Want to grow organic blackberries and raspberries in the Southeast US? Here are our top six tips to help you!
Background: why we’re confident sharing our organic blackberry and raspberry growing tips
We’ve successfully grown organic blackberries and raspberries in the southeast (specifically Greenville, SC) for over a decade. Each summer, we produce mounds of fresh berries without using synthetic fertilizers or synthetic pesticides.
In fact, we don’t use any fertilizer or pesticide at all (even OMRI-listed/organic ones) to produce our caneberries. (*In case you’ve never heard the term before, “caneberry” is a general term used to describe all berries that grow on a hard woody cane, e.g. fruit in the Rubus genus.)
If you live in the Southeast, you probably know that our region is a hot, humid climate teeming with pest insects and plant pathogens. Thus, many well-intentioned people will tell you it’s impossible or too difficult to try to grow blackberries and raspberries using organic methods here.
Well, we’ve got good news: you can indeed grow organic caneberries in the Southeast. In fact, we actually consider blackberries and raspberries to be one of the easier fruits to produce organically of the 35+ fruit species we’ve attempted to grow organically. (See: Easiest fruit to grow organically in the Southeast.)
6 tips to grow organic blackberries and raspberries in the southeast
Below are our top six tips for home gardeners interested in growing organic blackberries and raspberries in the southeast:
Tip 1: Choose the right varieties for you (growing zone, goals, setup, and microclimates)
A. Southeast growing zone considerations for caneberries
There isn’t agreement on exactly which states are in the Southeast. We won’t wade into that debate, but we will say that the Southeast is a large region with wide variance in agricultural zones/climates.
For instance, the mountains of North Carolina have drastically different growing conditions than southern Florida. We have friends who grow raspberries, thimbleberries, wineberries and a host of other caneberries in the mountains near Asheville, NC that would quickly bake to death in Miami, FL — or even an hour’s drive down the mountain to where we live in South Carolina. However, you can still grow many varieties of blackberries and tropical mysore raspberries in Miami.
Long story short: when you’re getting started, it’s extremely important to:
- select caneberry species and varieties that will grow in your specific area (e.g. consult your local university extension service and/or local plant nurseries); and
- select species and varieties that are compatible with your goals and setup.
Do note that university extension agencies often have advice more geared for farmers than home growers. For instance, NC State University’s Southeast Regional Caneberry Production Guide notes:
“Yellow and purple raspberries are not recommended for commercial production because available cultivars are highly perishable and do not produce high yields. Black raspberries do well in cooler parts of the region.”
For home growers/gardeners, perishability isn’t important since you don’t have to pack and ship your berries to a store. Instead, you’ll probably be eating your berries within 1-2 days of picking them, if not immediately! *Side note: our gold raspberries produce yields comparable to our red raspberries.
The caneberries that we grow here in Upstate South Carolina are:
- thornless blackberries (multiple varieties)
- black raspberries (native Rubus occidentalis)
- red raspberries (multiple ever-bearing varieties)
- gold raspberries (‘Fall Gold’ ever-bearing)
B. Using caneberries as an edible, perennial ground cover
Some species and varieties of caneberries can make an excellent food-producing ground cover to grow underneath larger fruit and nut trees (examples: peaches, pecans) or fruiting shrubs (examples: blueberries, dwarf serviceberries). Two examples:
- Low-growing dewberry varieties (aka “trailing blackberries”) whose stems trail along the ground.
- Varieties of Rubus calycinoides aka ‘creeping raspberry’ that forms dense mounds of attractive foliage.
C. Thorns or thornless?
If possible, select thornless varieties when available — especially if you have delicate toddler or poultry feet to consider. Your hands and arms will also be thankful for the lack of thorns at harvest time.
In the fenced back yard where our ducks spend their days, we grow thornless blackberries plus red and gold raspberries. None of these plants have thorns capable of damaging tender duck feet (potentially causing bumblefoot), and our flightless ducks help manage caneberry pests such as slugs and snails while also providing additional soil fertility to the plants.
Oddly, our ducks do not like caneberries! Even if they did, they couldn’t reach most of them.
