The raspberry days of summer are the best. “I’ll only pick a few,” I tell myself as I head down the row, happily spoiling my appetite for dinner, each new berry looking fatter, redder and riper than the last. Unlike the more cooperative blueberries and strawberries, raspberries grow on arching canes, heavily armed with thorns. But to reach some perfect gem, warmed by the August sun, I’ll fling myself right into the torturous mess, like Homer’s sailors lured by sirens to the rocky shore.
A raspberry patch can easily get the best of you. The plants’ roots send up new stems, called canes, that bear fruit the second year. So you’re dealing with both bearing and non-bearing canes. That’s a lot of prickly vegetation. The way the plants are managed is to cut back to the ground, in fall, any canes that have just borne fruit and at the same time limit the number of new canes that you allow to grow for next year. It requires vigilance, lest the row turn into a dense, impenetrable hedge. In the past we’ve contained it between parallel wires held up by stout posts.
Recently we planted a new raspberry bed on the hill system, and picking has been almost pain-free. A hill, as in “a hill of corn,” “a hill of squash” or “a hill of beans,” just means a series of plant clusters as opposed to a row of plants evenly spaced. Before planting our raspberries, we drove in stakes made of 1-by-2-inch lumber, seven feet apart in the row, then set out one plant per stake. This may sound like more of a row system than a hill, except for the fact the raspberry multiplies by suckers.
Each fall, after pruning out the canes that have just borne fruit, we select the newer canes that will bear the following summer, tying them to the stake just tightly enough that they remain vertical and don’t collapse with winter snow and ice. When we do this, we limit the number of canes that remain to eight, all within 16 inches of a stake, cutting the rest off at soil level. The result is a series of tidy thickets, like dense bushes, that you can walk all the way around in comfort instead of having to plunge into the briers.
The more organic matter you spread on the soil around the plants, the healthier they will be, and the more berries you will gorge on. Rotted manure is ideal, and even manure mixed with wood chips — too resistant to decay for use on vegetable gardens — will do fine as a mulch for raspberries.
Another important task for the berry gardener is to punch two holes in the rim of a one-quart yogurt container so that you can tie string to it and hang it around your neck. It’s handy for grandchildren to use when they are out picking berries, whether strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or blackberries that come a little later on. This enables them — or you — to pick with both hands, nibbling as you go, and still collect a few to take inside for a pie.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of The Garden Primer.
Ready to get growing? Read more about growing your own food at washingtonpost.com/vegetablegardens.