Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Prime Berries

The Blackberries (that is, a fruiting plant, not some little electronic device) are still putting on berries. However, because I did not water them during the last few weeks of very low rainfall and high heat, the berries are pretty small. Some of the flowers are not even bothering to become berries at all. I don't know whether this is due to the lack of water or the high heat. It is cooler (lower than 100 degrees) now and they are promising rain today and tomorrow.
These blackberries are one of the new primocane varieties, which produce on the first-year growth as well as on the second-year growth. Whereas regular types fruit only on the second-year canes (called floricanes).
The primocane variety was recommended because, apparently, blackberry canes can be susceptible to damage by the kind of cold weather we typically get here in northeast Kansas. With a primocane type, if the existing growth is killed during the winter, I can still get a crop the next year because it will fruit on the first-year canes. And if I feel that the patch is out of control, I can just cut it all back to the ground in late winter without losing my berry potential.
According to "The Backyard Berry Book" by Stella Otto, it normally takes three years for blackberries to produce. However, I planted my primocane blackberries just last summer, as tiny little "tissue culture" plants. You also can get berries as larger potted plants at the local nursery, or as larger bare root plants by mail order. I will have to research the tissue culture method before I can explain how they do that.
Anyway, these blackberries took off like crazy and the canes were as tall as me (5-foot-3) before the end of the last growing season. This spring they started sending out tons of suckers and became a dense thicket of tall, very thorny canes. Next year I will thin them. Perhaps I will just cut them back to the ground. That will mane the harvest will start in July rather than June.
The blackberries are growing in a raised bed about 3 or 4 feet wide and 15 feet long. That is too small, as suckers keep coming up in the paths. That would probably happen anyway, but I plan to move at least some of the suckers/new plants to wider beds with wider paths between beds.
Likewise, the red raspberries also are in too tight of quarters. These are also primocane fruiting plants, although in raspberries they are called "everbearing" or "fall bearing." You can find many more primocane varieties of raspberries than of blackberries because the primocane blackberries are a new development.
The raspberries also suffered from the heat and dry weather and my lack of diligence in watering. While they are producing, the berries are small and many fail to form. These, too, can just be cut back to the ground in late winter so that they will produce on one crop in the fall instead of a light spring crop and a slightly heavier fall crop. I presume that if you go with the fall crop only you get higher production.
The red raspberries also are in narrow raised beds with strawberries growing in a larger attached bed. They are invading the strawberries, one of the reasons they will be moved to a larger bed.
I also have black raspberries, which do not propagate through suckers as the red varieties do. So, although they do grow wild here, they can be kept in a somewhat tidier bed. All you have to do is cut the tips off the canes so they will not take root when they touch the ground. Black raspberries, because of their different growth habit, do not yet come in primocane fruiting varieties. They fruit only on the canes that grew last year and this year's growth it next year's fruit factory.
Berries, in my experience, are easy to grow. Perhaps too easy. In reading about growing berries, it may seem that they are rife with disease and pest problems. But an old article from Organic Gardening magazine discusses how ridiculously easy berries are to grow. Black raspberries in particular seem to ignore the literature that warns you that they need this and that soil requirements. One grower in the article says that his grew in hard, rocky soil and produced more berries than his family could eat. So don't worry if your site is not ideal. They don't like sitting in soggy soil, though. So bog sites are out. Even the thirsty blueberry wants its soil to drain well.
Practice good hygiene -- remove dead canes and leaves and funky looking berries -- and you will reduce the disease potential in your plants. Overcrowding, heat, humidity, lack of air circulation, contribute to disease in all garden plants. Some of this you have control over, some not. Stinkbugs have been on all of my fruiting plants (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) this year and can cause spots and deformation where they pierce the fruit. I just put up with it as it is not seriously affecting production.
I started this year with a small patch of yellow raspberries next to the red ones. Then I read that they are more prone to viral diseases than the red raspberries and promptly yanked them out. I kept them in a large pot, looking for another site to plant them. But I was not that impressed with their flavor last year, so I ignored them until they died of thirst.
When selecting your berry varieties, look for those that are described as disease-resistant. Also make sure that the descriptions gives favorable reviews of the berry flavor. However, the soil they grow in has a dramatic effect on fruit flavor. I don't know the key soil ingredients for good berries, but they do prefer a slightly acid (pH 6.0 to 6.8) soil. Add peat moss, mulch with pine needles or pine bark or sprinkle on a slight amount of elemental sulfur -- after you've done a soil test to see what the pH of your planting site is.
Some berry brambles -- trailing blackberries, perhaps black raspberries and some red raspberries -- will do better with a trellis. Fenceposts with several strands of wire strung between them will suffice. Just train new growth onto the wire each year.
The morning is passing by and the sun is peeking over the trees. The day heat up soon so I am headed out to the berry patch to see what's new, then it's off to pick long beans and okra and whatever other vegetables have decided to continue producing in spite of the heat.