D. Considering microclimates when growing caneberries
Microclimates are unique spots that offer different temperature or growing conditions than the broader areas in which they’re located.
Microclimates can be quite small, for example an unusually cool, damp, or shady spot in your yard. Microclimates can also be large, for example the heat-trapping effect of a large city which makes it much warmer than more rural or forested areas nearby.
Keep microclimates in mind when selecting or planting your caneberries. For instance, the black raspberries we grow (Rubus occidentalis) typically grow in cooler climates than where we live. Thus, we selected microclimates in our yard where they could thrive.
One patch of black raspberries is in part sun and only gets about 4 hours of direct sunlight in the summer. The other patch gets full sun from dawn through early afternoon, after which it’s in shade. Both patches are thriving, although the patch that gets more sun produces a bit more berries.
Most raspberry varieties grown in warmer climate regions at elevations under 2000 feet will also benefit from afternoon shade. We’re at an elevation of about 1000 feet, so none of our raspberries (black, gold, or red) are planted in spots that get more than 6-7 hours of direct sun in the summer.
In most areas of the southeast, successfully growing raspberries also means selecting heat-tolerant varieties.
Blackberries are generally much more tolerant of full sun and hot weather than raspberries, unless bred for colder climates.
E. Extending production season
One final consideration that we think is very important when selecting caneberry varieties is extending your production season. If you only have one variety, you’ll have a fairly short production window. Instead, mix it up with early-season, late-season, and/or ever-bearing caneberry varieties so you have fresh berries for as long as possible.
With the varieties we grow (listed above), we get black raspberries starting in late May and finishing up by mid-June. Our red and gold raspberries begin fruiting in early June and finish up in mid-July. In early-mid July our blackberries come in strong.
We also get a small second round of gold and red raspberries in the late summer through early fall (up until first frost) on our ever-bearing varieties. This means we have fresh, organic, home-grown caneberries on our table every day for 3-4 months, rather than just a couple weeks.
Tip 2: Focus on soil health
If you’re going to grow organic caneberries in the Southeast, we highly recommend you focus on building healthy soil. Plants growing in healthy soil are better able to fend off pests and diseases and thrive through extremely hot, humid Southeast summers.
When transplanting your first caneberries, amend your soil with quality compost and/or worm castings — especially if you have compacted soil or poor quality soil low in organic matter.
Our biggest soil building tip? Use mulch. Lots of it.
Each spring, we top-dress our caneberry beds with at least 3″ of wood chips and/or spent duck bedding from our duck coops. After a decade of doing this, the soil in our caneberry beds is deep, rich, black and chock full of worms and organic matter. As a result, the macro and microorganisms in our soil produce all the nutrients our caneberries need to grow strong and produce delicious berries. This means we don’t provide any supplemental fertilizer to our caneberry plants.
Mulch also suppresses weeds, helps maintain even soil moisture, and levels out soil temperature fluctuations.
Organic fertilizers for caneberries
If you have young soil and/or your caneberries seem like they’re lacking fertility (lack of vigor, yellowing leaves, poor fruit production, etc), here are a few fertilization options for you to consider:
- In early spring, top-dress your caneberry beds with about 2″ of compost or worm castings and an additional ~3″ of mulch on top of that.
- Use an organic/OMRI listed fertilizer like Espoma’s Berry-Tone Fruit Fertilizer.
- Utilize “liquid gold,” the free nitrogen-rich fertilizer you make multiple times each day!
Tip 3: Diversify your plants
If you have a garden full of caneberries, you’re more likely to attract a garden full of pest insects and diseases that like caneberries as much as you do. Instead, be sure to have a wide diversity of plants in your garden or edible landscape.
Growing within our caneberries patches are elderberries, echinacea, four o’clocks, Asian persimmons, blueberries, native passion fruit, pawpaws, bronze fennel, day lilies, and common milkweed, to name but a few.
Additionally, having multiple species of flowering plants in bloom throughout the caneberry growing season is especially helpful for bringing in beneficial and predatory insects that can help control your pest insect problems or serve as catch crops.
