The popularity of the fruit of the wild Blackberry is an earnest of the favour which the best cultivated varieties would enjoy if we were able to produce them with the ease and certainty of Raspberries and Currants. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For every instance of success we hear of half a dozen failures, and many people have abandoned Blackberry culture as a thing too full of disappointment for weak human flesh to tolerate.
Granting that the garden Blackberry is a somewhat capricious fruit, there is no evidence to prove that it is beyond the powers of the average fruit grower. I was not in evidence when the first Briton began to cultivate Raspberries, but I dare wager that he made a hash of it. He probably emerged extra early from his cave one fine morning, hitched up his skins, and, with a Prehistoric Patent Combination War Club and Spade, dug some suckers out of the woods. These he planted in his kitchen garden, and left unshortened. A little fruit was borne on the stronger canes, but afterwards the stools dwindled. Then the Briton whirled his patent combination implement in a rage, and went and killed the garden-loving savage who had told him that Raspberries were worth growing. If he had decapitated the Raspberries instead of his neighbour he would have done better. His descendants found that out in time, but there are still people about who do not know it, and they are only presented from attacking wise advisers by a grandmotherly law.
Now, if we have not mastered all the points in Raspberry culture yet, it is not surprising that Blackberries are badly treated, for as a cultivated fruit the latter is in the babeling stage. Like our impatient ancestor, we want to plant canes and gather heavy crops of fruit before the plants have had a chance of establishing themselves. Having seen failure turned into success by change of culture, I refuse to believe that Blackberries are intractable; and so delicious, so piquant, so refreshing is the fruit, that I urge a trial with a few canes, confident that success will follow good culture.
It will be gathered from the foregoing that a most important point in securing success with Blackberries is to practise cutting back after planting. I am not prepared to say that success is impossible without it; but I do know that failure after failure has followed neglect of it, and that success has, after all, crowned the culture when, tardily and reluctantly, the disappointed grower has resorted to it. Blackberries may be planted either in autumn or spring, but whichever season be chosen the canes should be cut down to within 6 inches of the ground before growth starts.
Blackberries may be trained on a trellis or to stakes. The most businesslike plan is to erect a wire trellis, but it is also the most expensive. If chosen, it should be 5 feet or more high. One or two of the dwarf growers would do with a lower trellis, but I think that anyone who makes up his mind to have a trellis would be wise to erect a fairly high one, so as to be able to accommodate any sort. In the absence of a wire trellis, u tall framework of stakes and rods would answer; and this could be made locally. With respect to the stake system, it answers very well, and is convenient. The stakes should be stout and tall, and should be creosoted at the base. Put them in before planting, so as to avoid injuring the roots.
There is no advantage in crowding Blackberries, and I suggest that if they be trained to a trellis they be planted 4 feet apart, and if to a stake 5 feet. The stations should be prepared well in advance of planting. Take off the top foot of soil, turn the subsoil over, and work a little wood ash or superphosphate into it. Return the top soil, and mix a little manure with it. In planting spread the roots well out, and scatter soil amongst them, pressing it gently to ensure firmness without injury to the fibres. Mulch with manure afterwards.
Blackberries ought not to bear the first year of planting, but the second. I may, however, say that I have known it necessary to cut them back a second time, and sacrifice two years. This was when they were planted in poor, dry soil, and a very dry season followed late spring planting. If they push many growths after the cutting back, thin out the weakest ones.
Now comes the question of pruning. Fortunately, it presents no particular difficulties. Practically speaking, the case is met by Raspberry treatment. After the fruit has been gathered, cut the canes that have borne it back half their length, and in autumn cut the portions left clean out close to the ground. This will give a chance to the young canes that sprang up from the ground in spring, and by autumn are several feet high. They will have room and exposure, so that they become well developed and matured. It is not advisable to cut these successional canes much, for if they were hard pruned a good deal of fruit would be lost. Really all that is necessary is to remove the upper few inches when soft and unripe, or when rambling untidily above and around the support. If there are side shoots they may be cut in.
There is rarely anything gained by having a large number of canes on each stool. Six are quite enough, as with Raspberries, and the grower need not grumble if he has less. If a large number push up, do not hesitate to cut some of them out, as a few selected canes, well developed and ripened, will bear prodigiously - in fact, more fruit will be got from four or five good ones than from a dozen bad ones.
The varieties are not numerous, so that there is little difficulty in making a selection. The habit of the variety is noted in the following remarks on sorts:-
British, the wilding of British lanes, dwarf, bears splendidly under good cultivation.
Logan Berry, reputed to be a cross between a Raspberry and a Blackberry, dwarf to medium, a desirable fruit.
Parsley-leaved, tall or trailing, very free and good; should have plenty of room.
Wilson Junior, one of several American varieties which bear magnificent fruit, but are not quite suited by our climate, and are therefore unreliable.
Wineberry (Japanese) may be classed, for the sake of convenience, with the Blackberries; a strong grower, yielding fine, juicy fruit. It rambles so freely as to call for plenty of room.
A, planting: a, one year old plants, indicating proper depth, with roots spread out evenly; b, the same plants cut down in early spring, leaving only two buds above the ground.
B, training to wire trellis, plants in rows 5 feet apart and 3 feet asunder in the row: c, plant with two canes as a result of cutting down to two buds in the previous resting season; d, plant that has formed two vigorous canes, and a weaker one from the base; e, plant that has formed one cane without laterals and one with - the side shoots have been pinched at about 9 inches from the main stem. The cross lines indicate the points of winter pruning.
C, training to a stake: f, plant in second winter after planting; g, canes allowed to grow loosely during the previous summer, and all suckers kept off; h, stake; i, points of shortening canes; j, a similar plant two years old, with canes shortened and secured to the stake with tarred string.
D, pruning Blackberry after bearing: k, old canes which have borne fruit during the last season cut out - they are shown detached at the base; l, successional canes for bearing fruit in the coming season, shortened, as shown where detached, and secured to the trellis.
E, pruning a Blackberry trained on a stake: m, old canes cut out, as shown detached near base; n, successional canes shortened to firm wood and secured to stake separately; o, weakly growths which have sprung from the rootstock shortened to one bud from the ground - these usually produce strong canes in the following summer, and are more desirable for reserving to bear fruit in succession the following season than are those which, spring from the base of current bearing canes.
There has been some talk about this fruit. It is Rubus palmatus, and is probably a species from Japan. It forms a low bush, and fruits pretty freely; but I should not advise my readers to trouble about it, as it has little flavour and is of no value for preserving.