Dawn a blackberry question(s)

telow(7a)December 16, 2012

Dawn, afew months back you mentioned that you and your brother never trimmed the laterals on your blackberries and they produced just fine. My question is do your vines produce all the way to the end of the lateral, even if it's 12 or 15ft. long or do you cut off the thin end of the lateral back to a certain size. I've read some people cut off anything smaller than a pencil. What works for you? Anyone else have an opinion? Will the vines have bigger and better tasting berries if you trim them back or will you get more berries if you leave them alone.

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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Terry, We never trimmed the laterals on my brother's blackberry plants because he was a really laid-back grower who liked to plant stuff and forget about it until it was time to harvest. They became huge monsters and were covered in berries, but not all the way down to the tips.

If left to my own devices, I'd prune them for him in the years when I had time, but when I was helping him with his garden, I'd spend most of my time double-digging rows in the veggie garden and removing tons of rocks, and then enriching the soil and building above-grade-level raised beds atop the double-dug beds. (He'd had multiple back surgeries by then and couldn't even bend over, so doing that sort of digging and bed-building was something he no longer could do.) Thus, about the only attention the blackberries got was at harvest time. When I pruned his blackberries, I'd tip the main canes at around 4'and they they'd put out lateral growth. I'd only let the laterals get about 12-18" long. If you grow them that way, the plants give you bigger, higher-quality berries. I tried to treat my plants here the same way, but they always were pretty far down on my priority list and I didn't do as good of a job maintaining mine as I should have.

The issue with not pruning them is that the plants become huge unruly monsters (I assume we are talking about the erect varieties of blackberries and not the semi-erect or trailing types) and you can find it difficult to prune out the old canes that already have produced. Also if they become big monsters and you're growing the varieties with thorns, they can scratch up your arms and hands pretty badly when you try to harvest them.

Some varieties produce pretty far out but not all the way to the end of the unpruned laterals, but we never had them get bigger than maybe 8'long there on the rocky, caliche clay soil where there were planted. He had amended that soil with load after load of composted cow manure before he originally planted the blackberry plants. He had a separate row of blackberry plants in his veggie garden and they never did as well as the ones grown near the house in the manure-amended beds. The garden blackberries were doing well to get 4-6' tall in that rocky soil and you didn't have to prune them very much at all, if any, to keep them manageable. He didn't water them as much as I would have, so they didn't get really huge in that area except during a really wet year like we had around 1996 or 1997.

Here in my dry red clay that stubbornly repels water, I'm happy if blackberries get 6-8' tall, and cannot imagine them at 12-15'. With all the drought in recent years, even my well-established native blackberry plants haven't gotten very big in recent summers and haven't produced much, but at least they have survived.

I am a serious veggie grower, but less serious about maintaining blackberries. All my cultivated varieties of blackberries and strawberries have died the last couple of years because of drought even though I thought I had watered them enough. I was going to replant in 2013 if we had good fall and winter rain, so now I guess I won't replant until 2014 since we're in Extreme Drought. I do still have the native ones but they didn't produce well in 2011 or 2012.

If you let your laterals get 12-15' long then you must have them supported on a trellis or fence or something? Otherwise they are bending down and touching the ground and rooting and turning your neat tidy rows into a big jungle right?

I tend to cut them back exactly as OSU recommends when I have time, but confess that when it is one of those crazy, busy years, I neglect blackberries terribly. With all the recurring drought years, I cannot even plant them now where I used to grow them because it is too far away from any source of water unless I carry it in buckets (which I won't).

I do a better job of pruning fruit trees than blackberry plants although I often thin tree fruit too late and really have to push myself to thin it as early as I know I should. It is about the same way with blackberries. By the time I am thinking I should have pruned the laterals, it is too hot and I am too cranky and I don't do it.

I think you always will get larger, better quality fruit if you prune the plants as OSU recommends, but you might get fewer berries. When you have really long canes that arch and then the growing tips start sagging back down to the ground, that often puts some of your fruit at the far ends of the canes back down closer to the ground where the wildlife can and will find them and eat them or the fruit gets dirty from soil splash, which I hate.

With the trailing native blackberries that grow here on the sunny edges of the woodland and the pond bank, I don't prune them at all. Those plants will eventually run on forever, virtually crawling across the ground and rooting into it every few feet. Eventually they grow deeply enough into the heavily shaded woodland where they seldom flower and fruit. If I was more attentive, I'd prune them and keep them shorter and more manageable there on the edge of the woods.

A lot of the time, the pruning we humans do with fruiting plants is more for our convenience than it is something that they truly need. As my dad got older, he pruned his fruit trees less and less and found they still produced well. That made him decide that maybe they'd never needed to be pruned at all! I have not arrived at that point yet, but I have noticed that as long as I prune them well about every other year, they are fine. Of course, these are mature stone fruit trees that have a beautiful bowl shape already so I don't have to do much pruning anyway except to remove the water sprouts....and keep the limbs from growing out over the driveway where they whack the UPS truck hard when it comes up the driveway.

Are you not pruning your canes and laterals at all? If so, how is that working out?

In the hot, dry years I have a lot of trouble keeping the squirrels, birds and other wildlife from devouring the fruit in the hot summer months. We just have too much wildlife and they like the fruit a whole lot more than they like the vegetables. That makes me even less inclined to put a lot of effort into fruit that I won't get to eat because the wild things will beat me to it.


    Bookmark   December 17, 2012 at 1:29AM
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Dawn, thank you for the information. It will help me alot. Next spring will be my 3rd. year for growing the thornless cultivated kind of blackberries and they never seem to grow like the pictures in the books. I have a certain amount of book knowledge but no hands on experience. I take very little credit for how well my plants are growing except to say I am grateful I picked a good spot to plant them in. You ask if I was not pruning the laterals at all and that was the question I had for you. After reading your post I think I will continue to prune during this winter because I have the jungle you spoke about.I just recently put up post to 8ft. and I am tying some of the laterals up to that wire and trimming some to 12 or 15 inches. I've been waiting for the leaves to fall so I could better see what was what but even though we had 2 nights of around 20 degrees that has'nt happened yet. I lost a few last summer learning just how much water they need but have plenty of layered starts to replant with. I was lucky that the former owner of this place had run a water line up to the field where I have them planted so drought or no drought I can keep them watered. This summer should be my first good harvest and I cant wait.Thanks Dawn for your thoughts, they've helped me make up my mind on what I'm gonna do.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2012 at 8:59AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7


You're welcome.

Blackberries drive me crazy. Clearly my brother had great success with them in crappy soil, and I have had less success with them even in better soil than his. I think, though, that his were best in the mid-90s when we had oodles of rainfall (like, we were flooding down there all the time) and I've had to deal with much drier years since moving here.

I hope you'll keep us posted on how yours do.

My grandparents always grew Austin dewberries, or at least Austin dewberries are the closest thing I can find now that resembles what they grew, but they had sandy soil and I have clay. I am finding blackberries dislike clay, so before I replant them, I need to amend it heavily, or find a spot for them in our narrow band of sandy soil that runs north-south along the shady edge of the garden (the shade might be a problem) or something. I love blackberries but it is harder for me to get a good stand of them here than it was in Texas, even though in Texas I had black gumbo clay. Of course, even though I have had to pamper and heavily water the nice named blackberry varieties I've planted here, and they did produce decently until drought killed them....I have wild ones that come up everywhere in my garden, and especially where I do not want them and they produce just fine. It is just that the natives produce tiny berries.


    Bookmark   December 17, 2012 at 11:26AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7
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