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How to Grow: Blackberries
Learn all about the best varieties of blackberries to grow in the North, including everbearing types.
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Brambles (Rubus) is the general name given to plants in the raspberry and blackberry family. I think they’re essential to grow in the yard because the fruits are so perishable and expensive in the store, only fresh fruit from your garden will do. These little jewels of fruits come in red, yellow, purple, and black and grow like weeds. I often go scouting in abandoned fields looking for patches of wild brambles to harvest. They are one of the first species to colonize a pasture after the animals and man leaves. That tells you how opportunistic they can be.
In the yard, they can be tamed into a productive hedge. I use raspberries and blackberries along borders to keep animals out (ever try walking through a blackberry thicket?) or grow in a spot where other plants won’t thrive. The key is to keep them in bounds with proper planting, pruning and trellising.
When to Plant
Plant in late spring a few weeks before your last frost date. Purchase bare root (no soil attached to the roots) plants through the mail or container plants at the local garden center. Container plants can be planted anytime into early summer.
Where to Plant
Brambles grow and fruit best in full sun, but can produce in part shade as well. Unless confined with a raised bed, keep them away from other flower or vegetable beds since the roots will send new shoots up all around the area. I like to plant brambles in beds surrounded by lawn. That way any shoots that escape the bed can be mowed down easily. Plant in well drained soil and where there is good air flow. Plant away from wild brambles so insects can’t spread diseases to your new plants. Don’t plant in areas that recently had tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes because these vegetables harbor diseases in the soil that will attack brambles.
How to Plant
Select certified disease-free plants and amend the soil in the bed with compost. Plant brambles 4- to 6-feet apart in rows spaced 5- to 10-feet apart. Plant at the same depth the brambles were in their pots.
Care and Maintenance
Brambles love organic matter in the soil. Amend the soil each spring with compost to keep it fertile. Mulch the planting bed with a 4- to 6-inch thick layer of an organic material, such as straw, chopped leaves, or sawdust. This will keep the soil evenly moist and weed free. Brambles have two different growth habits. July bearing plants will produce a first year cane from the ground (primocane) that will grow up 4- to 6-feet tall. That cane will overwinter and in the second year will become the fruiting cane (flurocane) that produces fruit in July. Once it finishes fruiting, it will die, so prune this cane to the ground. New ever bearing plants will grow similarly, but the first year cane will actually fruit in fall and the same cane will fruit again the next year in July. You can prune these plants like July bearers, so just cut down the entire bed in fall after the first fruiting. You’ll eliminate the summer crop the next year, but will have a larger fall crop. You can also pinch the top few inches of bramble primocanes in summer after fruiting to promote more side branching and fruiting next year on those canes.
Most raspberries and black berries need a trellis to keep the canes upright. The simplest trellis to construct involves some posts and heavy gage wire. Place 6-foot tall posts at the end of each row and secure a 4 feet long board across the top, 3- to 4-feet off the ground, perpendicular to the post to form a “T”. String wire on either end of the T-board down the row to the T-board on the other post. This will create a fence that keeps the brambles growing upright when they’re fruiting and not flop over.
Black and purple raspberries grow more in clumps than spreading like raspberries and black berries, so they can also be tied to 6-foot tall stakes spaced 4 feet apart for trellising.
Brambles do have some insect pests that attack them. Spider mites and aphids will attack leaves causing them to curl and turn yellow. Spray insecticidal soap to control them. Raspberry cane borers will tunnel into the stems of canes. They girdle the cane in two places and lay their eggs in between the girdle marks. This causes the cane tip to wilt and die. Simply remove the wilted cane a few inches below the lowest girdle mark and place in the trash. Unless severe, your brambles should be fine. Japanese beetles love bramble leaves and fruits. Control these pesky beetles with traps, Neem oil, and beneficial nematodes sprayed on the lawn area around the brambles.
Avoid disease problems by planting certified disease-free plants and removing wild brambles from the area. Virus diseases, in particular, will make plants less vigorous and the fruits smaller and crumbly. On wet soils root rot is sometimes a problem. Grow plants in raised beds to avoid this disease.
Brambles have delicate fruits. Preferably harvest in the morning when the fruits are dry and cool. Wait until the fruits mature to the color for that variety. Brambles will easily drop off the plant when touched if ripe. Place the fruits in a shallow tray and don’t stack them or they will turn to mush. I know, I’ve done that enough times. Pick often or the fruits will drop to the ground. If kept healthy, bramble plants can be productive for 5 to 8 years.
‘Most raspberries and black berries mentioned here are hardy to USDA zone 4. Latham’, ‘Nova’, and ‘Killarney’ are hardy, July-bearing red raspberry varieties. ‘Caroline’ and ‘Polana’ are good fall bearing red raspberries, while ‘Fall Gold’ and ‘Anne’ are two good fall bearing yellow raspberries. ‘Bristol’ and ‘Jewel’ are two black raspberry varieties. ‘Royalty’ is a purple-fruiting raspberry.
‘Illini’ is a hardy blackberry variety to grow. ‘Triple Crown’ feature thornless canes and is hardy to USDA zone 5. ‘Prime Jim’ is a new ever bearing blackberry that produces fruits in summer and fall.
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.
I’m Charlie Nardozzi and this is the Vermont Garden Journal on Vermont Public Radio. It’s known as the brummel, brambleberry and bly. It’s hard to know where exactly this fruit originated because it grows literally around the world. It’s also as well known as a medicinal plant as a food crop. It’s the blackberry.
Since blackberries grow so easily in the wild, for centuries gardeners would simply find wild patches to collect roots, bark and leaves for curing ills such as whopping cough, bowel distress and sore throats. Oh yes, and the black, fleshy fruits were also used for food and dyes.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that we started breeding varieties of blackberries to produce bigger and tastier fruits. Most hardy varieties such as ‘Illini Hardy’ and ‘Darrow’ are erect and thorny. While there are trailing varieties and thornless varieties available, those grow best in warmer climates so unless you have a sheltered spot, they probably won’t consistently overwinter for you in Vermont. But we can grow some of the newer fall bearing varieties such as ‘Prime Jim’ and ‘Prime Jan’. Like fall bearing red raspberries, these plants produce fruit in summer and fall. You do need a location that avoids early fall frosts to get a good fall crop.
To grow blackberries, select a well-drained location in full to part sun. Often you’ll see them on the forest edge. Blackberries can take some shade and still produce. Since erect varieties can stand over 6 feet tall and form a thicket, consider planting them as a hedge to block deer or dogs from entering your yard. Plant 3 feet apart in rows 2 to 3 feet wide in soil amended with compost and mulch. Consider planting where you can mow around the bed to keep the suckers from spreading all over.