Real Gardens

Pruning Sucks.

Backyardberry_2
I
devoted two sections of prime garden real estate to berries a few
years ago. I bought all kinds of interesting varieties — tayberries, loganberries, thornless blackberries and a
couple different varieties of raspberries. I fought hard to keep the
weedy and aggressive Himalayan blackberries out of the patch, and, following the instructions in Stella Otto’s excellent BackYard Berry Book, I
even put a few stakes in the ground and strung wire between them with
the overly optimistic idea that I would actually train these berries up
a trellis rather than allow them to grow into a tangled, unmanageable
thicket.
      

But of course that didn’t happen.
The berries laughed at my silly little trellis and quickly overpowered
it. They invited the Himalayan blackberry back into the yard, like good girls inviting a couple of bikers to their Sweet Sixteen party.  That made it
impossible for me to tell what was a weed and what was part of my
summer fruit crop. To make it worse, the instructions for pruning berry
vines were surprisingly complicated. Some varieties produce fruit off
the first year’s growth, while others only fruit on canes that are
two years old. You are supposed to set up some sort of trellising
system that will allow you to keep track of the first year and the
second-year canes so that you cut off only the second-year canes after
they’ve fruited. I can barely keep track of my car keys. There was no
way I was actually going to make a system like this work.

Why pruning has to be so complicated is beyond me.
Surely Mother Nature doesn’t differentiate between plants that bloom on
first year’s growth and those that bloom on second year’s growth and
destroy them accordingly.  So why should I?  I let the berries to do
what they want to do and once a year I whack away at
them when they get too unmanageable. (This is actually not a bad
strategy and you do get some berries out of it, although it might
require a ladder and elbow length leather gloves to get at them. Hey,
I’ve still got some of last year’s black berries in a Ziploc in the
freezer. It works.)

So that’s what I did, finally: chopped
down the thicket in its entirety, wading into the thorns with a pair of rusty pruning
shears and some very inadequate gloves. It was painful and
time-consuming work, but I did get some satisfaction out of taking the
whole mess down indiscriminately. No more first-year canes, no more
fruiting canes, no more uninvited and poorly behaved Himalayan guests,
nothing. The garden is bare. It looks like it’s been mugged.  Maybe that’ll teach it a lesson. My Day of Pruning is over for another year, and that’s all I care about.

Posted by on February 14, 2008 at 5:38 am, in the category Real Gardens.
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9 responses to “Pruning Sucks.”

  1. chuck b. says:

    I believe most blackberries fruit off first year wood, with only some canes becoming perennial, so you’re right to cut it to the ground every year. I guess raspberries get more complicated. My solution: grow blueberries instead. They’re nicer plants in so many ways.

  2. Michele Owens says:

    Okay, this post made me laugh! I have similar problems in growing fruit. I’ve got degrees from good universities–but I find pruning instructions utterly incomprehensible.

    I think it may be one of those things like fixing a car that you ought to learn from some sage old character willing to get his or her hands dirty with you.

    But there is a fantastic, mind-blowingly inspiring and beautiful pick-your-own raspberry farm near me. They only do the fall-fruiting kind. But know how they manage them? They let them grow into big bushes and just mow around them. Presumably, at some point the mower goes over them. No trellising, nothing fancy. That inspired me to plant raspberries last year. I’ll let you know how I do.

  3. Lisa Albert says:

    It made me laugh, too! Especially the image of Himalayan blackberry masquerading as bikers – how true!

  4. Karen says:

    I just let my raspberries go and cut out the dead canes. Yeah yeah, I’m probably inviting disease by not keeping track of them and cutting out the old canes before they’re completely dead. I may correct my behavior someday if I’m ever punished for it, but so far (six years I think?) I’ve had no problems and lots of delicious berries with very little work.

  5. Gloria says:

    We fiqured out how to contain the black raspberries. They grow along a fence with an alley on two sides and the garage on a third side.

    Have you ever seen a huge bramble of dead and live canes in a wild patch. Birds love them.

    Pruning has not been a problem even though black raspberries berry on second year growth. As soon as the berries are ripe the canes begin to deteriorate. All fresh green canes are new. All browning stems,ragged leaf yellowing canes are old. Clip clip.

    If you cut to the ground every year no more raspberries.
    But lots of other fruit like currents and gooseberries are easy to grow.

    I liked berries enough to take time to learn. Like all gardening pruning is better with experience.
    Mistakes teach.

  6. Pruning is definitely a SHOW don’t tell activity – no one can learn it from a book – best way is to have an expert pruner come in and do it for you once and follow at their heels at every step.

  7. I read the Otto book and just put it back on the shelf. Veggies are easy. Fruit is hard.

    I think I’m going to try growing blueberries in big pots this year. I’ve tried them in the garden and they don’t ever seem to thrive. It’s hard to justify giving them all that space for a handful of blueberries.

    Robin at Bumblebee

  8. I don’t grow brambles here. But if I did, I’d probably go with the primocane/lawnmower method. I’ve got friends that do the floricane type (flowers on second-year canes) with a V-trellis and find it much more manageable. You can read about those methods here: http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/fruit/homefruit/6brambles.pdf

  9. grouchylisa says:

    I think it sounds like you did your pruning perfectly. Okay, so you did it like any gardener in MY family would do it. However, given my ancestral enthusiasm for pruning things (my grandfather once “pruned” my grandmother’s prized paper mulberry tree to the ground), I have to set limits on my pruning.

    Here’s how I limit my pruning: 1) NO power equipment–no chain saws, no chipper, no electric pruners or trimmers. It’s not a good idea for me to own a chain saw, considering I start to erupt in wicked giggles just thinking about it. Besides–I LIKE being able to say: “Chainsaw? I don’ need no steenking Chainsaw” just before I lay into something with an axe or a bow saw or loppers.

    2) A kitchen timer. I take a loud kitchen timer outside with me when pruning. I set it for an hour, and when the bell goes off, I drop the pruners regardless of where I am in the project, clean up and don’t allow myself to prune again for at least four weeks. That way I can’t reduce EVERYTHING to stumps no matter how enthusiastic I get.

    3) I and only I am allowed to touch the pruning tools. No “helpers” permitted, especially not if they are related by blood to me. We all carry the “Nielsen Pruning Gene”.

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