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Homegrown: Growing and cooking your own blackberries

You can use fresh blackberries to make tea-flavored jelly, or turn them into juice that can be used for beverages and sorbets.
You can use fresh blackberries to make tea-flavored jelly, or turn them into juice that can be used for beverages and sorbets. MCT

Picking blackberries in the wild usually means enduring scratches from thorns on the leggy, whipping canes (and itchy bug bites) in order to get the luscious fruit.

But this is the modern age. Today, blackberry lovers can easily grow well-behaved, thornless blackberry plants in small gardens or even in large containers on sunny patios or decks.

Planting blackberries during the fall and early winter helps the plants establish roots before hot weather sets in. Typically, blackberries don’t bear fruit until the second year after a spring planting, but fall planting may encourage berries during the first summer.

Blackberries are adaptable – they will grow in most garden soils and potting mixtures. Once established, they don’t require much fertilizing but do benefit from annual applications of organic mulch, such as composted wood chips, leaf mold, manure or compost.

Good thornless blackberry varieties with erect growing habits are Arapaho and Navaho. Plants with erect habits, as opposed to the old-fashioned whip-like canes, do require selective pruning two to three times a year.

The life expectancy of erect plants is 5 to 12 years. Two thornless, semi-trailing varieties, Dirkson and Hull, should be trained to trellises that are about 4 feet high. Use twine to secure the canes. Semi-trailing plants can bear fruit up to 20 years.

Choose containers that have drainage holes and can hold at least 5 gallons of potting soil. Make sure the plants get an inch of water weekly, especially when berries are developing in the summer. Set plants at the same depth that they are in the starter pots.

Japanese beetles may be attracted to blackberry plants, so monitor the plants daily and pick beetles off. You don’t want to lose a single berry to buggy vermin, because there are so many things to do with blackberries.

When buying or picking, look for blackberries that are a deep purplish-black. Ripe berries should not have their hulls. If the hulls are attached when you buy them, that means they were picked too early and will have a tart flavor. As with other berries, blackberries do not ripen after picking, so they must be harvested at their peak.

Like other tender, perfect berries of summer, blackberries should be used as soon after picking as possible, for the moisture-rich fruit quickly loses quality and may even develop mold. If you must, you can store them for a couple of days in the refrigerator, lightly covered and in a single layer, so that the fruit won’t get crushed. Never wash the berries until right before you use them.

The only dark side to this dark berry is the numerous seeds they contain. Some people are OK with them; others dislike them. If the seeds bother you, turn blackberries into juice that can be used for beverages and sorbets, and even frozen to bring a little summer to the winter.

Reach Carol Stein and Debbie Moose at homegrownmoosestein@hotmail.com

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