Homemade ice cream, jam and pie are the delicious results of a little care in the fruit garden. There isn't much we can do right now to ensure that this season's crop is not a bust, but this is the time to do some things that will help produce a good harvest of brambles and strawberries next year.
Brambles are a group of plants that fall under the scientific genus of Rubus. I'll focus on blackberries and raspberries in this column. If you've inherited a planting of brambles and aren't sure which of these you have, the identity is distinct when you pick a ripened fruit: Raspberries leave the stem and center of the fruit on the plant, blackberries retain the core of the fruit.
Brambles are similar to biennial flowers in the garden. They produce first-year canes or stems, called primocanes. In the second year, the primocanes become floricanes.
Primocanes do not produce flowers or fruit during the first year of growth, but they are the ones we want to pay attention to for next season's crop.
Floricanes are the producers of the fruit. Once these stems flower and fruit, they will die before the next season.
Whether you trellis your brambles or let them grow freely, the most important thing you can do for next season's production is to tip back the primocanes this year. These stems are normally tipped, or cut off, to keep the stems at a height of 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall. Tipping the stems encourages lateral branches to form, which is where the blooms and fruit will be produced.
This task should be performed on blackberries, as well as black and purple raspberries, but should not be performed on red raspberries. Red raspberries don't need this type of pruning, because the new shoots will develop all season long, and the thick row will leave plenty of fruiting sites.
Fertilizing on an annual basis also will benefit the planting. My philosophy is to fertilize with a balanced fertilizer as the harvest begins to slow and the reserves are being built in the newly establishing canes.
Mulching around the base of plants is also beneficial for established planting beds. The mulch layer inhibits competing weed plants and helps conserve moisture.
Strawberry production is similar to the production of brambles. If you want to have a good crop next year, there is work to be done this year.
For June-bearing strawberries - the most popular type as far as home and commercial production in the central United States is concerned - now is the time to ramp the plants up for next season. As soon as the harvest is finished on a mature planting, it's time to renovate.
When harvest is complete, hoe or till bare areas between strawberry plants. This will promote vigorous new growth that will be the site of fruiting for next season, and it will allow sunlight to reach this new growth to make the needed nutrients for a healthy plant next season. University recommendations are normally to renovate with 10 inches between the rows and up to 6 inches between the plants. This is helpful information for large-scale growers, but for those of us with small, nontraditional plantings, it's only important to make sure we leave areas for renovation to occur, even if these areas aren't in a straight line.
After this aggressive renovation, top soil can be applied lightly to the entire bed to encourage new rooting from the old crowns. If this addition is not an option, make sure fertilization is.
A balanced fertilizer, such as 12-12-12, should be applied as soon as the renovation is complete. This will help the new runners build strength for next season, similar to the brambles. One pound of this fertilizer for 25 to 30 feet of row is sufficient.
I don't recommend mulching strawberry beds, except during the winter for protection from cold temperatures. Mulching during the growing season hinders the new runners from developing and filling the rows back in. Wait until cold temperatures have cooled the soil, then the mulch will provide the benefit of protecting the strawberry plants from killing temperatures, and it will also hold the temperature down in the spring, preventing the plants from beginning to grow during those first 'false' days of spring.
This simple work in the fruit garden this season may require a purchase of more jam and jelly jars next year.