In the Garden:
Ripening over several weeks in both mid- and late summer, the recently introduced everbearing blackberry varieties provide more reason than ever to grow this fruit.
For many people, myself included, the mention of blackberries conjures up images of treks to fencerows and woodland edges, to say nothing of lots of scratches and chigger bites. Also for many, the hard-won bounty most often was used to make a deeply colored jelly, as well as a cordial for upset stomachs. In my family there was also the tradition of serving blackberry dumplings in my great-grandmother's tureen. As much as these traditions were imbedded in my psyche -- or perhaps because of them -- I never really bothered to grow more than a plant or two of cultivated blackberries.
Until last year. Somewhere in the middle of a flurry of ordering a variety of fruiting plants, I decided to add what is considered the best thornless blackberry -- 'Triple Crown' -- as well as something new: everbearing blackberries. And now my perception of blackberries has totally changed.
What's All the Excitement About?
Blackberries typically produce canes one year, which then bear fruit the following year. But breeding research at the University of Arkansas has led to the introduction of the first blackberries to produce both summer and fall crops, just like everbearing raspberries. Named 'Prime-Jim' and 'Prime-Jan', after the founder of the Arkansas fruit-breeding program and his wife, these blackberries are the first in what the breeders hope someday will be a series of varieties that have good heat and cold tolerance as well as thornless canes.
Basically, what happens with these two new everbearing varieties (which are erect-growing and thorny) is that the floricanes (second-year canes) produce berries in June and July. The new growth from the current year, called primocanes, then bears fruit from midsummer until fall. One of the advantages of this type of growth is that in regions where the canes don't usually survive the winter, the old canes can be mowed down, and the new canes will produce berries the following year. In more moderate climates, plants produce two crops a year, extending the growing season. The only drawback to the everbearing types is the primocanes produce best in moderate climates, such as that of Oregon, and not as well in regions with high summer temperatures and drought.
Last year when I received my everbearing blackberry plants (both of the new varieties), the ground where they were to be planted was not ready, so I potted them. Although I don't have exact records, I recollect that they were planted into the garden in late June. My most vivid memory is that it was hot and dry. I tilled an area and laid down 6-foot-wide permeable black plastic and cut 12-inch-square holes where the blackberries were planted. One key item I learned in researching blackberries is that the roots should never be exposed to sunlight. At planting, I wondered if the scrawny plants would ever survive.
With a little extra watering and TLC, the blackberry plants took root and grew. Later in the summer, I installed T-posts and three strands of wire. The growing stems were tied to the wires, although some references say they don't need trellising. (Probably the best system would be to surround the plants with wires 30 to 36 inches high.) By the fall, a few berries were borne on the new growth.
This spring, when blackberries are normally pruned, my life got a bit complicated and the berries were ignored, although I did notice that they were blooming profusely. By the third week of June the berries began to ripen. Averaging an inch or more long, they were abundant and delicious. As a comparison, the once-a-year-bearing thornless variety has not started ripening yet. By the end of June, the growth of this year's canes was 5 to 6 feet tall. These should have been topped when about 4 to 5 feet tall, but better late than never is my motto. Some of this new growth is now beginning to bloom.
The real test is how well the primocanes of 'Prime Jim' and 'Prime Jan' produce later this summer. By topping the canes, lateral growth should produce an abundance of berries, but heat and moisture are the potentially limiting factors. No matter how the fall berries turn out, overall the experience has been positive, and blackberries are now contending with blueberries and raspberries as my favorite fruits.
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