Between the Rows: Black raspberries
Black raspberries are delicious and make great jam, but they will take more care than blueberries or red raspberries.
Black raspberries, sometimes called blackcaps, need a site that gets full sun and has access to watering. In my own experience, I have found that regular watering, two inches a week, is essential. I lost most of my first two crops because of the lack of watering. The berries were small and almost instantly dried up. I feared disease, but all they needed was regular and generous watering. This is actually a problem for me because my water comes from a well and in a dry season like last year, there is not much water to spare, even for the edible gardens.
Black raspberries need the same type of soil as red raspberries, well-drained and rich in organic matter. Digging in compost and some lime when preparing to plant is good practice. I did not test my soil before planting my black raspberries, but they do best with a higher pH than blueberries. I have seen recommendations between 5.6 to 6.8.
Black raspberries have much longer and thornier canes than red raspberries. This means they should be planted farther apart than the reds. Unfortunately, I skipped over that bit of information in the excellent planting directions provided by Nourse Farms where I got my plants. Instead of spacing them 2 feet apart, I planted them about 16 inches apart. The plants are doing fine, except that they are crowded, which makes harvesting a little more difficult, especially when you consider how thorny the canes are.
It is especially important to trellis these wilder and thornier canes. The first year canes, called primocanes, get very long and require summer pruning. First they should be cut back to about 36 inches and the lateral branches that develop should also be cut back later in the summer to provide a larger harvest.
If the canes are not cut back, they will grow so long that they will touch the ground and take root. This is fine if you are interested in propagating more plants. Those newly rooted plants are easily cut from the original cane, dug up and replanted. My first summer with the black raspberries, I watched them grow tall, then gracefully bend until the tip touched the ground and began to root and produce a new plant. Most of them seemed to be bending in one direction and I had visions of the bushes marching across the garden from year to year. This must not happen. Back to the directions. I seem to be one of those people who has to make mistakes before really understanding what I should be doing. Luckily for me, plants are usually very forgiving.
Like the red raspberries, the canes will die back after bearing and should be removed. At the same time, you can also prune out any spindly canes to keep the plant manageable. These are hardy plants and I have not had any trouble with disease or pests. Many people have trouble with Japanese beetles on their raspberries, but since putting down Milky Spore disease powder years ago, I have had no trouble. It is only the amount of pruning that was a surprise to me; it makes them a little more work.
I have mulched with cardboard and woodchips on either side of my single black raspberry row. I fertilize with compost in the row and also sprinkle a little lime in the fall to keep the pH level up. I cannot emphasize enough how important irrigation is.
A berry I have longed to grow is the currant. Red currants are a beautiful clear red berry that makes a wonderful jelly and black currant juice is essential for making that elegant drink Kir Royale. To be accurate, Kir Royale is made with champagne and cassis, the cassis being a black currant liqueur. Since I cannot drink alcohol, I make a faux Kir Royale with Sprite and black currant juice, which is sometimes sold as Ribena. It is a beautiful drink, with cassis or Ribena.
Unfortunately, growing currants and gooseberries, which are all members of the ribes family, are forbidden by state law to us in most of Franklin County, as well as to over 100 other towns in Massachusetts. The reason is white pine blister rust.
White pine blister rust is a disease that requires two hosts to complete its life cycle. Ribes fruits are the other host. Because we have a mixed woodland that includes white pine, which we have had logged, I am very aware of the danger to our trees. As much as I love currants, I am content to continue buying jars of currant jelly and bottles of Ribena.
It seems that more and more people are interested in growing some of their own food. The idea of permanent food plants is certainly very appealing. Fruit trees and berries fall into this category, berries being by far the easiest to manage. I also like having berries in the freezer for a really quick and healthy fruit crisp for dessert.
Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.