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Blackberries

Blackberries

I’m not sure why I have persevered with certain plants but this is the year I devote my energies elsewhere. I’m currently reading the wittily written book Outwitting Squirrels by Anne Wareham (review to follow in the next few weeks). Two of Anne’s tips which I have taken to heart are ‘to be ruthless enough to throw out miserable plants’ and ‘to be brave enough to change course if something is turning into far too much trouble’. It seems simple advice but one many gardeners find hard to follow, including myself. For years I have admired the tightly rolled, spear-like leaves of hostas emerge in spring. For a short time their new leaves unfurl, pristine and beautiful, but this stage is fleeting. As spring merges into summer they become increasingly studded with holes, looking increasingly like lace doilies, devoured by the mouths of slugs and snails. My hostas have been grown in pots, hostas in the border would be like treating them as sacrificial lambs. I tried copper tape last year around the pots. It didn’t work. As it was sold specifically for that purpose perhaps I should have made a complaint under the Trade Descriptions Act. I noted with interest that Monty Don on last week’s Gardeners’ World suggested hostas which are attacked by slugs are stressed plants. There’s certainly something in a slug’s homing instinct for the runt of the litter and the weakest plant in the row, and perhaps my pot-grown hostas didn’t have enough food and water. I did look on with envy at his pristine, hole-free hostas just as I did when I visited Prince Charles’ garden at Highgrove and saw his immaculate hostas.

Hosta doilies

Hosta doilies

I have used organic slug pellets and they work to some degree, but I have seen slugs climbing onto hosta leaves from a nearby fence or from another plant, and it’s hard when my attention is on the more pressing needs of my young flower and vegetable plants to devote time to hand-picking slugs and snails off my hostas. So this year the hostas are going … well, they’ve already gone. No longer will I wince at doily-like leaves or feel the need to hide them when a garden photographer comes to the house. Oh the shame! The gooseberry has gone the same way. Not because it is beloved by pests but because it was the pest. I inherited it when I took on the plot along with at least four other gooseberry bushes. Doing the maths and coming to the conclusion there were only so many gooseberries the two of us could eat I decided to keep just one, and it was one too many. It’s the thorniest plant I’ve had the dubious pleasure of gardening around and this is someone who just removed a pyracantha from her parents’ garden. Every year I would curse as I tried to harvest the berries and weeding underneath it was impossible. There was such a heavy crop a few years ago coupled with a deluge of rain that the branches all sagged and the plant hugged the floor like an octopus spreading out its tentacles. Underneath it a carpet of wild strawberries had established itself which I could neither weed out nor eat because of the vicious thorns that were in the way. I could be tending another bed and bend down absent-mindedly forgetting what was behind me only to be spiked in the bum. I’d been mulling over getting rid of the damn thing for a year or so but after the latest encounter with a thorn in the finger its days were numbered. I made the most of a dry spell last week and out it came. It was odd though. As I made the first few cuts with the loppers I wondered if I’d done the right thing. Seems it’s hard for a gardener to kill a plant. Well, until it spiked me again…

Blackberry 'Waldo' waiting to be planted

Blackberry ‘Waldo’ waiting to be planted

Its neighbour the blackcurrant has gone too. There were two blackcurrant bushes but it’s too much for us. We don’t make jams and blackcurrants need so much sugar to make them palatable that they tend to languish in our freezer rather than being eaten. Instead a blackberry bush will fit nicely into the space now created by the absence of the gooseberry and blackcurrant. I prefer fruit I can eat without the need for extra sugar – anything that I can scatter on my porridge is ideal. The tayberry, blueberries and strawberries are perfect for this and I think a cultivated form of blackberry will make an excellent accompaniment. Why grow a blackberry when there tend to be plenty to pick from the hedgerows? Foraged blackberries are often quite small and their quality is very dependent on the weather we have. A dry summer tends to produce small fruits with very little juice and a wet summer often results in watery fruits with little flavour. The benefits of growing a cultivar are bigger, juicier fruits and a stronger blackberry flavour. Hedgerow brambles are incredibly vigorous plants, as anyone who has tried to get rid of a patch of them will know. Many of the cultivated versions though are much better-behaved, and some can be grown in a relatively small space, especially if they are trained up against a fence or wall. We’ve chosen the variety ‘Waldo’. Choosing a thornless variety was essential after the problem with the gooseberry and the online reviews all suggest this is a heavy yielding cultivar with great flavoured berries. It takes a certain leap of faith to buy a pot with one unpromising looking stick planted in it and it’ll be next year before we get any fruit as a blackberry fruits on two-year-old canes. We managed one tayberry fruit in the first year of planting. The excitement at this one fruit was enormous and it was halved for us to both try. Perhaps we’ll get a tantalising taste this year too, if not this impatient gardener will have to wait until next summer for the taste of home-grown blackberries. I’d love to know if there are any plants you’ve decided aren’t worth the trouble or you’ve persisted in growing even though you don’t really eat them.

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