Of course, what happens above ground with macro organisms also mirrors what happens below ground with microorganisms. Thus, plant diversity helps keep pathogenic soil microorganisms in check.
Tip 4: Irrigate in the morning – but only if you have to
Is the soil in your caneberry beds mature and deep? Is it covered with mulch?
If so, you might not have to water your caneberry plants at all in the hot months IF you get 1″ or more of rain every 7-10 days. Exceptions are when it’s really hot for days on end (92+ °F).
If and when you do have to water your caneberries, water them in the morning and water them deeply so as to reduce the likelihood of plant diseases while also encouraging deep root growth.
If you’re growing caneberries in rows, you can also use more efficient drip irrigation systems. However, we grow large thickets of caneberries which require overhead irrigation to adequately water.
Tip 5: Prune caneberries using lazy method (or not?)
Before we share our “lazy” caneberry pruning method (which will likely get us grief from some folks), it’s important that you know a bit about how blackberry and raspberry plants grow….
Blackberry and raspberry plant crowns — aka the part of the plant where the main root and stem systems meet — are perennial. Blackberries can live for 15-20 years whereas raspberries will typically only live for about a decade.
However, individual canes of both plants are biennial. This means the canes typically have a two-year life cycle as follows:
- Primocanes are the first year non-fruit-bearing canes.
- Floricanes are the second year flower- and fruit-bearing canes.
Things can get a little more complicated with ever-bearing caneberries. With these plants, “the upper one-third to one-half of the primocane will bear fruit beginning in late summer and continue producing into fall. If the cane is retained for the floricane year, fruiting will occur on the part of the cane that did not fruit in the fall.” (source: NC State caneberry guide.)
As such, the only single generalization typically offered by experts when it comes to caneberry pruning is something like this, courtesy of NC State: “Management of canes varies with plant type, pruning and training, and the particular trellis system used.”
That’s true. And it’s also very important for commercial growers to know best practices for pruning the specific type(s) of caneberry they’re growing. Sometimes that’s pruning in the summer and winter. Sometimes that’s mowing the ever-bearing canes back to the ground in the winter.
If you want to take a deep dive into best practices for pruning your specific type of caneberries, we recommend:
- NC State University’s Southeast Regional Caneberry Production Guide,
- University of Tennessee Extension’s guide: Pruning blackberries and raspberries in home gardens.
Our lazy caneberry pruning approach
Our approach? We do as little pruning of our caneberries as possible. The only time we prune our caneberries is when:
- The canes are clearly dead (brown and desiccated). We typically remove and compost these canes in early spring. Even here, we might leave some dead canes unpruned to help provide support for developing primocanes. (More on this below.)
- When we’re trying to shape or train a caneberry plant that’s growing in a highly visible spot in a public-facing edible landscape area of our yard, for instance on a decorative trellis on the front of our house.
Tip rooting your way to a larger berry patch
Our blackberry and black raspberry plants also have a helpful feature: they “tip root.” Tip rooting means the primocanes eventually grow so long that they arch over, touch the ground, then develop roots and a new crown.
These new plants can be cut, dug, and transplanted to new spots in the late winter or spring or just left in place to expand an existing berry patch. Mature crowns of these plants also send out runners that can be dug or left in place. (Our ever-bearing gold and red raspberries produce runners but they don’t tip root.)
Pruning guides for these plants often recommend you cut the primocanes back before they tip root to maximize fruit production on an individual cane the following year. However, we like having lots of berries and new plants so we typically don’t cut back the primocanes.
Trellis or no trellis?
If you’re waiting to grow caneberries in your garden until you figure out a trellis system, we have good news… You don’t have to trellis you caneberries unless you want to grow them in straight rows and/or cut back the primocanes rather than let them tip root.
We initially planted our taller/erect thornless blackberries along a 6′ chainlink fence, which does indeed make a good trellis for the plants. However, as our thornless blackberry patches spread and matured and we let the primocanes root, we found that the canes (including dead year 3 canes) provide a natural trellis for other canes. No trellis or fence needed. The same is true for black raspberries.
