Blackberry time!


County Agent’s Corner
Dr. John Clark discusses blackberry varieties he developed at the University of Arkansas.

Dr. John Clark discusses blackberry varieties he developed at the University of Arkansas.

I don’t know about you, but I really like just about anything made out of blackberries! I guess you could say I never ate a blackberry I didn’t like, except those that the stink bugs got to first. Stink bugs don’t taste good. “Tame” blackberries are a much larger fruit than what we picked down on the fence row as kids. Today’s cultivated berries are so large, some folks don’t recognize them as being a blackberry, and will argue their case. Some are as large as, or larger than, a nickel. The varieties we plant and grow today are the result of Dr. John Clark, at the University of Arkansas. Dr. Clark is a plant breeder who has spent a good part of his career developing blackberries that producers can grow and have success with in the Southeast.

If you are interested in blackberry production on a commercial basis, I would encourage you to attend a production meeting and learn as much as you can before you purchase and plant a crop. If you are a homeowner or just want a few plants to feed on, then here are some helpful hints that can get you started.

There are thorny and thornless blackberries. Deer prefer the thornless ones! Many human pickers also prefer the thornless ones for obvious reasons.

Thorny varieties include Kiowa, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Shawnee, and Cheyenne. The Kiowa is a very large berry and the plant has performed well here. Some of these varieties have better disease resistance than others and some may be harvested earlier, but they’re all pretty good. Someone once mentioned to me that these “tame blackberries” weren’t as sweet as wild ones. If you let them go to a deep black color, they’re pretty good, but most of us pick and eat them before they get fully ripe, so a little sugar may be required.

Thornless varieties include Osage, Natchez, Quachita, Apache, Arapaho and Navajo. These berries are also very large and may be not quite as sweet as the thorny ones (my opinion), but again, a bit of sugar goes a long way. Like I said, I haven’t eaten many berries I didn’t like.

In the first year of growth, these varieties will produce what is known as a primocane. It is a vegetative cane that will not flower. Select three to five primocanes and let them grow, provide fertilizer and water, and they can get up to six feet tall in the first year; however, you want to tip the plants at about five feet to make the lateral buds break and give you more fruit the next year.

In year two, the primocane becomes a floricane. You keep all the new primocanes pruned to the ground until about the time you begin the harvest. Then select three to five new primocanes and let them begin to grow for next year’s crop. When you finish harvest of the floricanes, you need to prune them out, they’re finished. Concentrate on the new canes for next year’s crop. The cycle is repetitive from year to year.

These plants also will do much better if they are put on a two or three wire trellis. It is easier to prune and maintain the plants when they are on a trellis system. You can also put an irrigation system on the lower wire of the trellis to keep it from being chewed up which can save time in the long run. Other issues to keep in mind include soil pH, water source, plant spacing, and wild blackberries in proximity to the planting. All wild blackberries in the area need to be destroyed to the greatest extent possible to reduce disease pressure.

Blackberries, like all agricultural crops, take a good bit of care and a lot of work. Nothing in agricultural production is easy, but rewards can be tremendous, especially when you are eating blackberry pie and drinking blackberry lemonade! Some of our producers began picking blackberries last week; look for them at the Farmers Market.

Dan Porch is County Extension Coordinator with the Blount County Extension Office. Dan lives in and loves Blount County and is available to answer your questions about conservation, agriculture, natural resources, and gardening. He can be reached at (205) 274-2129 or porchdw@aces.edu.