North Texas is a great place to raise a family, but it’s not always the easiest place to raise fruit crops. It’s too hot for cherries and too cold for citrus. For blackberries, however, it’s just right.
If you only have a small space in your garden to dedicate to fruit growing, blackberries should be your top choice.
Start with a good site
Blackberries need full sun for maximum production. As you’re planting them, be mindful of nearby trees that might grow up and over them over time, and plant accordingly.
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Sandy soils work best, but few of us in DFW are so blessed. Luckily, blackberries do well in clay soils that have been amended with several inches of organic matter and 1 inch of expanded shale.
Start by removing existing vegetation manually. (No herbicide is effective at mid-winter temperatures.)
Rototill to a depth of 12 inches, and rake to create a slightly elevated planting bed. Buy bare-rooted transplants or root cuttings at this time of year, or potted plants in the spring.
Set the plants somewhere around 15 inches apart in their row(s). As a hint, you may find a better selection of the best varieties if you buy now.
These are “erect” blackberries that we’re talking about. That means that their stems do not trail. However, when loaded with fruit, they can arch and even reach down to the ground. For that reason, many commercial growers position trellises around their plants.
They’ll put stout posts 12 inches from each side of the rows, then they’ll put heavy wire at 24 inches and 48 inches from the ground. As canes develop, they are pushed back within the wires. Shoots that eventually develop outside the wires are trimmed off.
The old home garden way of training blackberries, however, has always been to tip-prune the new shoots in late spring and early summer, to force them to produce side branches. That keeps them from growing tall enough that the weight of the fruit crop could pull them down.
Blackberry canes produce fruit only one time. This year’s crop will be produced on canes that grew and developed last year. Once their harvest has been completed, the old canes should be removed completely to the ground, since they will never bear fruit again.
Blackberries’ fruit size is dependent on a steady supply of water. Install drip irrigation lines to facilitate watering, and mulch the plants to conserve water and to discourage development of weeds.
Apply an all-nitrogen fertilizer as the new leaves and canes begin to grow in early spring. Make a second application immediately after harvest in late spring.
Some new varieties
The old standard of excellence in blackberries for several decades was Brazos. However, it’s rather tart, and newer types such as Kiowa, Chickasaw and Rosborough have found favor.
All of those varieties have thorns, but I have found, through years of raising blackberries in my own garden, that it’s fairly easy to avoid getting scratched. I use a foot-long dowel stick in one hand to push canes out of the way, which allows me to easily harvest berries with the other hand.
Better yet, and much to the joy of most gardeners, the University of Arkansas has been introducing some outstanding thornless varieties. Natchez produces very large and sweet berries. Navaho’s berries are smaller, but they are of excellent quality, and they keep producing for up to four weeks. Apache is a great late-season type.
How about dewberries and raspberries?
Whenever I mention blackberries, gardeners ask if dewberries are just as good. Most of us who grew up in Texas know them for their great spring flavor and for the fact that we could gather them along roadsides (mindful of snakes, fire ants and chiggers).
However, square foot by square foot, dewberries are far less productive than erect blackberries. They’re also a lot more work, so it’s usually best to stick with the domesticated upright types.
Similarly, Northern gardeners want to grow raspberries. You’ll even see plants offered for sale in the big national retailers. However, raspberries are very poorly suited to Texas conditions.
Black raspberries are a complete bust, and the only red type that will grow well here is the virtually flavorless Dorman Red raspberry. Again, it’s better to stick with blackberries and buy your raspberries at the store.
Neil Sperry publishes Neil Sperry’s GARDENS Magazine and hosts Texas Gardening from 8-10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP 820AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.