In the official language of botany, a plant is “armed” if it packs certain defensive gear. A cactus uses sharp spines — which are modified leaves — to protect itself from creatures seeking the water inside its stems.
A lemon tree guards its fruit with thorns, which are modified branches. Bramble fruits such as raspberries are armed with prickles, which are modifications of the plant’s epidermis (skin). Birds, which help to spread the seeds, are not deterred. Mammals like us are unwelcome.
The raspberry is a lot like its close cousin, the rose, often described by poets of romantic temperament as a fair prize to be won, a seductive lady desired for her beauty but guarded by sharp thorns (or prickles).
I’m not sure what perverse part of Nature’s plan made raspberries taste so delicious, lip-soft and nearly devoid of tartness when fully ripe, then dangled them on canes that lash you like whips if you so much as look at them funny.
A picker might put up with that, but some gardeners think twice about planting raspberries. Their yearly pruning and training seems daunting enough, without the addition of pain. Raspberry lovers will forge ahead anyway.
Of all fruits, these are the most perishable and hard to ship, expensive even in season. Why settle for tiny little cardboard boxes of them when you can gorge your way down a row, choosing each berry at its peak?
I would hate to let a summer go by without my favorite raspberry pie, in which half the raspberries are cooked and the other half raw, stirred into the filling after it has thickened and cooled. Or an elegantly simple raspberry fool, which is just pureed fresh raspberries folded into sweetened whipped cream and served in a wine goblet.
Besides, raspberry culture is painless if you know a few simple techniques. First, you need to make two purchases: a pair of sturdy, leather, gauntlet-style gardening gloves and some brand-new plants. (If local sources are sold out, you can order some online from Nourse Farms.) Raspberries dug from the wild have smaller fruits, are harder to pick, and are not as productive.
There are two types of red raspberries. The most common bears each summer on canes produced the previous year. After there are no more berries to pick, you cut the canes that have fruited back to the ground, being careful to spare the one-year-old canes with no little, spent clusters on them. During the winter, remove any canes that look spindly, and thin the good ones to about one or two per foot in the row. Cut the tips back to a good picking height — about 5 feet. During summer, remove any canes that come up between the rows.
The other type is the so-called everbearing raspberry, which produces fruits in fall, on first-year canes. If you leave the canes in the ground, trimming back only the part that has fruited, they will bear again the following summer, though the crop will be smaller. Many gardeners just cut or mow down the whole row, thus sacrificing the second crop in favor of one bounteous fall one. This is much simpler, and the best option if you are growing a fall-bearing variety and a regular summer one as well.
If you boldly don your gloves and perform these simple tasks, your berry rows will not look like the foundation planting around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and will be more pleasant to pick. The plants will be less disease-prone, because they’ll get more sunlight and better air circulation.
A good trellising technique also helps. At our place we favor a system where single plants are planted next to sturdy wooden posts, spaced 6 feet apart. As they multiply, we pull out all but the eight best stems on each plant, and lash them to their post.
Choosing the right variety also makes a difference. Not all raspberries are red, of course. There are yellow, black and purple ones (the black, and often the purple, fruit on side shoots and are slightly more complicated to prune).
In our garden we’ve found the summer bearers rather prone to disease, but have good luck with an everbearer called Polona, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, for an end-of-season treat.
One also can grow blackberries, which, though unusually well armed, are undaunted by summer weather. And who’s afraid of a few prickles?