When you think of fruit production in Florida, blackberries (Rubus spp.) will not quickly jump to mind. Many people envision viny plants infiltrating your gardens and attacking you with their tiny spines. These are dewberries and are not known for large or consistent fruit. Though scientifically of the same name, bush varietals are a world apart. Bush blackberries fall into the rosaceae or rose family. They are deciduous fruiting shrubs, generally acclimatized to temperate environments. Luckily for us, they grow in the Panhandle. They’ve not taken off as an agronomic crop large scale due to the brittle nature of their fruit. However, with estimated production rates of 6000lb per acre many parts of the country, their value in home food production is undeniable.
Which to Pick
The University of Florida has been heavily breeding blackberries, but as with all gardens, plant selection is vital. The most critical factor in selecting blackberries is the chill hour requirement. You may recall that chill hours are the total time below 45 degrees a plant needs to set fruit the following spring. The vast majority of our area gets 660-700 chill hours per year on average, with the extreme north end getting upwards of 800 hours yearly. Once this is determined, the focus shifts to growth habit. Many grow erect and will not need trellising, but there are cultivars that vine and will need support. A final consideration for cultivar selection is whether or not they will need pollinator plants as an accompaniment. If the berries you want have this need, pick a compatible cultivar with a similar bloom time. Some cultivars that will do well in north Florida include ‘Arapaho,’ ‘Chickasaw,’ and ‘Choctaw.’
Planting and Care
Plant blackberries over the winter months much as you would any deciduous fruits. If you must store the plant before planting, keep the roots moist if you will be holding the plant for any amount of time. Ensure the first main root is just above the soil line, and remove any air pockets as you backfill the planting hole. Keep the soil moist but not overly wet, and avoid overhead watering. Space the plants according to their full size, which varies based on cultivar. These have shallow root systems and are therefore not heavy feeders. As a result, apply nutrients in the spring of the year they’re planted at ¼ pound per plant. In subsequent years apply ¼ to ½ a pound per plant twice a year. Irrigation and weed control will also be critical in their first year. Irrigation will become less important once the shrubs establish in their location.
Growing food in your home landscape is a great way to reconnect with your property and bring your food system as local as possible. Blackberries are low-maintenance fruit that, once established will provide years of production with minimal effort. For more information, see this Ask IFAS document. Contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any other topic regarding your gardens.