Growing up in a semi-tropical climate, I was ten years old before I experienced two natural wonders – snow and summer-ripe red raspberries. Like snow, the red raspberries discovered in my aunt's yard in Iowa during a summer visit seemed like a miracle – mild, sweet and pleasingly seedy, nothing like the crazy-tart blackberries that grew back home. My brothers and I picked enough to eat in the back seat all the way to Chicago.
Now that I live in a raspberry-friendly climate with adequate winter chilling, the challenge is to grow the best raspberries for my garden. Many newer varieties produce earlier or later than the traditional summer-bearing types, but are they any better? The answer depends on how much space you have for growing raspberries, and what you plan to do with the crop.
Summer-Ripening Red Raspberries
This group of highly desirable cultivars produce plump red fruits in early summer on new canes that grew the summer before. The process of growth, dormancy and spring emergence serves the plants and their keepers well by resulting in firm, flavorful berries. Summer-ripening red raspberries produce heavy crops all at once, so they are ideal for freezing or making into jam. It's also nice to get the raspberries picked before summer vegetables need harvesting, there being only so many hours in a day.
In the US, 'Nova' and 'Prelude' are often the strongest early-ripening red raspberries, a niche filled by 'Glen Ample' in the UK. Because these varieties get on with the business of fruiting soon after they emerge from winter dormancy, they are easy to manage as compact bushes tethered to posts or fences.
Varieties that ripen a few weeks later such as 'Boyne' and 'Killarney' in the US, or 'Tullameen' or 'Malling Admiral' in the UK, can be phenomenally productive, but their taller canes need more discipline. Tight wire trellises are often recommended for keeping them upright, but again small garden plantings can be supported in a number of ways, like incorporating raspberries into a fence along the garden's boundary. With adequate moisture the bushy plants will grow to 4 feet (1.3 m) tall, at which height they should be pinched back to induce branching.
I think these summer raspberries are the first ones to get situated in a sustainable landscape, because they are dependable and delicious, and have few pest problems when properly managed. As soon as the last berry is picked, the cane that bore it should be lopped off at the ground and then pulled out from the top. This operation thwarts many potential pest and disease problems by removing tired plant tissue from the site, and by increasing the sunshine available to the new canes, which will bear the following year's fruit.
If you have space and enjoy making homemade wine, juice or jelly, I recommend a pillar or two of either 'Royalty' purple raspberry or a black raspberry known to grow well in your area ('Bristol' and 'Jewel' are popular, well-adapted black raspberry cultivars). 'Royalty' purple raspberry is a cross between red and black raspberries, with the productivity and fruit size of red raspberries with complex black raspberry flavor. But be forewarned that these bristly brambles like to grow long stems that arch over and root at the tips, a habit you will need to control by topping new canes back to head height in late summer.
Awesome Autumn Raspberries
If you have no tree fruits that fill your time in September, by all means give autumn raspberries a place in an airy corner of the garden. Unlike summer-bearing varieties, fall-bearers produce on the current year's growth. Plantings are cut back to stubs in winter, and kept well supplied with moisture and nutrients until they bloom and set fruit from late summer to fall.
The oldest name in autumn raspberries, 'Heritage', is gradually being replaced by varieties that produce heavier crops of better-quality fruit. Two excellent choices in autumn red raspberries are 'Caroline' and 'Autumn Bliss', but many people like to let golden raspberries take centre stage in the fall. Indeed, fall-bearing golden raspberries like 'Anne', 'All Gold' and 'KiwiGold' often taste extra sweet because of fewer tart compounds.
The world of raspberries has changed since I was a child on the Gulf Coast, where autumn raspberries are now grown with great success because of their low chilling requirements. To me raspberries remain a wonder, so I'm now starting to dig and amend planting holes where new plants will be planted next spring. Can a gardener ever have enough raspberries?
Photos of 'Autumn Bliss' and 'All Gold' raspberries courtesy of Groves Nurseries in Dorset, UK.
By Barbara Pleasant