Game of Thorns

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The trellis in March.

To the novice gardener (e.g., Brad), blackberry bushes can be intimidating.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, Brad, how the hell are you making this paragon of childhood exuberance — this activity that toddlers can succeed at in the wild — complicated?

But I’m not talking about picking blackberries (though even that is a bit more of a prickly task, literally, than you may remember from days of yore). I’m talking about cultivating them.

On the wee homestead, we had blackberry bushes in a few places around the yard and from a few sources. This year, we decided to build a proper trellis system for them and relocate them all together to urge a little more harvest. I’m sure the birds, who got most of our blueberry harvest, will thank us.

In any case, we have no idea what variety of berries we actually have, and, post-transplant, we’re no longer even sure which plants came from which places in the yard. We think they’re all thornless, so there’s that.

The trellis in September.

The trellis in September.

I built a simple two-wire trellis in March, using a couple of pieces of 4×4 post. One of the post-transplant berry bushes fruited this year, but that’s it. And that’s OK. But here’s where it gets a little more complicated:

The bushes have two types of branches, it seems. The names are primocanes and floricanes, but really they just mean “first-year growth” (primocanes) and “second year growth” (floricanes) branches. Only the second-year growth branches will flower and fruit, hence the “flori.” Then, apparently, they’ll die back and I should cut them out. There’s some pruning I can do that should engender bigger crops. Of all the proper extension agency and nursery sites I scoured, DoItYourself.com seemed to have the must succinct information, though this one-pager from the North Cackalacky Cooperative Extension Resources is also strong.

The cycle is something like this, starting a couple months from now, as winter is coming:

  • Winter: Thin the first-year growth while the plant is dormant. Cut it back to 3-4 canes per plant.
  • Summer: After the branches fruit, trim out the branches that just fruited. At the same time, trim back the new growth once it reaches a good height, to encourage these canes to branch and create more fruit-bearing stalks.

Rinse (your berries), eat (your berries), repeat.

I’ll stop there. Some sites suggest some spring pruning too, but there are a fair number of conflicting views — just as there are myriad viewpoints on the best trellis system (we went with a two-wire system because it takes less space, and our side yard makes the eye of a needle look like the Grand Canyon). Also, that pruning advice only applies to erect (ahem) blackberry varieties and not semi-erect or trailing ones.

See? Confusing…

For us, the good news at the bottom line is, that since almost nothing fruited this year, that should mean that all but one of our bushes are just in their first year. So next year’s bounty should be great.

Maybe we’ll even get a few before the birds do.

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