Smith County Horticulturist
Blackberries are one of the easiest fruits to grow, especially in East Texas — all you have to do is to put up with the thorns, and with the newer thornless varieties, even that is no longer a problem. They don’t occupy too much space, but you need give them room between rows because they will spread! All they need is a sunny, well-drained area.
Blackberries are unique because they have a perennial root system, but tops live only two years. Blackberries bear fruit on shoots that are called floricanes. This year’s floricanes sprouted last year, spring of 2012, and grew during the summer. Their second year these canes bear the delicious fruit. Once the berries are gone, these floricanes die. Every year, the fruiting canes are replaced with new, vigorous shoots called primocanes. This year’s primocanes become next year’s floricanes that again will bear fruit and die.
Thorny varieties include Brazos, Rosborough and Womack, all older but very reliable cultivars. Choctaw, Chickasaw and Kiowa are University of Arkansas varieties, with Kiowa being one of the best of the bunch, with the largest-sized fruit of any variety.
Thornless varieties from the Arkansas breeding program include Arapaho, Navaho, Ouichita and the most recent release, Natchez. Natchez produces large fruit, plus good production and growth, and these qualities led to it being designated as a Texas Superstar selection for 2013.
The University of Arkansas has also introduced 2 new varieties that bear fruit on primocanes — Prime-Jim and Prime-Jan. These have not performed well in the hot, humid South, and should be tried only by hobbyists and home gardeners. They are thorny, bearing fruit on floricanes in May and on primocanes in August to September.
Trellising is not necessary since they grow naturally semi-erect. However, the long canes will bend down to the ground with a heavy crop load, so a trellis or support can help. Since all floricanes die after fruiting, and all dead canes should be pruned out and removed each year to help prevent diseases, a trellis system should be simple to make removing dead canes easier.
Blackberries benefit from an early spring and mid-season application of fertilizer when harvest is finished. Nitrogen will be the most important nutrient each year.
As the primocanes grow, they should be tipped back a few times during the growing season. Most growers tip the shoots when they reach 3 to 4 feet tall.
Keep the blackberry patch weed free and watered during the summer to promote maximum growth.
If your berries aren’t sweet enough, you might be picking them one or two days too soon. Harvesting is best when the berries are juiciest, during the late morning hours after the dew has dried. The problem you face is beating the birds to the best ones!
Keith Hansen is Smith County Horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. His web page is http://EastTexasGardening.tamu.edu. His blog is http://agrilife.org/etg.