Gardens - Fruit & Vegetable Gardening

Caring for raspberry canes

How to keep a patch of red raspberries healthy, happy and more productive.

There's a lovely, soft red rose called "Alexander Mackenzie" that blooms in June each year. It smells like crushed red raspberries, a reminder that brambles are soon on their way. Having a raspberry patch means you can pick your own fresh berries and revel in their rich, sweet/tart taste. Add the sounds of grasshoppers playing their back-leg instruments in the grass, and you have the perfect explanation for why you garden. Raspberries are forgiving crops; once they're planted, you can leave them alone and probably still get fruit. But you can increase the number and quality of berries by following a few easy steps: pruning canes, and mulching and staking plants. Fall is a good time to prune, because you remove pests that otherwise overwinter and attack new growth in spring.

In its first year, a cane produces only leaves; in its second year, it also develops fruit. Once the fruit matures, the cane dies, and it should be cut down to the ground

To get the best quality of fruit from your raspberries, you need to prune annually. Some people are intimidated by the idea of pruning, so it helps to understand how the plant grows. A raspberry is essentially a root system that sends up shoots'or canes. The first year, each cane produces only leaves, and it feeds the roots. In the second year, the cane produces leaves and fruit. Once the fruit matures, the cane dies. Cut the canes that have produced fruit right back to ground level each fall or early spring. After the first few years, thin out some of the one-year canes as well'this provides more food and light to the remaining canes, and your fruit will be larger and less susceptible to disease. A general rule is to allow each cane (pick the most vigorous) its own six- by six-inch (15- by 15-centimetre) space.

A four-inch (10 cm) layer of mulch keeps weeds down and preserves moisture. By far the biggest problem in maintaining a raspberry patch is weeds. Perennial grasses and other uninvited plants compete with raspberries for water and nutrients. Although raspberries do a good job of shading the ground underneath, some weeds always survive. Mulching aids immensely in your battle with weeds. A four-inch (10-centimetre) layer of clean straw, rotted sawdust, screened bark or similar organic mulch helps to retain moisture and reduces the need for weeding. Remember, however, that the more woody your mulch, the more nitrogen will be used by the soil bacteria to break it down—nitrogen your raspberries need. A good nitrogen source such as fish meal, bloodmeal or alfalfa meal applied to the soil before mulching helps to offset this loss. Reapply the fertilizer once a year in fall or early spring, and cover with a one- to two-inch (three- to five-centimetre) layer of fresh mulch.

Heavy-duty wires strung from T-shaped stakes help contain canes. Tie second-year canes to wires to ease harvest. Different systems of posts and wires are used to keep plants upright, which makes picking easier, and means walking between the rows is easier, too. The most common system is heavy, galvanized wire strung on T-shaped stakes. Sink a five- or six-foot (1.5- to two-metre) post two to three feet (.5 to one metre) deep in the ground, below the frost line. Fasten a three-foot (one-metre) crossbar to the top of the post; attach heavy eyebolts to the ends of the crossbar to hold the wire. Place the T-shape stakes at 20-foot (six-metre) intervals in the centre of each row. In spring, tie the second-year canes to the wires; the berries will be on the edge of the row, which makes harvesting them more efficient. Also, this leaves space in the middle for the new canes to get ample sun and air.

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