Gardening: Sweet black patch

By Meg Liptrot

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Thornless plump berries make Meg Liptrot a blissfully happy brambler.

Eat the red berries and you'll suffer a puckered mouth. The blacker the berry, the sweeter it is. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Eat the red berries and you'll suffer a puckered mouth. The blacker the berry, the sweeter it is. Photo / Meg Liptrot

I love the idea of jumping out of the car on a balmy summer's day to gather wild blackberries and getting my lips and hands stained with their inky colour.

You might have a favourite go-to spot - the challenge is getting there at the right time - but accidental finds are a thrill.

Once we were staying in a remote bay on the East Cape and walked with friends to a waterfall. The first part of the walk involved crossing open, unkempt grassland, ideal blackberry territory.

And there it was, a perfect bramble patch laden with ripe fruit untouched by pesticides or idle hands. Our little border terrier quickly figured out what the fuss was about and carefully plucked (with his teeth) low-hanging berries straight off the plant.

A somewhat easier, more reliable method of picking berries is to grow your own. You can select a berry cultivar which has been tamed by years of refined breeding to the point it no longer has prickles.

The modern thornless blackberry's wilder cousins notoriously grab at anything that ventures into their patch, refusing to let go and leaving the picker with more blood-coloured stains than they bargained for.

The thornless blackberry, with cultivars known as "Smoothstem" or "Black Satin", is still a vigorous plant. It has sturdy, thick stems which are upright rather than rambling. It is also a precocious berry producer, providing numerous, large, elongated black fruit, about twice the size of its wild counterparts. The fruit remain tart until very ripe.

The one we planted at the Sustainable Living Centre is a standout and we built a bamboo, fence-like structure to wind the stems into, providing a good opportunity to design a feature in the edible garden. The plant is now 3 years old and I've not trained it particularly or cut it back hard, as you're supposed to, but it has sprouted new shoots from last year's stems and they, too, are covered in young berries.

The plant had compost and sheep pellets dug in to loosen the clay soil at planting, and mulch, but no more attention than that.

The white, simple flowers in late spring are lovely and large and are a feature in themselves.

"Smoothstem" blackberries are the latest of the brambles, ripening from February onwards. Blackberries, raspberries and their associated hybrids, such as loganberry and boysenberry, produce biennial canes. The previous year's canes are pruned out in winter and the new ones are tied up. They will produce fruit in the coming season.

Last year, a group of preschoolers visited our centre just when our blackberries were ripening. Needing little encouragement, the kids took to picking and eating with great gusto, with no nasty prickles to hinder their progress. The blackberry is clearly a timeless classic which never fails to please.

Best berries for home gardens

* Boysenberry and loganberry: Divine flavour and a great home garden choice. Loganberry "Waimate" is a thornless cultivar. Canes can be wound up a teepee-like structure or attached to a trellis.

* Blueberry: If you live in an area with naturally acid soil you're in luck (ie, if azaleas and rhododendrons grow happily in your neighbourhood). Otherwise your soil will likely need peat and acid fertilisers added. Blueberries need full sun and good moisture in a well-drained situation. They do well with chicken manure.

* Strawberries: Easy to care for and propagate. Fruit continue to be produced over a long season. Strawberries are perfect for children's gardens.

* Weeping Mulberry (a small tree): A deciduous tree whose berries resemble a red smallish boysenberry and are pleasant tasting.

* NZ cranberry or Chilean guava: Not a cranberry at all, but a relative of the guava. The fruit are tasty but it takes a while to harvest a mouthful as they are tiny (the size of fat red peas). When ripe, the hard, dark-red fruit become softer and paler.

- Herald on Sunday

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