One of my fondest childhood memories was the thrill of finding fat, ripe blackberries growing wild on a hot summer day. Warmed by the sun, they were sweet, juicy and delicious.
As an adult, I've had sticker shock at the price of the tiny clear boxes of berries in the grocery store. Despite the price, their flavor typically pales compared with that of the wild berries of my youth.
Bramble fruits -- raspberries and blackberries -- are among the easiest of edible crops to grow in the home garden. Forget their premium price in the grocery store. Grow your own berries and enjoy their superior taste at a fraction of the cost.
One of the most important considerations in growing brambles is choosing the variety. There are red, black, yellow and purple raspberries, thornless brambles and June-bearing or ever-bearing (primocane) varieties. A few tried-and-true varieties that grow well in our region include 'Fallgold' yellow raspberries; 'Latham,' 'Taylor' and 'Heritage' (primocane) red raspberries; 'Jewel,' 'Bristol' and 'Allen' black raspberries; and 'Chester' (thornless), 'Triple Crown' (thornless) and 'Darrow' blackberries.
A good local nursery should offer raspberry and blackberry plants in the spring. You can also order them from mail-order suppliers such as Miller Nurseries (www.millernurseries.com) or Stark Bros. (www.starkbros.com).
Brambles require full sun; at least eight hours per day is needed to produce a good crop. They will thrive in average garden soil, but good drainage is essential.
Traditionally, they are grown in rows that are a foot or two wide and are trained on a trellis system, which keeps the canes upright and permits easy access to ripe fruit. If you choose not to train your plants on a trellis, allow space for the canes to arch to about 5 or 6 feet. Another option is to grow them along a split-rail fence.
Plants need regular watering the first year to become established, at least an inch of water per week. After the first year, supplemental watering is rarely needed.
Pruning is the only real chore in growing brambles once they are planted and established. Correct pruning is important because bramble canes die after they bear fruit. The primocane varieties are the exception, they fruit a second summer on the buds below those that fruited previously. Left unpruned, the thicket will become choked with dead canes, making it hard to find and pick fruits, and fruiting will wane.
Prune red raspberries and blackberries in early spring while canes are still dormant. Brambles are suckering plants, so first remove any canes that are growing outside the 1- or 2-foot growing row. Next, cut the oldest canes to the ground -- these are the ones that are grayish-white, sometimes with peeling bark. These canes have already fruited and are dead. Thin the remaining thicket so there are about 6 inches between canes. Lastly, top the canes that are left to a height of 4 to 5 feet.
Black and purple raspberries require a slightly different pruning regimen. In early spring, remove all damaged, dead and weak canes and thin the remaining canes to about five per plant. Top these canes to 3 feet. Canes should be topped again to 3 feet in early summer to establish lateral fruiting branches and strengthen the cane, which curbs flopping.
Brambles are host to a number of pests and diseases, but they are also tough plants and do not succumb easily. The most common pests are Japanese beetles, which unfortunately arrive just as the fruits ripen. Control them by hand-picking and dropping into a shallow container of soapy water.
Your efforts in establishing and pruning brambles are paid back every year with delicious berries that you can pick at the peak of ripeness. June-bearing varieties produce all their fruits over the span of several weeks. Ever-bearing varieties produce a large crop in summer and a smaller crop in the fall.
Once you start picking berries, you'll understand why they are so expensive. They are fragile and must be handled carefully to keep them from being crushed. A wide flat box or basket is ideal for holding berries as you pick them. Do not wash berries you don't intend to eat right away. Store them in the refrigerator, covered loosely with a paper towel or plastic wrap. Use within a day or two as they do not keep well.
If you find yourself with a bumper crop of fruits and are afraid some will go bad before you can eat them, freezing is the best option. Wash berries, then gently roll them onto a rimmed baking sheet lined with several layers of paper towels. Let them dry a bit, and then pull the paper towel out from under the berries. Place the baking sheet in the freezer. Once berries are frozen solid, remove from the sheet and store in zippered plastic freezer bags. Fruits will not retain their shape after being frozen but are still delicious.
Jams and jellies are classic uses for bramble fruits, but try making cordial wine or a refreshing fruit vinegar for a change of pace.
Bramble fruit cordial wine
3 cups sugar
1 cup water
12 ounces fresh berries
3 cups vodka
Stir water and sugar together in a saucepan. Let mixture come to a boil, then remove from heat and cool. Crush berries and add to cooled syrup. Stir in vodka. Pour mixture into a glass gallon jug, cover and leave for four weeks. During that time, shake every three days. After four weeks, strain the cordial through cheesecloth to catch the seeds and skins, then store in a glass decanter.
Bramble fruit vinegar
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups fresh berries
Combine fruit and vinegar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for three minutes. Cool mixture and pour into a lidded jar. Let steep for one week. Strain through cheesecloth and store in a glass container.
Martha Swiss is a Penn State master gardener. Columns by master gardeners sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.