We were going to pick blackberries — rambling our way down to an old “pond” to scavenge the overgrown sides for the sweet black fruit. Although we never were bitten by snakes, chiggers were always out in full force and Band-Aids were required for the thorny tears in our legs — it’s just too hot for pants in July.
This childhood memory came to mind just the other day as I slowed my car to watch a family picking wild blackberries on the side of the road. They were smart. They were wearing boots and gloves. And I was jealous knowing they were likely going to have fresh blackberry cobbler that evening. In the days to come I would get several phone calls on blackberries — when to plant and what kind. I believe these callers may have also encountered redbugs and felt the need, like me, to plant their own.
While the best time to plant blackberries is late winter/early spring, it is now on the minds of cobbler makers and cobbler eaters alike. But first, the soil must be prepared. Bringing blackberries home to plant without a proper site will only cause frustration down the road. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you to get your soil sampled first. A nice, loamy soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5 is ideal. Soil may need amending. Avoid the low-lying areas that can become waterlogged during rainy times — now is the time to determine which areas are likely become waterlogged! And, like most fruits, full sun will result in more productive plants.
There are basically two types of blackberries — erect blackberries and trailing blackberries. Just as the names sound, erect blackberries are taller plants with many canes that stand up on their own. These plants resemble hedges and can get quite large. Trailing blackberries have canes that do not stand erect, but flop over or trail along the ground. It is best to build a trellis for trailing blackberries to keep the fruit off the ground. Each of these plants may be thorny or thornless.
Thorny blackberries recommended for Alabama gardeners include Choctaw, Kiowa and Shawnee. These are all erect blackberry bushes and if the names don’t give it away, they were all introduced by the University of Arkansas. Kiowa, known for its large fruit size, is most often found in small farm and home gardens. One drawback is its susceptibility to Rosette disease. Choctaw berries are smaller than that of Kiowa, but are very sweet and may ripen earlier. Shawnee also has medium-sized fruit, but boasts very high yields.
If the memories of thorns are too painful, you might prefer a thornless plant. Arapaho, probably the most well-known of the thornless blackberries, is an erect plant with medium fruit. It is one of the earliest thornless blackberries to mature. The best thing to do is find someone who grows them — at a local farmers market, for example — and try them for yourself to see which one you enjoy most. Better yet, plant a variety of blackberries to have earlier and later harvests.
Now just because a plant is erect doesn’t mean it won’t grow on a trellis, much like muscadines. I prefer it this way. While the initial two-wire trellis will cost, the thought of picking blackberries, especially thorny blackberries, with the fruit hanging from a wire is very appealing. It also allows air and light to penetrate the plant, promoting good health and bigger berries.
The lifecycle of a blackberry differs from that of other fruits. Blackberries are cane plants. A cane, the stem of a plant, lives for two years. The first year, it is called a primocane and grows vegetatively. The second year, the primocane becomes a floricane, the fruiting structure of the plant. After the fruit has been harvested from the floricane, this cane will die back to the ground. Meanwhile, new primocanes are growing. Floricanes can be pruned away after harvest. New varieties of blackberries, such as Prime Jim and Prime Jan, will fruit on primocanes.
If you are currently growing blackberries or considering it, take a look at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s publication on training and pruning blackberries. Current growers may need to do summer maintenance and pruning. Others might want to take a look at how to build and train blackberries on a trellis. Your stomach will thank you. The publication, ANR 53-L, can be found at www.aces.edu. Search “training and pruning small fruits.”