Perennial berries (Black, Rasp, Logan, Tay and Goose)

Associated by name and preferred conditions these berries are reliable croppers of versatile strongly flavoured fruits for dessert and culinary use. They’re best under netting or in a cage as the fruits are so soon stolen by birds and worse, in some seasons by the less easily stoppable wasps. They all prefer moist, loamy, Ph neutral to slightly acid, leaf mould rich soil and benefit from thick mulches. (Though with a gooseberry on a single stem keep the mulch from touching this to prevent rooting or rotting.)

They all produce huge quantities of woody stems annually which we prune away, these are best burnt and returned to them as ash. They have a high requirement for minerals so benefit even more from wood ashes than most other fruits. (Cooking apples are as needy, then stone fruits) Of course they will enjoy a mulch of manure or compost but be careful not to over feed or you get too much growth and berries more prone to mould. Gooseberries are even greedier for more potash and show deficiency with a reddish scorched rim to the leaves. Berries prefer an airy site to a stagnant corner and will still crop, a little later than usual, and less sweet in shade, though for most sunnier is better. However in hot dry East Anglia the Tayberry crops heavier and more lusciously most years on a north facing fence than in full sun where it is parched.

The Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus L. needs no description as everyone has picked or at least encountered them at some time. And I say them for in the UK alone there are several hundred micro-species as well as distinct species such as the Dewberry (a floppy carpet form with poor crops of small berries). When you pick from the wild you find each bush has a different leaf or stem, or berry with the size of berry, number of drupelets (the little tiny pips the berry is composed of) and flavour varying tremendously. Growing wild everywhere spread by birds and mammals in their dung they’re natives from soon after the glaciers melted. Some such as the Oregon cut leaf and Himalayan Giant sound foreign but are home grown, though possibly with some North American blood. Found world wide there’s even a ‘blackberry’ from N. Zealand R. australis. Many of these relations more resemble our raspberries in habit with shorter stiffer canes and are now being bred with blackberries to give more maneagable bushes. Indeed there is a wide range of related Rubus, mostly with edible berries but including many ornamental and even creeping alpines giving this family great future cross breeding potential.

Most garden blackberry varieties have a big drawback they are relatively huge. I have one self sown hybrid that grows canes thirty feet or more each way every year. Allowing it to root at the tips it could cover most of my garden by the next Olympics and within a century more than a square mile. Himalayan Giant is huge, Bedford Giant has longer more pliable canes easier to weave out of the way. There are several new more tasty and bigger berried varieties and some are thorn free. Good choices are Helen, Silvan, Black Butte, Waldo and Fantasia. Some such as Loch Tay, Loch Ness and Chester have shorter stockier canes so can be grown more like raspberries with less training along wires. Triple Crown is a late cropper from America and worth trying. Thorn Free I rate poorly on flavour. The cut leaf varieties are decorative but not so productive or tasty. If you can pick wild ones and have limited space blackberries may not be a the best choice anyway.

Blackberry seeds have tiny fishhooks all over them and as these ripen slowly harden and by the first frost a large quantity may do serious damage in mammalian guts. Thus the old adage of the devil spitting on them after the first frost. However when young they are not so deleterious, few are consumed fresh as compared to cooked, and their jelly is usually preferred. The other berries have less severe hooks but are still often best as jellies, often mixed with redcurrants.

The hybrid berries are a much better option than blackberries, tastier and less vicious. Boysenberries make delicious jam but are a tad tender. Those with space can make a selection from Veitchberry, Youngberry, Marionberry and Laxtonberry, Sunberry and others all of which are similar but different. Loganberries are commonest, highly productive and worth considering for jam, the thornless form LY59 is a good cropper and tasty but often reverts to thorny, LY654 stays thornless but is not as heavy a cropper. But the (Medana) Tayberry is by far the best as it makes a superb dessert fruit as well as jam with huge luscious perfumed berries as big as my thumb. The Buckingham Thornless sport is especially convenient as the small thorns on ordinary Tayberries are particularly irritating. There is also the Japanese Wineberry, a species R. phoenicolasius, this always comes true from seed. Not very thorny, more bristly, stems, russet coloured with lime green leaves make these very ornamental. The berries are small orange red, delicious and much loved by children- and do not cause stomach aches like blackberries

All of these berries have long arching canes so need strong wires and posts to support them. These need be well built and enduring as the stools may live for many decades. Although the true blackberry may sometimes fruit on older wood generally it’s simplest to prune out all old wood in autumn and then tie the new stems in along the wires. Stems should never be left to arch down to the ground or they root at the tips and cause problems.

Raspberries are very closely related with shorter stiffer much less thorny canes and are a bit more demanding as to soils seriously resenting hot dry positions but are not very productive in any more than light shade. There are many raspberry like species from other countries including tasty black ones from North America. Whereas blackberries and hybrids tend to form a stool which may swell but rarely spreads far raspberries ramble sideways at a tremendous rate and are hard to confine where you planted them. They also tend to have shorter productive life and few are much value after a decade being better replaced with new stock. This is because they pick up virus diseases which reduce cropping and vigour. If you have an old raspberry bed only consider keeping it if the canes are tall, thick and productive; if they have mottled leaves, are spindly or poor cropping for no obvious reason then eradicate them and start a new bed. New raspberry varieties are constantly replacing the old and are far better value.

As raspberries are short lived and less vigorous lighter cheaper posts and wires are needed to support them and canes can even be simply tied together with no other support. The pruning depends on whether you want summer or autumn crops for although there are distinct varieties sold for summer or autumn fruiting most raspberries will crop either time depending on their pruning. Autumn crops are had by removing every cane in late winter and then thinning emerging canes to a hand’s width apart. Summer fruiters have old withered canes removed in winter and the younger ones put in place as with blackberries. There are so many to choose from; the Glen and Malling series are good for summer cropping and Polka, Galante, Joan J, Cascade Delight and All- or Fall- gold are for autumn. The last is one of the yellow berried forms which I adore as they have a very different flavour.

Gooseberries are Ribes not Rubus though naturally have a similar stool forming habit like blackberries with many very thorny canes shorter than raspberries. However these do not die annually so natural bushes tend to be very congested and unpickable. So although they can be grown from a stool most are available on a single leg. These rarely need support and are pruned like redcurrants or apples to an open goblet shape with spurs on the half dozen main arms. If you want bigger crops leave longer stubs of last years growth- but you’ll then find them awkward to pick. Generally the harder you prune the better anyway as gooseberries need more air flow to stop them contracting mildew. Keeping their roots moist with mulches and giving them extra wood ashes also helps. You can train gooseberries as cordons, fans or espaliers. But most plants are likely to expire after fifteen years or so, though occasionally an old stool endures longer.

There are a host of varieties, maybe nearly a hundred can be found in white, yellow, green, red to almost purple. Modern thornless and mildew resistant varieties are reliable but compare poorly on flavour. It is worth having modern and heirloom if you have space with Pax, Invicta, Xenia, Captivator, Hinnomaki red or yellow for reliability. But you must have the small sweet white Langley Gage, the big green Gunner, red London or the classic Leveller for quality, especially Langley Gage which rivals grapes. The Worcesterbery is a thorny lax, suckering gooseberry useful for informal security hedging but almost unpickable, though making a tasty jam. And the Josta is a huge thornless hybrid more resembling a blackcurrant in many ways, the fruits hang like gooseberries and are very similar but with a blackcurrant flavour. Heavy cropping this is a must for serious jam enthusiasts.