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Pruning Raspberries

The earth does not yield up her sweet fruits unrecompensed. For every berry I will harvest in September, I pay now an equal measure of sweat and blood. Hunched down and with thick gloves, I navigate the thicket of thorny bramble canes, the red raspberries, yellow raspberries, purple raspberries, blackberries, thimble berries and field berries, and restore man’s order to nature’s chaos.

The correct way to prune brambles depends on their variety, whether they are primocane-bearing, or floricane-bearing. Many raspberries, and all blackberries, are floricane-bearing, meaning they have a two-year cycle, where the canes that grow this year (the primocanes) will flower and bear fruit next year (when they will be called floricanes). The primocane-bearing varieties, on the other hand, bear fruit on this year’s canes. I like having a mix, since that spreads out the harvest.

The floricane-bearing varieties, since they started their growth last year, will bear fruit in the summer, while the primocane-bearing varieties, which need to complete their growth in a single year, will bear fruit later, in the fall. Primocane-bearing varieties are cut to the ground after harvest. The maintenance of floricane-bearing varieties is a little more complicated. The floricanes are removed after harvest, and the primocanes, which will be next year’s floricanes, are pruned and thinned while the plant in dormancy, late winter, which is the work I was able to complete before this last snowstorm.

Pruning of brambles will consider several factors:

  1. The architecture of the plant. A bush full of large berries will have considerable weight. One option is to trellis the plants to support that weight. Another option, which I prefer, is to maintain the canes and side branches at a length where the plant can be self-supporting, 4-5 feet tall, side branches trimmed to 8-12 inches.
  2. Cane density. It is better to have 3-5 thick, strong canes per linear foot than to have 15 smaller ones. The goal in the end is to have a bounty of fruit, not foliage. So now is the time to thin the canes.
  3. Access for sun, rain, air and me. This is another reason to thin the canes. A big dense mass of canes competing for limited resources will produce poorly, be susceptible to mold, and will be difficult to harvest.

The question can fairly be asked, “Why go through all this trouble? Why not let the invisible hand of nature guide the development of the brambles? Let her decide. She will pick the winners and losers.”

To that I respond, that nature, in her infinite wisdom, does not seem to care much for bringing me berries. I am not absolutely certain what role brambles play in the grand scheme of things, but if I had to guess, nature likes them to form wild, uncontrolled, dense masses of thorny canes, with berries inaccessible to larger mammals. That seems to be their natural tendency in my garden. However, in their natural state, the brambles thicket forms an ideal protective habitat for small birds, who can remain protected from predators while eating the berries. The berry seeds survive unharmed by the digestive system of the birds and are excreted, with fertilizer, in distant locations, leading to the better propagation of the species.

And so I battle the genes inside the berries, pitting my labors against nature’s disordered fecundity. It breaks the back and scrapes the skin, but it must be done again each year, around this time.

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