Sunday, June 11, 2017

Raspberry Redux

When we first planted our raspberry canes back in 2013, we planned to grow them using the easy single-crop method. In other words, instead of going to all the trouble of trellising and selectively pruning the canes to keep them healthy, we figured we'd just cut down all the canes every winter and let new ones grow in the spring. That way, we wouldn't get any berries in the summer, but we'd get a generous crop in the fall—and it would be a lot less work. (When in doubt, do it the easy way, that's what I say.)

Last winter, however, Brian had the idea that maybe we should try, just as an experiment, leaving last year's canes in place, and letting next year's canes grow up alongside them. That way, we could get a summer crop off the two-year-old "floricanes," as well as a fall crop off the new "primocanes," before cutting them down and starting over.

Sure enough, this month the canes started producing berries—lots of them. Not only were we harvesting raspberries much earlier in the season than we'd ever had any before, we were getting nearly as many of them in this first crop as we normally get in our single yearly crop. Just yesterday Brian came in with an overflowing handful of berries and declared that, from now on, he wants to grow the berries this way every year.

My reaction to this announcement was a bit mixed. On the one hand, I'm certainly enjoying having lots of fresh, ripe berries in June, instead of having to wait until September. But on the other hand, as I reminded him, the two-crop method of growing raspberries is a lot more complicated. I pulled out my copy of The Weekend Garden Guide and read him the section on bramble cultivation, stressing the following points:
  1. Floricanes have to be pruned back as soon as they're done producing, thus giving the new primocanes more light and more room to breathe.
  2. You must "ruthlessly" root out all stray suckers from the bed and thin the primocanes to 4 to 6 inches apart to avoid overcrowding.
  3. You'll have healthier plants, get more berries, and have an easier time harvesting them if you put them on a trellis. 
If you don't follow these rules, but just let your berries grow willy-nilly, Roth warns that you're liable to end up with "great thickets" that are difficult to harvest from. Even after less than one year, our bramble patch is clearly heading in that direction: last year's canes and this year's are all jumbled up together, creating a thick tangle that it's very difficult to reach into. You can easily pluck the berries that are right on the tips of the canes, but the ones that are lower down tend to get buried, and you have to push the overlying shoots back with some sort of tool to get at them.

So basically, if we're going to start growing our berries by the two-crop method, some sort of trellis is going to be a must. Just harvesting this year's berries without one is tricky enough; trying to find and selectively prune out the floricanes while everything is all tangled up together is going to be a complete nightmare.

Fortunately, according to author Susan Roth, trellising the berries isn't really that big a hassle; you can just build a permanent trellis once and then continue to use it year after year. The type she recommends is a hedgerow: pairs of metal posts on either side of the row of raspberry canes, spaced 20 to 25 feet apart, and joined by wires at 2.5 feet and 5 feet high to support the canes. Once you have this in place, all you have to do is walk along the row once a week, make sure the canes are tucked under the wires, and pull out any little suckers that have spread beyond the limits of the row. The wires keep the canes neatly propped up, making it easy to get in and prune back the floricanes in the fall—a job that Roth says fits easily into a Saturday morning.

Because of the way our raspberries are situated, we figure we can modify Roth's hedgerow plan a little bit. Instead of putting posts on either side of the row of canes, we should be able to make do with just two set of posts, one on each end of the bed, and let the side of the house support the canes on the other side. Brian's only concern about the plan was that the trellis might block access to the telephone box on the side of the house, but I pointed out that it could hardly be more of a barrier than the thicket we've got growing there now. We can always thin out the canes to leave a gap where the box is, and anyone who comes to work on it can just slip in under the wires to get close to it.

I'm actually thinking that, rather than waiting until fall, we should try and get a trellis installed and wrestle these berries onto it as soon as possible. That way we won't have to go out fully armored and armed with a lance just to pick a few berries, and we're less likely to miss out on the ones that we can't see right now through all the foliage.
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