Gardening With Robin
~~ Black Raspberries (Rubus occidentalis) ~~
Our family enjoys eating three kinds of raspberries every summer – black, red and yellow. Buying fresh raspberries can be expensive because they are a delicate fruit that do not travel or store well. If you want to eat lots of raspberries and you have the space to grow them, it makes sense to grow them yourself. The black raspberries, or blackcaps as they are often called, ripen first and they are our favorites. The flavor, in my opinion, is less sweet and more complex than the red raspberries that ripen later. Yellow raspberries are also sweeter than the black, and they still retain some of that rich, complex taste, but they do not produce as prolifically as the black ones. If the small seeds in the black raspberries bother you, I would recommend either the yellow or red raspberries, but black ones are my favorite, so they are the ones I am going to promote.
Photo: Berry basket that Chuck made for me, filled with blackcaps
Starting in early July, for a couple weeks, we can go out in the morning and quickly pick enough black raspberries to mix into our oatmeal or pile onto waffles. Many are eaten outside and never even reach the kitchen. We all enjoy them so much, I can easily persuade my sons to pick enough to freeze, make a pie or a batch of raspberry jam.
Photo: Slice of black raspberry pie
Raspberries bear fruit relatively quickly, no later than the second year after planting. Black raspberries are perennials, native to most of North America, including Lunenburg, so they are adapted to our climate. Although the roots can live indefinitely, the plant produces long, arching canes that generally live for only two years. During the first year, the canes concentrate on producing vegetative growth, not fruit production, and the canes grow to be about six feet long. If the arching cane bends over enough so that the tip touches loose soil, the tip will develop roots and start a new plant. After the roots are established, you can cut the cane and you will have a new plant to transplant or allow your raspberry patch to expand if it rooted in a desired area. If you remove the dead canes that have finished fruiting, prune the new canes to keep them under control and, when desired, allow some of the cane tips to root, you may enjoy black raspberries for years.
In the second year, raspberry canes produce small, white flowers that grow in dense clusters of three to seven on short new side branches. For several weeks, this provides a good source of both pollen and nectar for many types of native bees, including bumblebees, carpenter bees and mason bees. You will see the non-native honeybee visiting them as well.
Photo: Common Eastern Bumblebee visiting blackcap blossums in May
After pollination, each flower is replaced with a compound drupe. Drupe is the botanical name for a fleshy fruit with thin skin and a central stone containing the seed, such as cherries and peaches. Each compound raspberry drupe consists of many drupelets, each containing one seed. When they are ripe, they are a shiny black color and they detach easily and cleanly from the plant. Black raspberries do have sharp thorns, which can be annoying when you have to walk through or reach into patches of canes, but I find that the thorns are generally not a problem when picking the fruit.
Photo: Two blackcaps ready to be picked
Planting and Caring for Black Raspberries
Raspberries prefer a well-drained site with consistent moisture, especially when they are growing and forming fruit. If they have ample, consistent water, the drupes are larger and juicier; if they do not get sufficient water, the drupes will be small and dry and the seeds become very noticeable. As I discussed in my post about water in the garden, a thick mulch of organic material will help hold moisture in the soil and keep the roots cooler by protecting them from the sun. A thick mulch layer also discourages weeds from growing between the canes. Given the raspberries’ shallow roots and thorns, it is definitely easier if you don’t have to weed between the canes.
Early spring is a good time to plant black raspberries. Traditionally, one would plant them in rows, about four feet apart, with 10 feet between rows. Because black raspberry plants arch over, people will put up guide wires to keep them off the ground and make it easier to pick the fruit and maintain spacing between plants to improve air circulation and prevent disease. To give you an idea, here is a photo of a friend’s red raspberry plants trained along a wire.
Photo: Red Raspberry Canes trained on a wire
And then there is my method. Years ago, I had designated patches for each of the three kinds of raspberries. The red and yellow raspberries have expanded their patch size, but they are basically still in one place. The blackcaps, however, now generally grow wherever they want, as long as it is in one of my hedge rows or in my food forest. After birds enjoy the black raspberry fruit, they spread the seeds while sitting on the branches of trees and shrubs. As a result, I have many blackberry canes using my fruit trees and bushes as trellises. Similarly, I have black raspberries growing up my rhododendron and azaleas bushes. Having the plants scattered around the yard makes picking fruit feel like a treasure hunt with a sweet reward.
Photos: Raspberries growing up rhododendron and raspberries growing up stone pine…
For those of you with limited space, I have read that you can grow raspberries in containers, but I do not have any experience with it myself.
If you grow black raspberries, summer pruning can prevent your plants from becoming an impenetrable hedge of thorns, keeping the fruit accessible for picking. Mid-summer, after the plant finishes fruiting, prune the first-year canes back to about two feet. You can determine the age of canes by the color. First year canes are bright, vegetative green; second year canes are woodier and show a purplish-brown color. This pruning will encourage the canes to form lateral branches which will bear fruit the following year. Early in the following spring, if you can prune those lateral branches back to about a foot, the berries will be easier to reach. At the same time you prune back the first year canes to two feet, cut back all the canes that already fruited because they will die anyway and if you leave the dead, thorny canes, it will be more of a challenge to harvest and maintain in future years.
Gardening with Nature
I am not the only one who enjoys eating raspberries. The list of wildlife that eats raspberry fruit or their canes includes bear, fox, raccoon, opossum, chipmunks, rabbits, deer, birds and more. If you have lots of wildlife in your yards, you could plant enough to share, protect the plants from predation by using a fence or netting, or pick often and early to beat the competition. My solution has been to plant a mulberry tree and lots of goumi bushes around the yard. Both provide abundant fruit at the same time and the birds and small mammals prefer to eat them over the raspberries. We still lose some to wildlife, but we also have plenty to share.
I have fruit outside waiting to be harvested, so I am off to the garden. If any of you grow raspberries and have photos and experiences that you want to share on our community gardening page, please do! Send them in an email to email@example.com.