Give it raspberries

Give it raspberries

Article originally published by: Kiwi Gardener

Raspberries are a great crop for the home gardener as they’re best eaten straight from the garden. The berries quickly go soft and soggy in punnets, but when fresh-picked, melt in your mouth with a unique, sweet, yet slightly musty, flavour. Most of mine never make it even as far as the kitchen, but are enjoyed as delicious al fresco snacks: one of the gardener’s perks.

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Even a small garden has room for raspberry canes.

The best raspberry grove I’ve seen is at the edible schoolyard in Berkeley, California, where red and yellow raspberries, with different fruiting periods, are grown in long rows. Students are free to forage here, and it’s usually the first place they head when visiting the garden. Wendy Johnson, a teacher at the edible schoolyard, writes: “in the six years that I have worked at the edible schoolyard, I have never tasted a ripe raspberry. The kids get them all, and no raspberry has ever been shipped to the kitchen… not even to enhance a special dessert, which is just as it should be, since a shippable raspberry is a blasphemy under heaven.”

Even a small garden has room for a few raspberry canes. Their upright habits mean that if space is tight, two or three can be trained around a tall post. They can be grown in containers, too, as their root system is quite shallow. Three plants will fit into a half-barrel, with a tall wire cylinder as a tower of support. Some varieties, such as ‘Heritage’, are smaller-growing and don’t necessarily require a support structure. You will need to be vigilant with watering, however, to prevent the tub from drying out.

If you’ve got a little more space, raspberries can be grown as a narrow hedge with a wire up the middle. My grandfather grew them this way in his Nelson garden, carefully netting them against birds, and harvesting enough each year for a few pots of his favourite raspberry jamGardeners with even more space can build a walk-in berry cage to keep away birds. Elsewhere, I’ve seen raspberries growing well as a companion plant under espaliered apple trees, giving clues as to their woodland origins.

It has been said of raspberries that they enjoy their ‘feet in the shade, heads in the sun.’ While this saying doesn’t need to be taken literally, it is true that raspberries, like many other berries, do well in conditions that mimic their natural forest-fringe habitat. Raspberries need sun to fruit well, but they don’t like dry, baking heat, preferring a coolish root run that never totally dries out. Too much humidity or waterlogging is not good either, so if your soil is heavy, plant your raspberries along a ridge. The ideal conditions are a free-draining soil enriched with plenty of compost and leaf mould, and deeply mulched with rotting woodchip.

Good positions for planting are an east-facing fence that gets morning sun, at the foot of deciduous trees such as apples, or as part of a hedgerow with other shrubs and berries. As raspberry roots are quite shallow and dense, don’t give them too much competition in that zone.

Remove from the planting area any perennial weeds, such as buttercup or couch grass, as you won’t be able to do that once the raspberry’s roots have developed. Thick mulching helps protect the root zone. About two canes per person are recommended, planted about 80cm apart. You can plant closer but the gaps will very quickly fill because raspberries sucker prolifically. The tradition of growing raspberries in narrow hedges takes care of unwanted suckers that push their way into paths as they can be removed or mown over. The suckering habit of raspberries also means that gardeners with established raspberry canes often have spares to give away at this time of year. The canes can be dug up and transported bare-rooted.

Red, yellow, white, purple or black?

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Not all raspberries are red. There are black and purples varieties, as well as mutations that produce white and yellow fruit, too.

Most of today’s raspberries are red, from parents Rubus idaeus (thought to originate in Turkey, and found growing wild across europe and north and west asia) or R. strigosus, native to North america (where black raspberry R. occidentalisis also found). All these species also have albino-type mutations, which are grown as white and yellow varieties. Purple raspberries are crosses between the red and black.

Whatever their origin, raspberry plants have been appreciated by humans for over 10,000 years; plant remains have been found in stone-age sites. The flowers and leaves, as well as the berries, were used medicinally, and astringent raspberry-leaf tea is still recommended by many herbalists during later pregnancy to help with a smooth labour (always check with a midwife before using). The tea is, apparently, rich in magnesium, potassium, iron and b vitamins.

Pruning

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Ripe raspberries are irresistable.

When pruning, first ascertain with which variety you are working. Is it early- (late spring-summer) or autumn-fruiting? Or is it a dual-fruiter? Some types produce an early crop on the previous year’s canes, then a second autumn crop on new season’s canes. The variety of raspberry you are growing will affect its pruning requirements.

Early fruiting (late spring-summer) varieties need attention in autumn, when all canes that have produced fruit can be cut back to ground level (these will not fruit heavily again). Any damaged, spindly or weak canes should also be removed. Choose the six strongest new canes and tie them in to supports. Next year, these canes will bear fruit on small laterals growing off the main cane.

Autumn fruiting varieties produce fruit on the new stems that grew in spring. To prune, simply cut the entire plant back to ground level in late winter. As new shoots are produced in spring, they are tied onto training wires. If plants get overcrowded in summer, reduce canes to about six or eight per plant. For a detailed description of raspberry pruning for different varieties, see the incredible edibles website: www.edible.co.nz.

If it all seems a bit complicated, try following the advice of the late, great Mike beech of Victoria Line Orchard in Levin. He told me to try bending raspberry canes that have fruited, pushing the tips down to the ground. If they are brittle enough to snap, they’re ready to be pruned (sometimes canes can be shortened rather than taken off at the base) and if they are still bendy and flexible, leave them to fruit next year.