crop of fruit is produced in the first season. If growth is poor during this first season, cut the canes back to several inches in late winter to force development of sturdier, more fruitful canes. In the second and succeeding years, shoot growth is more vigorous and upright. Tie these new shoots to the trellis when they reach a length of 4 to 6 ft.

Some growers prefer to wait until harvest is over and old canes have been removed before tying new shoots to the wires. Pruning the old canes is critical to the prevention of disease. After harvest, prune damaged or weak canes, leaving 4 to 8 new shoots. Tie these canes to the trellis in a fan shape (do not bunch them). In the spring before growth starts, prune any laterals back to 12 inches to encourage larger fruit.

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