Gold and red raspberries generally don’t need a trellis either. However, the weight of the ripening fruit on some erect varieties will pull the canes back towards the ground, but usually not enough to make them actually touch the ground.
Tip 6: Utilize integrated pest management approaches and avoid pesticides
Caneberry pests are fairly numerous in the Southeast, ranging from large mammals to insects to microscopic roundworms (nematodes). Don’t panic: you can still produce loads of organic caneberries here!
Keeping deer off your caneberries
Let’s start with the largest creatures first: deer. While deer don’t seem to covet the actual berries, they do love to eat caneberry leaves and can quickly defoliate a plant. Yes, deer even eat thorny caneberries, so creating a thorny caneberry hedge would probably be more of a deer attractant than a deterrent.
If you don’t have tall fencing around your caneberries to keep deer out of your yard/garden, check out our article Dad’s trick: how to keep deer out of your yard or garden.
If you’re trying to figure out how to keep other pest mammals (example: squirrels) from taking a toll on your caneberry fruit or plants, check out How to keep pest animals out of your garden on our sister site, GrowJourney.
Smaller caneberry pests plus organic management approaches
There are also plenty of pests on the smaller end of the spectrum that like to dine on caneberry fruit or plants…
Two general words of advice:
- We (again) recommend focusing on both soil health and plant biodiversity, which will go a long way towards reducing or preventing pest insect and disease problems for your caneberries. These are central components of any integrated pest management plan, whether for a garden or farm.
- If you do decide to use pesticides on your caneberries, only use them as a last resort and only use OMRI-listed organic pesticides rather than synthetics.
Below, we’ll briefly detail four common caneberry pests as well as control methods you can utilize that don’t require pesticide application:
A. Raspberry cane borers (Oberea perspicillata)
If you see: a) two small rows of cuts near the tip of a first year cane, and b) the tip of the cane go limp, that’s a sure sign that you’ve got raspberry cane borers. These insects can do mild damage to blackberry and raspberry plants, but you shouldn’t panic if you see damage. (We’ll only see a few damaged canes in our garden each year.)
The adult cane borer beetles look like a long, skinny firefly. The adults cause minimal damage, but the developing larvae inside the stem of the plant can burrow all the way back to the crown.
Treatment: Cut off the tip of the cane a few inches below the bottom cut row where the insect chewed. Then put the cane tip in your trash. (Don’t compost or leave the cut tip in your garden or the larvae or egg inside might be able to reach adulthood.)
B. Japanese beetles
Japanese beetle populations in our area can reach epic proportions and ravage plants. Yes, Japanese beetles like caneberry leaves. On hot summer days, we’ve even seen them eating the fruit, although this is rare.
If Japanese beetles are a problem for you, you’ll want to read our article: How to control Japanese beetles organically.
C. Root knot nematodes
Root knot nematodes are a type of microscopic roundworm that can cause severe damage to the roots of plants (including caneberries), weakening or killing them. How do you know if you’ve got a root knot nematode problem?
If you pull the roots of weak or dying plants and notice that they’re deformed and bumpy, that’s almost certainly root knot nematode. Thankfully, root knot nematodes can be controlled without much trouble by using their angry cousins, predatory nematodes, specifically Steinernema feltiae applied as a soil drench, which you can buy on Amazon.
Once the predators reach the rhizosphere, it’s game over for the herbivorous nematodes.
This is only a fraction of the potential pests that can damage your caneberries or fruit. Rather than exhaustively go through each one in detail here, we’d encourage you to learn about the ones specific to your area and do your best to manage them using the philosophy and approaches above.
We hope the six organic caneberry growing tips in this article inspire you to start growing your own blackberries and raspberries at home! Once you harvest a handful (or basket full) of delicious homegrown caneberries picked at peak ripeness, may you get as much joy from them as our family does.
Other fruity articles you’ll love:
- 30+ easiest fruits to grow organically in the Southeast US
- How to use American beautyberries as food and insect repellent
- How to grow fruit year round in your garden
- 50+ fruits, herbs, and veggies that grow in shade
- How to select and use edible roses in your garden