Brambles are the name for those fruiting plants that have thorns, such as raspberries, blackberries, dewberries, boysenberries and gooseberries. These fruits are hard to ship, so if you want to eat them fresh you need to buy them locally or grow them yourself. Since they are delicious as well as full of antioxidants and vitamins, any gardener with a little free space may want to grow them.
Raspberries come in summer-, fall- and everbearing types. They also come in red, yellow and purple or black varieties. Raspberries have long canes that can grow as high as five feet in good soil. The canes are covered with tiny thorns. Raspberries sucker, or spread into sizable clumps, over time. Most raspberry varieties are hardy from Zones 4 to 8; a few can be grown in Zone 3. Raspberries are self-pollinating but need bees to do the work.
Summer-bearing raspberries set a heavy crop in mid-summer. They set fruit on two-year-old canes, so you won't get a crop the first year. After a cane has fruited, it should be removed. Leave the new canes but thin them to stand about a foot apart and remove any spreading into the row.
Fall-bearing raspberries set a crop in the fall, and everbearers have small amounts of fruit ripening from summer through fall. The best way to prune both of these is simply to mow them to the ground each fall after they stop fruiting. Thin them in the spring to a foot apart. This eliminates a summer crop in everbearers, but it's easier to care for them and you will get more fruit this way. Everbearers and fall bearers may have a small crop of fruit the year you plant them.
You may want to support raspberries with a trellis. This keeps heavily loaded plants off the ground and makes it easier to pick the berries.
You can tell the difference between a black raspberry and a blackberry by the way the fruit comes off the plant. When you pick a raspberry, the white cone-shaped center of the fruit remains on the plant. A blackberry comes off with the center intact. Most people find the taste of blackberries and raspberries different.
Blackberries have terrible thorns unless you buy a thornless variety such as Chester Thornless. They are hardy from Zone 5 to Zone 9. There are two types, upright and trailing. Thornless blackberries are generally trailing types. Upright blackberries are treated like fall raspberries and the canes are removed after the fruit is gone. They are also cut back to about two feet the first year to encourage branching. Each year trim the fruiting canes back a little so they don't flop over. About chest high is a good height.
Trailing blackberries bear good crops but are more work. During the first year the canes are allowed to sprawl on the ground. In the second year the canes need to be supported by a trellis until they fruit, after which they are removed. The new canes growing should be left on the ground through the winter.
Some upright blackberry varieties have sterile plants that flower but don't produce fruit. If plants don't produce fruit by the second year, they should probably be removed and new plants purchased. Blackberries also spread by suckering and should be thinned to rows with plants about a foot apart
Dewberries and Boysenberries
While some people claim a difference in taste, the dewberry is a trailing form of blackberries with smaller fruit. It should be grown like trailing blackberries. Boysenberries are a hybrid between the loganberry and the blackberry. They have large, sweet fruit. Loganberries are a cross between raspberries and blackberries, so a boysenberry is quite close to being a blackberry. Loganberries are also trailing and are not reliably winter hardy above Zone 6. Grow them like trailing blackberries.
Gooseberries are sometimes considered brambles because they do have some thorns. There are native American and European varieties and crosses of the two. Gooseberries form a small shrub, and the American types have arching stems that root wherever they touch ground.
The gooseberry has small, round berries quite different from other brambles. The fruit is about the size of a grape and comes in many colors from white to deep purple, depending on variety. It dangles from the plant on a little stem and is easy to pick.
Gooseberries bear fruit on stems that are from one to four years old. The oldest stems should be pruned out each year after the fourth year, and the plants thinned to five or six stems per bush. Gooseberries will grow from Zones 4 to 9, but they dislike extremely hot and humid conditions in the South. In Zones 8 and 9, they should have afternoon shade for best results. In Zones 4 and 5, the flowers are often killed by late frost.
Gooseberries should not be planted in areas where there are white pines. They are a host plant for a fungal disease that can kill white pine trees. They may be prohibited in some areas.
Care of Brambles
Many bramble plants are susceptible to viral diseases. Buy certified virus-free plants to start your patch. Try to remove all wild bramble plants within 100 feet of your brambles.
Most brambles appreciate a light application of a balanced garden fertilizer in the spring as growth starts. Water if conditions get very dry, especially when plants are ripening fruit.
The biggest problem with brambles is letting the patch become overgrown. Mulch plants to keep down weeds and keep the patch thinned and confined to narrow rows by removing unwanted plants. Train plants on a trellis of wires to keep them off the ground and easy to pick.
Learn how to cultivate Vaccinium ashei, the Rabbiteye Blueberry.