Blackberries – By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”

The weather seems to be warming up a bit and most of us have been working in the garden pulling a few weeds and fertilizing our young plants. Most of my tomatoes plants have medium tomatoes growing and my squash is looking very nice. Although I could write this entire article talking about things I have already planted, I thought that this week I would spend some time talking about a couple of other plants that you could be growing in the garden. Blackberries and Raspberries could be another great addition to your garden. All of us have an area of the garden that we do not grow vegetables in and these areas go unplanted year after year. Well, this week I am going to tell you how you can turn these unproductive areas into a bonanza of fresh berries for the kitchen table.

Blackberries come in two varieties, trailing and erect. Most of the native varieties are the trailing variety and need support such as a trellis or a fence to keep the fruit off the ground. If you are going to purchase a blackberry bush I prefer the erect variety over the trailing variety, however this is just my opinion and you may like the look of the trailing varieties over the upright varieties.
Because blackberries tend to spoil quickly I prefer to pick them and eat them fresh from the garden. Even though many stores are now carrying blackberries, the shelf lives of these are limited and the cost is prohibitive. If you plan on growing a few of these in your garden you should be able to produce enough fruit for a family of four with just three or four plants. You will have to check the plants routinely to harvest the ripe fruit but that is just part of the fun of growing blackberries. May and June are typically the months when you will get most of your fruit to ripen but I have seen many plants produce for much longer periods of time.
Purchase your new plants from the local garden center in the spring. Most new blackberries have only one or two canes which have been divided from an existing patch of blackberries. These canes will normally be free of most foliage. Sometimes, you will notice small new canes beginning to develop from the base. This is usually a good sign and lets you know that the canes are healthy. Because blackberries are produced on current year’s growth, these new growths will turn into additional canes that will produce fruit, possibly this year. Plant your new canes in the spring in rich organic soil. 
Areas that hold water or where water tends to sit are not good planting sites. Choose a well drained area that has good air circulation. As I mentioned above, choose an area of the garden you are not currently using for vegetables. To plant four blackberry plants you will need an area about five feet long by five feet wide. Spacing between the plants should be at least two feet apart and the rows should be two feet apart as well. Loosen the soil around each of the four planting holes and use a shovel to work in generous amounts of Black Kow or compost. Plant your new blackberries into this improved soil at the same level they were in the container you purchased. Water in well with a garden hose to remove any air pockets.
Those of you whom have spent anytime exploring country trails have probably run across wild blackberries growing along the side of the road or training over a country fence. Even though these vines were probably thorny and you were scraped by their thorny stems, you probably were able to enjoy your fill of these free natures gifts. Most native varieties grow on long trailing stems which tend to overlap each other making harvesting a thorny proposition. Although these native trailing varieties are tasty, they are comparatively small in size as compared to some of the new hybrid varieties available for the garden today.
In the past, varieties such as Oklawaha, Flordagrand, and Brazoswere the primary cultivars of choice homeowners used to look for. Unfortunately, Oklawaha and Flordagrand each require a pollinator. If you only had one of these cultivars, you would need to purchase the other to ensure you had a productive crop. Because both of these varieties were trailing cultivars, harvesting was impeded by the mass of vines you had to wade through. Brazos is a self pollinator and is still available in local nurseries but diseases which affect this cultivar limit fruit production over time. The newest, most successful cultivars come from the University of Arkansas and carry Indian names you should recognize as you visit the nursery or garden center. Make sure you read the labels attached to the pot and choose varieties with the lowest chilling hour requirement listed on the information tag. I recommend you purchase the Arapaho, Kiowa, and the Navaho blackberry cultivars for Central Florida.
All three of my recommendations are erect varieties but the Arapaho and the Navaho are thornless varieties. Thornless varieties keep you from getting scraped and bruised during harvesting and help you when you have to weed the beds or prune the canes which have been harvested after the season is complete. Cut back all canes which have produced fruit this year to the ground and leave those which have not fruited until next year. Removing these canes helps fight insects and diseases which may enter the stems during the fall. Regular maintenance of your blackberries will keep them thriving for years to come.
Raspberries are not as well suited for Floridaand I do not recommend them for the novice gardener. However, if you still want to try them you need to look for the varieties Mysore, Heritage or Dorman Red. All of these varieties require chilling/dormancy time but over the last few years we have gotten some fairly cool weather so give them a try. Some nurseries carry these varieties and they have already been given the required dormancy by the growers. Plant raspberries in the fall and be sure to give them the same soil requirements as the blackberries above. Fruiting begins in the spring so b e sure to check your plants often as ripe raspberries spoil quickly or are stolen by wildlife.
Each of berries listed above will be a welcome addition to any garden. Once planted, blackberries and raspberries can give you years of enjoyment as long as you care for your plants. Remember to fertilize your new plants and enjoy trying something new in the garden. As always, without our plants, we would not be here.

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