Carefully cultivating blackberries in southeastern Texas

Blackberries are a wonderful Texan crop, developed to be disease-resistant and grow upright without thorns. For this and various other reasons, they're an excellent plant for Texas home landscapes. Relatively easy to grow in small areas, tolerant of hot Texas summers and bearing good fruit in late spring through mid-summer, there are even some recently developed blackberry varieties that can be harvested in the fall. 

"Aspiring farmers in southeastern Texas should consider growing blackberries."

The modern, cultivated blackberry has been improved over its wild southern dewberry relative. Some blackberry varieties grow as large as your thumb and are consistently sweet. Also, diseases that would render many plantings sterile can now be kept at bay.

Historically, all blackberries were biennial, growing vegetative canes, or primocanes, the first year that flower and bear fruit the second year as floricanes. Once the floricanes bloom, new primocanes are already growing and getting ready for next year. Yet in the last few years, researchers from the University of Arkansas have developed some blackberries that can bloom and bear fruit on the cane's first year of growth, and to do so in the fall.

Traditional blackberry varieties, which are upright, thornless, bear fruit in the spring and are well-adapted to our area, include Apache, Arapaho, Natchez, Navaho and Ouachita. As with other fruits, chilling hours - a measurement of the amount of cold weather we get in the winter - are an important metric to examine. Apache, and Navaho require 800 chilling hours before blooming at full production, while Arapaho and Natchez require 500 hours. The newest variety, Ouachita, needs only 300 chilling hours and looks very promising. Angelina County winters typically fall into the 400 to 600-hour range.

Carefully cultivating blackberries in southeastern TexasGrowing blackberries can be easy and fun for recreational farmers in Texas.

If you want to experiment with one of the primocane-bearing varieties, try Prime0-Ark 45. This blackberry has thorns but seems better adapted to our hot summers. It's expected to bear fruit on the primocanes between August and September and then the following years on the floricanes in May or June. 

Irrigation is key for blackberries to grow well. Begin irrigating in March, paying close attention to soil moisture during bloom and early fruit development. Continue watering through the harvest period and only cut down in September when the newer primocanes canes need to harden off for the winter.

Blackberry plants require two kinds of pruning. Most important is the removal of spent floricanes. Leaving floricanes intact during the planting stage will attract insects and disease. After cutting off spent canes, you can vastly increase the following year's harvest by "tip-pruning" the newly growing primocanes. 

Tip pruning involves removing the top few inches of growth when the canes reach a height of 4-5 feet. The specific height depends upon personal preference, but lateral growth off of the main stem should greatly increase. It is on these lateral stems that you will see many more fruit.

Some folks attach their blackberry canes to a trellis. While not necessary on erect-growing varieties, it could keep the heavy, fruit-laden vegetation upright so it doesn't droop onto the ground. All told, depredation from fruit-eating bugs and plant blights will be dramatically minimized with proper pruning and trellising.

Effective weed control, which is a must when growing blackberries, is achieved via the addition of mulch. Both organic and fabric mulches help retain soil moisture and keep it cool in the summer, which enhances plant growth and development.

Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. Contact him via email (cw-sims@tamu.edu). 

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