Saturday, 21 March 2009

Taming the soft fruit

I have spent a couple of days trying to get to grips with pruning my fruit canes and trees. Pruning has always been something of a dark art as far as I'm concerned. It's not that I haven't tried to get to grips with the matter. Whenever I think about pruning it always seems to be the wrong time. I refer to a book to remind myself of the details but discover that it's really the wrong time of year to be tackling it, but by the time it comes round to the correct time of year I have forgotten what it is I'm supposed to be doing. But eventually you have to take things in hand no matter what time of year it is.

So having missed the ideal late autumn and winter windows for pruning the soft fruit, I decided that I needed to tidy my blackberries, tayberries and raspberries anyway. According to the books, summer raspberries flower and fruit on growth in its second year. This means that ideally canes that have fruited should be cut back to ground level in the autumn and any new growth should be tied into supports to overwinter. Autumn fruiting raspberries, in contrast, flower and fruit within the same season so the canes should be cut completely back to ground level in late winter.

This is fairly straight forward on the face of it and would be fantastically useful if 1) I could retain that information in my head and have it spring to the front of my brain at the correct time of year, and 2) I could tell which were summer and which were autumn fruiting raspberries.

I know what you're thinking... Hazel, you numpty, summer fruiting raspberries have fruit in the summer and autumn fruiting raspberries have fruit in the autumn, it's obvious. Well, it's not. I have tried for two years now to get to grips with this. If my raspberries have fruit on them in June and July I hang a label around them clearly stating "summer". Sorted, the rest must be autumn. But when I try the same exercise in autumn, I find fruiting canes with a "summer" label hanging from them. Perpetual would be a better word - they just don't stop fruiting. And I know for a fact that all the yellow fruiting raspberries are all "All Gold", an autumn fruiting variety, but they happily bear fruit June to November. I don't know why... maybe it's down to being pruned at the wrong time of year!

Anyway, I have been round them all this last couple of days and it seems to me that at this time of year it all becomes quite obvious what needs pruning. There are some raspberry canes with lovely new growth all the way from root to tip, interspersed with completely dead canes that are brittle and grey/brown. I'm figuring that these are the autumn fruiting ones and that the dead canes are the ones I should have cut back to the ground in later winter and the lush ones are this year's new growth. Easy peasy, I just cut away all the dead canes and they soon look a lot smarter. Then there are the ones that have new growth from root to 2 thirds the way up the stem, plus dead canes in between. I reckon these are the summer raspberries and the dead canes are the ones I should have cut back to ground level in autumn and the other ones are the ones that grew but didn't fruit last year and now need tying to the supports. Sorted... except I haven't got round to giving them any support yet - a job for Steve this spring, me thinks!

So with the raspberries under control, I turn my attention to my tayberries. Every year I train these up over an archway, a thornless one on the right and a thorny one on the left. And every year I have to untie the dead wood from last year and tie in the new growth from this year. Still, it is so much better than allowing them to ramble along the ground, especially in the summer when I have been known to nip round to the allotment in sandals to harvest soft fruit, only to get a thorny tayberry whip tangled around my toes!

The blackberries follow the same rules and definitely should not be allowed to trail along the ground because wherever they come into contact with the ground they will put down roots and spring up new plants, which can become a definite nuisance.

If you were ever in any doubt, you can now be sure that I'm no expert when it comes to pruning but there are some things I'm sure about. Firstly, it is important. If you don't prune you'll still get fruit but eventually the yield will decrease and the whole thing will become a mess. Secondly, you are in charge, not the plants. Soft fruit can be as problematic as any weed if you let them so be ruthless - if a raspberry plant has sprung up somewhere where it is not welcome, chop it down, you already have enough fruit from the other canes. And finally, it's difficult to completely cock it up. If you make a mess of it once it may reduce the yield of fruit for a season but it will recover.

Whilst I was there, I checked to see how it is best to prune trained apple trees. It recommended pruning in the summer to keep the shape of the tree and I briefly wondered whether to ignore this advice as I'm getting chop happy. But on reading further it explained that pruning in winter and spring actually encouraged growth. Definitely not what I'm after so I shall put the secateurs away for a few months now and try to remember to get them out again at the correct time.

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