Bigger, Better Blackberries

Plump, freshly picked berries warmed by the summer sun melt in your mouth, tickle your taste buds, and temporarily turn your tongue purple.
Charlie Thigpen

When I was a child, my grandmother would dust me with sulfur powder before I went out berry picking. The yellow powder helped to ward off the chiggers that could make me itch and be miserable for days. So each summer I was brave and fearlessly waded into enemy territory with only a small bucket in hand.

Battling the chest-high briar thickets always left my arms and legs scratched. The mission was complete only after I had harvested enough blackberries for a cobbler or two. All my pain and suffering was rewarded, though, by the smell of that summertime treat bubbling in Grandmother's oven. A large scoop of vanilla ice cream placed on top of a bowl full of hot cobbler would melt and meld with the berry filling for an unforgettable flavor.

I still look forward to that summery dessert, but I've learned that blackberry picking doesn't have to be painful. Some of today's selections can grow as big as the end of your thumb. Train these superior berries on a trellis, and you can pick the large fruit with ease. There are even thornless selections such as 'Arapaho' and 'Navaho' that have smooth stems and still produce large, juicy clusters of fruit.

Easy Picking
Last summer I visited Jason Powell in Jemison, Alabama, and picked king-size berries at his Petals From the Past Nursery. Along with selling plants, Jason and his wife, Shelley, have a small you-pick operation. Customers can visit the nursery and gather blackberries, blueberries, apples, figs, muscadines, or persimmons, depending on the season. But Jason says everyone flocks to the nursery when the blackberries ripen. In late May, the red and green fruit begins to swell and glisten purplish black. By mid-June, the berries are peaking. The plants produce ripe fruit for about six weeks, and each one yields 8 to 10 pounds of juicy berries.

 

The Biggest Berries
Jason planted several rows of 'Kiowa' blackberries four years ago and has trained them to grow on a trellis. The upright plants do have thorny canes, but they produce enormous fruit. In fact, they have the largest of any blackberry. They can grow 8 to 10 times bigger than wild berries.

Training on a Trellis
Jason sets plants out 5 feet apart in a sunny location. A post-and-wire trellis supports the vigorous growers. Two wires run horizontally between the posts. The first wire is 24 inches off the ground, and the second is 48 inches high. Once the plants begin to grow, Jason selects the two strongest canes to train and cuts the rest to the ground.

Throughout the summer, he prunes out any new canes that appear so they don't take energy away from berry production. He allows the first cane to grow 2 or 3 inches above the 24-inch-high wire, and then cuts it off an inch below the wire. Two side shoots will branch out below where the stem was cut. These are then trained to run along the wire. The second cane is allowed to grow a couple of inches above the 48-inch wire; then it's cut an inch below that wire. The two side shoots that appear are trained to grow horizontally on the upper wire. As the side shoots lengthen, they are wrapped around the wires and loosely held there using plastic ties or twine. While training the thorny selections, you will definitely need a pair of leather gloves.

'Arapaho' and 'Navaho' are two outstanding thornless selections that can be trained this way and are much easier to work with. You can also get plants to grow on an existing fence or even espalier them against a wall. A family of four will need to grow only five or six plants to have plenty of fresh produce.

 

Around Fourth of July, after the plants stop producing, Jason cuts all the blackberry canes back to the ground and starts the training process over again. The vines grow back rapidly, and by late August or early September, they will completely cover the trellis.

Planting and Care
It is best to plant blackberries in November or December, but you can do so anytime as long as they are watered during dry periods. Many new, improved selections are available at nurseries and garden centers, but if you can't find them, they can be mail-ordered.

Jason says the plants are really tough. Once established, they need little water and have few problems with pests or diseases. Ripe berries will attract hungry birds, so you might need to throw netting over the plants when berries are present. Jason fertilizes in spring with an all-purpose, slow-release product such as 12-6-6 at a rate of 8 tablespoons per plant. After the Fourth of July cutback, he lightly fertilizes plants with calcium nitrate to force new growth.

Find a sunny spot in your garden, and plant a few of the new, improved selections. Grow them on a fence, wall, or trellis, and you won't have to wade through thorny thickets in search of summer's favorite berry.

Blackberry Trellis

  • Select the two largest canes, and cut the rest to the ground. Allow one cane to grow a few inches above the 24-inch wire and the other to grow a few inches above the 48-inch wire. Then cut each cane 1 inch below the wires.
  • Side shoots will sprout at the cutoff point and should be trained to the horizontal wires.

"Bigger, Better Blackberries" is from the June 2003 issue of Southern Living.