DALY: Blackberries are easy to grow and produce bountiful fruit

Blackberries are one of the easiest fruits for the homeowner to grow. Once established, they require minimal maintenance, have few pest problems, and produce abundant fruit. The wild blackberries growing in natural areas are what usually come to mind when most people think of these fruits. These wild vines can be aggressive in their growth habits, are often weeds in the home landscape and their fruits have a bitter taste. However, the newer hybrid varieties produce larger fruit with an improved flavor and are less invasive. One plant has the potential to provide up to ten pounds of fruit per year under proper growing conditions.

There are basically two types of blackberries: upright and trailing varieties. The upright types can be planted as a shrub and used to form a hedge. However, the trailing ones form long vines that need to be supported on a trellis or some other structure. The trailing varieties have thorns while the erect varieties may or may not have them.

Blackberries are best planted from late fall to the spring months. Choose a planting site that receives full sun and has well-drained, fertile soil. Avoid sites that stay excessively wet for prolonged periods. Dig the planting hole twice the diameter of the rootball and no deeper than the crown of it. Place the plant in the hole and fill in with the backfill. Then water the plantings thoroughly. The trailing varieties should be planted at least four to eight feet apart and the erect types two to four feet apart. After planting, cut the canes (branches) back to one foot from the ground. Apply one to two inches of an organic mulch such as pine straw, pine bark or cypress mulch under the plants. For new plantings, do not fertilize until three to four weeks later. Blackberries should be fertilized with an all-purpose fertilizer such as a 10-10-10 at the rate of two ounces per plant in April and July. Sprinkle it on the ground under the plants.

The first year, blackberry plants form shoots that are referred to as primocanes consisting of vegetative growth. In the second year, the shoots become floricanes, which produce flowers and fruit. After the fruit is harvested, prune out all the floricanes since they will no longer produce fruit. Blackberries of all types have a tendency to form suckers from their roots. Remove them so the plant can devote its resources into producing healthy growth and abundant fruit.

Harvest blackberries when they begin to lose their glossy shine, take on a dull appearance and fall off the plant with the slightest touch. If they stay on the plants too long, the fruit will begin to deteriorate and lose its taste. They are best eaten soon after they are picked. The fresh berries are so soft that they cannot be shipped as such. Commercially grown blackberries are sold in the frozen or canned form, or they can be made into jam.

Blackberries are definitely worth planting and will be quite productive if they receive the proper care. A good time to purchase some blackberries is now through the 2013 Annual Gwinnett County Extension Plant Sale. Three blackberry varieties are available. They are erect and thornless: Arapaho produces large fruit early in the season, and Navajo, which produce mid-season, medium sized fruit. If you are interested in purchasing some of these excellent plants, go online to the Extension website at www.gwinnettextension.com, click on events to download the brochure and order form or call the Gwinnett County Extension office for a form to be mailed to you. The deadline for ordering is Tuesday, March 12. The order pick-up day will be Thursday, March 21 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds, 2405 Sugarloaf Parkway, Lawrenceville, GA.

Timothy Daly, MS is an Agricultural and Natural Resource agent with the Gwinnett County Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.