Monday 21 May 2018

Diarmuid Gavin: How to grow your own blackberries, the trendiest food of the season

Diarmuid Gavin sets out his gardening calendar for the year ahead.
Diarmuid Gavin sets out his gardening calendar for the year ahead.
Princess Beatrice (right) speaks with garden designer Diarmuid Gavin during a visit to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, London. Photo: PA
Diarmuid Gavin in lavender fields

Diarmuid Gavin

There's a trend amongst the hottest restaurateurs around the globe, from the Balkans, through Scandinavia, even on the urban streets and rooftops of east London and right through to San Francisco, for foraging.

In effect, this translates as roaming around woodlands and tundra, river banks and abandoned city lots looking for plants that sprout in the wild or the urban jungle that can add interest to a menu.

But we've always had our own version of foraging in Ireland, haven't we? It's just that we didn't call it that. From late summer into the early days of autumn we collect one of the most delicious wild growing foodstuffs in the world - blackberries.

I remember as a child setting off for a country drive into county Wicklow, spotting rough ground or wild-looking hedgerows and making sure to have a couple of pieces of Tupperware in the boot. I remember leaning in to the prickly mass and picking out the biggest, ripest, blackest and juiciest - while quickly checking for any insects that may have decided to have a feed of the delicious sugary juice before we do.


Amongst the kids it was a sport - a competition to see who could gather the most - and we delighted in revealing darkened teeth and mouths as we gorged on these berries on the journey home.

And then, just hours later, a range of delights would be prepared over the stove, berries dissolving into molten sugar to make jam and jellies, or being dotted on top of flat tarts.

For most of the year the brambles which produce these delicious fruits are regarded as an ugly alien, almost as sinister as razor wire. But the rewards for careful hunting are wonderful. Finding food - free food at that -in the open, adds an extra level of appreciation to each munch.

However, blackberry picking doesn't have to be the result of a carefully planned trip. These juicy delights can now be welcomed into our gardens, with some newer varieties being easier and neater to grow than ever.

Of all the soft fruits, blackberries are probably the easiest to cultivate, so they might be the best choice for you if you are a beginner. They will tolerate shade, which is a great advantage, but a sunny spot will provide better fruit yields.

They're frost-hardy so that's another worry off the list. They're not fussy about soil, so long as it isn't waterlogged but, again, the best yield will come from soil that has been well manured or composted. And once established, they will last for 20 years and deliver an annual yield of juicy berries.

Diarmuid Gavin in lavender fields
Diarmuid Gavin in lavender fields

A sheltered position is ideal and you could be planting bare-root varieties from November through to March, providing the soil is not waterlogged or frozen. Most varieties do need good space to spread so if you are planting more than one bush, leave a gap of at least 8ft.

Don't plant too deep - a 3in-depth is usually sufficient - but dig a wide hole so you can spread out the fibrous roots. Now, cut back the stem to under a foot which will encourage canes to sprout in the spring.

In spring, apply a high potash feed which encourages flowering and fruiting. Fertilisers high in nitrogen will encourage loads of leafy growth, which you don't want. Remember to keep adequately watered when the fruits are forming. The new canes will not fruit this year, blackberries will only fruit on one-year-old canes.

When they do fruit, you completely remove the cane after harvesting, as these stems will bear no more fruit, but you leave the new canes to mature for the following year and so on.

It is for this reason that people like to separate the canes by tying them in bunches so the annual pruning of old canes is easier. There are various methods of weaving fruiting canes through wires or splaying them out on trellises, though they can also do their own thing, as in the wild, and arch over in hedge form if this is easier for you.

One of the best varieties for the smaller garden is 'Loch Ness', a thornless cultivar which produces loads of tasty fruit which ripen from late summer and doesn't require a huge amount of support. Its relative 'Loch Tay' has similar attributes but fruits earlier in the year.

Other notables are 'Oregon Thornless' which has dissected leaves that have good autumn colour and 'Fantasia' for great flavour.

So now that the Great British Bake Off is back on the television be inspired to get picking in the wild, growing in the garden and baking in the kitchen - the appropriately named Mary Berry would approve of your ingenuity.

Berry nice

You can grow blackberries against a fence, wall, arch or trellis or free-standing supported by a stake and wire. Some of the newer smaller varieties could even be grown in a pot as they don't require so much support.

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