Pruning a Raspberry Patch

No other fruit is as tasty, as perishable, and as easy to grow as the raspberry. This alone should be grounds to have a patch of one’s own. Given sunlight and some well-drained soil, all that raspberries require, beyond weeding and a little fertilizer, is periodic pruning.

Neglected raspberry patches, such as the one above, will still bear fruit, but the yield will be low because of congestion caused by excess canes, dead growth, and weeds. Raspberries, and their kin blackberries, belong to the genus Rubus, whose species are all commonly called brambles. Although their root systems are perennial and long-lived, bramble canes are invariably biennial. This means that by the second autumn, an individual cane will be dead.

Raspberry varieties are divided into summer-bearing types, shown here, and primocane-fruiting ones. The latter (which are also known as fall-fruiting or everbearing) bear fruit at the tips of new canes the first year and farther down those canes the second summer. This allows commercial growers to dispense with the second harvest and mow their raspberry beds to the ground every spring. Older, summer-bearing varieties are still favored by homeowners who are more concerned with flavor than size, and who have the time to hand prune. Summer-bearing varieties form a new cane the first year, and do not bear fruit on this cane until the next summer, whereupon that cane dies.

Summer-bearing raspberry patches should be pruned in the fall or whenever the harvest is over. As you work, you should be thinking about next summer’s picking. Will you eat the fruit one raspberry at a time? Handpicked berries, eaten immediately, are one of summer’s festival rites. Or should you pack the fruit away in jars of jam and jelly to spread the pleasure out? That way every fresh jar opened will break the seal on summer anew.

  1. Remove dead canes. The presence of empty fruit stems identifies dead or dying canes, as does their yellowing foliage, and roughness of the bark. These canes should be cut low to the ground and removed. (Primocane-fruiting canes that have been left to bear a second year’s crop will also need to be cut out now.) Raspberry canes are less thorny than blackberries, but a glove on at least one hand will protect your fingers.

  2. Thin new canes. A vigorously growing raspberry patch will generate an excess of new canes. Some of these will appear at the edges of the patch, causing it to spread. But even within bounds, too many canes left one year will block the growth of canes the next. Good raspberry pruning anticipates not simply next year’s harvest but the harvest of the summer after. Thin the one-season-old canes, leaving the thickest and tallest ones spaced an average of six inches apart.

  3. Weed. With the pruning completed, use a hand hoe or other weeder to clean out grass and other weeds, being careful not to injure the raspberries’ shallow root system.

  4. Mulch. The first ten feet of row have now been pruned and mulched. Several inches of free-draining wood chips will help the weeds from reappearing. Twin horizontal strings will support the fruit-heavy canes when they bear next summer.

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